Tag Archives: David Bailey

Photography as Archeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Assignment 4 Applying Lighting Techniques

Assignment 4 asks for 8 photos that show the use of lighting to individually show shape, form, texture and colour in a subject. I have spent several weeks building up to this assignment and have described that process in Developing Assignment 4. That post describes the thinking and the research behind these photographs.

All the photographs in this submission are taken with off-camera Nikon Speed Lights triggered by an infrared on-camera controller. The flashguns were always set on manual rather than TTL to enable me to control their power individually.

In this submission I have included two series of photographs. The first set are from my last two shoots which used a wooden base board, a green paste board backdrop and a small selection of vegetables. The second series are from four different shoots and selected on the basis of the lighting and set-up having created the ideal environment to display each of the attributes required by this assignment.

Having spent so much time researching and exploring still life I wanted to create one final picture that represented the end of the process as well as completing the assignment.

Fig. 01 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Colour - 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 01 Green Backdrop Vegetables – 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 01 is that picture. The colours and the set are influenced by David C. Halliday but rather than using the natural light that he prefers I have used two lights. Both are diffused using soft boxes, one is fixed high, quite near to the left of the camera at 1/2 power. The second is high to the right at 1/8 power.

I believe that this photograph is an appropriate ending point because, although it has no vanitas symbolism, I have tried to mimic the lighting and tones of a 17th century painting thereby bringing together all the research and test shots in a single image.

Series 1 – Same Subject, Different Lighting Set-ups

Fig. 01 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Texture - 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 02 Green Backdrop Vegetables – Texture – 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig.02 Texture

There are still two speed lights being used but neither are diffused so that the hardest possible light is hitting the subjects. The light on the left is low and back of 90 degrees to throw light across the face of the pepper and the top of the radishes. The right hand light is back of 90 degrees and angled to put light along the backboard as well as across the mushrooms.

Fig. 03 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Form - 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 03 Green Backdrop Vegetables – Form – 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 03 Form

I used three speed lights. The main light on the left is at 135 degrees on 1/2 power; the fill light from the right is at 135 degrees and 1/8 power and a third light is on the right at 90 degrees at 1/32 power.

Fig. 04 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Shape - 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 04 Green Backdrop Vegetables – Shape – 1/60 at f/18. ISO 100

Fig. 04 Shape

There is one speed light in a soft box at the centre of a translucent acrylic sheet placed behind the subject and a second speed light in a soft box on the left hand side behind the acrylic sheet to stop the backdrop falling off to grey. I have consciously li the subjects and post processed to avoid a full silhouette, which I see as being inappropriate for this subject, and have left just enough light to see the shape of the carrots.

Fig. 05 Green Backdrop Vegetables - Colour - 1/60 at f/14. ISO 100

Fig. 05 Green Backdrop Vegetables – Colour – 1/60 at f/14. ISO 100

Fig. 05 Colour

I have chosen this photograph from a slightly different set-up as my first colour submission instead of fig. 01. The lighting set up is a main soft box directly overhead at 1/2 power and a fill soft box at 90 degrees from high on the left on 1/16 power.

Series 2 – Different Subjects with a variety of Lighting Set-ups

Fig. 06 White Vanitas - Colour - 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

Fig. 06 White Vanitas – Colour – 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

Fig. 06 Colour

This image was lit by two speed lights, both diffused in soft boxes. The main light was directly overhead at 1/4 power and the fill light was at 45 degrees with a honey comb grid with a frosted gel and aimed at the grapes.

This picture brings together some modern vanitas motifs and contrasts the colours of frivolous fashion items with the colours of nature. The watch reminds us that time flies.

Fig. 07 Black Vanitas - Form - 1/60 at f/16

Fig. 07 Black Vanitas – Form – 1/60 at f/16

Fig. 07 Form

This image was lit by three lights. The main light is at 135 degrees left on 1/1 power, the second is from the same angle on the right at 1/2 power (this light is specifically there to create a highlight down the left hand side of the black head. A third light is at 90 degrees left with a honeycomb grid and aimed at the skull to give that form.

There are a number of vanitas motifs used here with fashion items between a mannequin head and a skull which is filled by an industrial sized roll of cotton. the cherries and lemons represent the sweet and sour of life and the flowers symbolise the fragility of beauty.

I could have easily chosen a photo to represent colour from this shoot as the black background seems to exaggerate the colour intensity but I had found it harder to light the White Vanitas set for colour so fig. 06 was more challenging technically.

Fig. 08 Black Fruit - Texture - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 08 Black Fruit – Texture – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 08 Texture

For fig. 08 there were only two lights used, although in retrospect a third light on low power from above and behind might have worked better for the top of the melon. The lights are left and right at 90 degrees and fairly low down to try and glance the light off the fruit skins. The one on the left has a honeycomb grid fitted to direct the light at the green melon skin whereas the one on the right is in a soft box with no diffuser.

Fig. 09 Skulls - Shape - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 09 Skulls – Shape – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 09 Shape

The final photograph uses skulls as a classic still life, much used by Irving Penn and David Bailey who were both influential in the way I approached this assignment. the lighting is very simply a full power flashgun in a diffused soft box behind a translucent acrylic sheet behind the skulls.

Conclussions

As explained in Developing Assignment 4, I found this assignment frustrating and enjoyable in equal measure. It is a very simple assignment and I felt that it would have been too easy to take all the photos using one or two objects that included shape, form, colour and texture and to complete the project in a day or less. This might have been the intention but I wanted to use the assignment to explore the history of photographic still life, the symbolism of the 17th century painters that has carried forward into photography and to look at how contemporary photographers are approaching still life. I also took a much closer look at Irving Penn. As I worked through this research I tried different sets and different approaches and this explains why the photographs above come from multiple shoots.

The most enjoyable aspect was, without doubt, the research and then setting up shoots to test out the ideas that flowed from that research. John Szarkowski, in his introduction to Still Life: Irving Penn *(1), remarks that still life is the only form of photography where the photographer is totally in control of every element, the subject, the lighting and the technical aspects of photography and for this reason it is an appealing genre and one that I am pleased to have been introduced to. It is technically challenging and on several occasions I yearned for a large studio steaming with natural light and not to be working on the kitchen table. A few of Irving Penn’s assistants to go out and collect subjects would not have gone amiss either.

Self Assessment

Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills

Technical skills are very relevant to this assignment and I have had to research and think about off-camera flash photography. Joe McNally’s two books The Moment it Clicks and The Hot Shoe Diaries were both immensely useful in this regard. I am satisfied that I make significant technical progress during this assignment, learning and implementing techniques of set-up, lighting and exposure.

However, there are still plenty of technical flaws to address at the next opportunity to work in a “studio” environment. I tend to under light the subjects and have not perfected the way to bring enough light to white backgrounds to stop the loss of exposure and the decline to grey. I understand for portrait that a light hidden behind the subject is a way of addressing this but that would not work for still life so there is still work to do here.

Quality of Outcome

I am reasonably satisfied with the outcome. I have printed each of these photographs and, whilst I can see areas where they could be improved, I am pleased with the results of a first attempt at still life.

Creativity

It took great creative energy to design the sets, which, with the complex sets, is harder than either the photography or the lighting and I feel that many of them were creative and brought together both traditional and historic ideas.

There was a lot of experimentation with different types of subjects, sets and lighting approaches and maybe a few hints of inventiveness.

This assignment does not feel as if it builds upon assignments 2 and 3 so it is difficult to comment on how it progresses the development of a voice.

Context

I took my research very directly into the sets and tried, at different times, to use the complexity and strong colours of artists such as Paulette Tavormina and Mat Collishaw, the simplicity of Irving Penn and David Bailey, the soft natural tones of David Halliday and Krista van der Niet and in parallel to the assignment tried out Simon Norfolk’s ideas in My Dad’s Stuff.

I believe that I have linked my work to both contemporary and historic photographers.

Sources

(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press

(2) McNally, Joe. (2008) The Moment it Clicks: Photography Secrets From One of the World’s Top Shooters. Berkeley: New Riders

(3) McNally, Joe. (2009) The Hot Shoe Diaries: Big Light From Small Flashes. Berkeley: New Riders

Developing Assignment 4

Over the last several weeks I have been researching, planning and shooting test photos for assignment 4, Applying Lighting Techniques. Originally I wanted to carry forward ideas about the vanity of fashion, which had featured strongly in assignment 3 combining this with the symbolism of vanitas to create faux 17th century still life. As ever with these assignments some ideas work, some do not, new ideas arise, new inspiration is discovered and the end result is quite different from the images imagined at the start. To that end it is helpful to record the development process.

This post looks at the evolution of the idea and at some of the technical challenges that were encountered along the way. In each phase of this course my work has been influenced by three things:

  • “text” book and other informed opinions about the genres of photography that are relevant to the exercises and assignments in that part of the course;
  • the photographers, both contemporary and more historic whose work appears relevant;
  • and, my previous experience and knowledge of relevant techniques.

For assignment 4 my previous experience of photographic lighting was limited to trying to develop better daylight flash techniques in an attempt to capture a Martin Parr look and feel for outdoor documentary photography and extensive experimentation with food photography which I regularly undertake as part of my role in the family business.

This food photography is effectively the starting point for assignment 4. Partly because it means I own 3 flash guns, a remote infra-red flash trigger, three cold-shoe soft boxes and various other bits and pieces such as grids, reflectors, LED lights, stands and backdrops. But, it was only by beginning to think about assignment 4 that it became clear that it is also a starting point because food photography, along with some fashion and product advertising, is one of the most commonly viewed forms of still life in books, magazines and on-line.

It is interesting to note that Irving Penn and David Bailey both worked as commercial fashion photographers yet also produced still lifes as part of personal projects that are generally highly respected. The dividing line between commercially driven and artistically driven still life is blurred with photographers such as Peter Lippmann *(4) producing compelling personal studies alongside similar commercial projects. As someone who sees many high quality cookery books as part of my work I would argue that there is much to be learnt about still life from the food photographers working for the most celebrated chefs. Dominic Davies *(5) is an excellent example of a food photographer producing creative and exciting food still lifes for Heston Blumenthal. In the last six months I have learnt that it is dangerous to pigeon hole contemporary photographers without trying to explore the breadth of their work. I found Peter Lippmann when looking at a Christian Louboutin advertising campaign but his personal still life work is, in many ways, even more exciting as is his unusual approach to intimate landscape in Paradise Parking. Dominic Davies is no doubt a highly sought after food photographer having worked for Blumenthal but before putting him into that pigeon hole it is worth looking at his other still lifes and his Mapping London project which is a William Eggleston like view of the details of London.

Fig. 1 Food Photography

Fig. 1 Food Photography

Food photography was quite alien to me until the last few years and whilst it has been a steep learning curve and a journey that is far from complete it has provided me with a basic understanding of working with small lights in restricted spaces. There is little or no room for big lighting systems in a commercial kitchen.

Initially, for assignment 4, I wanted to work with natural light and to photograph still life or human subjects within the landscape as I felt that this would take me into new areas and would keep me away from using the type of equipment I used for food photography. However, whilst I felt inspired by the work of Edward Weston * (1) and would have liked to try something along the lines of his beach nudes I quickly realised that the logistical challenges were significant and to meet the requirements of the assignment with a human model outdoors was unrealistic at this stage. Despite this early change of direction I did find inspiration from Weston’s 1927 Shells, and his studies of vegetables a few years later. Pepper No. 30, (1930), Pepper (1929), Eggplant (1929) and Cabbage Leaf (1931) are classic studies of form.* (2)

My first tests, with Weston’s work in mind, were with small groups of fruit to allow me to experiment with lighting for colour, form and texture.

Fig. 1 Contact Sheet of Fruit Test Shots

Fig. 2 Contact Sheet of Fruit Test Shots

This experiment highlighted some of the challenges that would arise time and again in this assignment. My instinct is to light for a combination of colour, form and texture (at least where the subject makes all three relevant) and I found it difficult to think in terms of isolating one attribute of a subject to the exclusion of all others.  In the context of Weston’s work the plum tomatoes bottom left and the pears bottom right come nearest to the effect I was trying to achieve where form was the main study but the raspberries and the vine tomatoes have a sense of both depth and colour. I knew that this type of subject could be carried forward into the assignment and that a series based on any of these groups could be lit in the four required, different ways. The fat Duck series on the Dominic Davies *(5) web site shows how food can be lit for colour, texture and form, for obvious reasons silhouettes are less common but a few examples in this series come very close.

I was also looking at the work of Irving Penn and a number of contemporary still life photographers and to stick with Weston style fruit and vegetables would be very limiting and too close to food photography.

As mentioned previously I was interested in the origins and history of still life photography and that research trail inevitably leads to Fox-Talbot, Roger Fenton and through them back to the vanitas painters of the 17th century. The symbolism of the vanitas style appealed in a very direct way and immediately spoke to my original agenda of weaving in the modern vanities of the fashion industry.

Fig. 03 A Small Study in Grey - 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

Fig. 03 A Small Study in Grey – 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

My first shoot was a very simple set-up. I spray painted a number of common household objects, set them up on a white acrylic sheet, added a pink rose for colour and took a few test shots. The vanitas elements were limited to the rose, symbolising the fragility of beauty and the fly to symbolise decay. This was primarily a light test using two cold-shoe soft boxes, one left and one right, both at about 45 degrees. The lighting worked to a point but I was uncomfortable with the fade to grey in the upper part of the background and noted that I either had to increase the intensity of the lights or find a way to fill the background. As an idea it was very limited and not something that could be taken forward into the assignment. I also felt that it was difficult to achieve the intensity of colour that I wanted using a white background.

By this point I had looked at the work of a lot of photographers and was identifying ideas that could come with me into the assignment. When looking at any photographers for inspiration there is an element of thinking about their subject matter, their overriding style and their technical approach but for studio based still life the technical approach in terms of backgrounds and lighting become a major consideration. It is clear that there are a lot of different ways to set-up and light a still life and I wanted to experiment with some of the options.

Fig 2 Still Life Inspration

Fig 04 Still Life Inspration

Fig. 04 shows the various photographers that were researched in some detail. A write up on these photographers is included here. This research led to a series of still life experiments where I looked at using different set-ups and techniques. One of the first experiments was inspired by Simon Norfolk whose archaeological study of objects found on the battlefield of the Tigris valley interested me at a number of levels. This is stripped down, simplified approach to still life that focusses total attention on a single object. Norfolk has photographed a series of small items excavated from a modern dessert battlefield so, unlike excavating  the site of the Battle of Hastings where the best one might hope for is a piece of broken and decayed metal, he has found tattered identity cards, pieces of clothing and personal photographs amongst the spent bullets and shell casings. This is a very human form of still life, exploring the memory of people through their lost possessions. I was keen to test out this idea quickly with objects that I already had to hand but with the intent to take this idea into the field and photograph found objects in a single location at some later point.

Fig. 05 My Dad's Stuff

Fig. 05 My Dad’s Stuff

Fig. 05 is the result of that experiment. My father was born in 1919 and died nearly 20 years ago. When I was thinking about subjects that might work as small items for simple, one object, white background still life I realised how few of his possessions I still own. His father’s silver watch, his scout knife, a bronze age axe he excavated, a few war time souvenirs and some tools.

At a personal level each object has a story which reminds me of my father, some objects are still being used by me, some are just beginning to be looked at and understood by my grandchildren and, when I have time I would like to repeat the exercise for other deceased relatives as a way of documenting an aspect of their lives. The items were photographed individually and then collected into a single image in Photoshop.

From a technical perspective it was a useful exercise as I was able to test different lighting in response to the material being photographed in a controlled environment. Some worked better than others.

Fig. 01 Bronze Age Axe , from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/11. ISO 100

Fig. 06 Bronze Age Axe , from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/11. ISO 100

For fig.06, the bronze age axe, I arranged the main light back of 90 degrees to the right, 3/4 lighting, and a fill light at a similar position to the left. This seems to have provided a sense of depth to the subject and the texture of the surfaces has been explored to some degree.

I have tried to use shadow as as way of exploring the form of the old fashioned router plane in fig. 07 as an alternative way of looking at the form of the object.

These test shots worked reasonably well but showed that 3/4 lighting is not the easiest to use if you still want to see the face nearest to the camera.

In fig. 07 the problem of backgrounds is also highlighted. In this instance I was using a flat acrylic sheet so the meeting point between the base and the background is very obvious.

I was also using a 105mm lens and working very close to the subjects so needed a deep depth of field to have the whole piece in focus. I have found depth of field challenging in food photography, occasionally it is interesting to only have part of a set in focus but generally it is desirable for the whole subject to be sharply focussed. This appears equally true for still life and  forces the use of small apertures.

Fig. 01 Router Plane,  from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

Fig. 07 Router Plane, from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

For my next series of test shots I wanted to create more complex vanitas still lifes bringing together classic motifs with modern objects.

ContactSheet-003a

Fig. 08 White Vanitas

For these shots I was still using a white background and, for all but “A” and “H”, I used the same acrylic sheet and a white background. A photography backdrop curved from background to base was used for “A”  whilst “H”, which is really just a bit of fun, was taken using a light box and a small amount of overhead light.

Fig.  Blue Vanitas - 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 09 Blue Vanitas – 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

“A”, the blue themed still life, was over complicated and didn’t work and was only useful as a learning experience for how not to set up a still life. However, I was pleased by the lighting in fig. 09 which is very even, brings out the various colours and avoids distracting reflections from the watch glasses and old mobile phones. In retrospect there could be a little more light to the left of the camera and on the coins at the front.

“B”, “C” and “D” were more successful, and worked when exploring colour but were much less successful when the same setup was used for texture, form and shape. I chose the red shoes specifically because they had both colour and texture but there was very little difference in the end result when I set up for colour and when I set up for texture.

“E” and “F” were taken as test shots for shape and “G” is my take on Irving Penn’s Vegetable Face.

Fig.09 White Fruit Vanitas 1 - 1/60 at f/14, ISO100

Fig.10 White Fruit Vanitas 1 (colour) – 1/60 at f/14, ISO100

Fig. 10 is a shot that is on the short list for my final submission as It meets many of my original objectives. It has obvious and less obvious vanitas elements, it brings fashion and classic still life together in a single shot and, I believe, works as an exploration of colour. The white background is difficult to work with, there is a 1 stop loss of exposure for every metre the backdrop is placed behind the subject so without extra lights to direct onto the backdrop it is always, at best, going to be grey. In this shot is just about acceptable but not ideal.

 

Fig. 10 Skulls - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 Skulls (edges) – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 Skulls (Edges) - 1/125 at F/16, ISO 100

Fig. 12 Skulls (Edges) – 1/125 at F/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 is also on the short list as an example of lighting for edges. It could, and has been (fig. 12), processed as a full silhouette but it is not as interesting as a photograph.

In fact this picture sums up my frustrations with this assignment.

I can light or process this just to focus on the outer edges and perhaps that approach best meets the assignment criteria but equally by over exposing a little I can also bring out the texture of the skulls and explore their form.

This is a far more appealing image than fig. 12. so I might submit fig. 11 and hear my tutor’s thoughts.

After “White Vanitas” I wanted to carry out some test shoots using black backgrounds. When researching contemporary still life I saw that whenever black backdrops were used the colours of the still life became far more intense. Mat Collishaw and Paulette Tavormina use black backdrops in very different styles of still lifes but I think both are doing so to emphasise colour.

Fig. 12 Black Fruit

Fig. 13 Black Vanitas and Fruit

“A” through “E” continue to use vanitas motifs and are a natural progression from the White Vanitas shoot. “G” and “H” are straight forward colour studies. There is no doubt that using a black base and black background brings out the colours in the subject. If the aim was just to emphasise colour this is the set-up I would use.

Fig. 13 Black Vanitas (colour) - 1/160 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 14 Black Vanitas (colour) – 1/160 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig.14 is on my short list as part of the submission. It is “B” in the contact sheet at fig. 13. “A” would be an alternative but without the honeycomb grid and red gel used to emphasise the red shoes. The strength of these two photos are firstly that they are an evolution of my original idea so have some heritage in the project and secondly that they are strong studies in colour. The black background is much more interesting than the white with the subjects fading into or growing out of the black set, appearing suspended in space. In some ways the black set is easier to work with but it does suck up the light so the flashguns had to be run much nearer full power.

Fig. 14 Melon and Citrus - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 15 Melon and Citrus (texture) – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 15 is also short listed as a submission for texture. This was lit with hard light angled to maximise the different textures in the fruits. At this stage in the process I had a few images that had worked for colour, texture, form and shape but they were from different set-ups so I wanted to conduct a final shoot where the four attributes were represented by four different lighting techniques and photos from the same set.

The criticism might be levelled that, as this was the assignment brief, I should have gone straight to this point in the first place and this is a totally valid point. However, I wanted to explore the four attributes with different set-ups and for each shoot I did light the subjects in, at least, four different ways and took four different sets of photos but with all the above set-ups one or two, and very occasionally three attributes would come through strongly but never all four. I believe that this is because the way I worked through the process of looking at different techniques and using different subjects created environments that empathised one or two attributes above the others. Clearly I could back light the Black Vanitas and photograph a silhouette but it was a dull picture and I don’t see the point in trying to take dull pictures, I take enough by mistake already.

The process also allowed me to explore different photographers’ work and try some of their techniques and work towards a style of still life that was representative of me and that was an evolution of the style I have developed for food photography over recent years. I think I found my greatest inspiration in the work of David C. Halliday and Krista van der Niet. This is a move away from classic vanitas still life but they use light and simple sets to create atmospheric still life that explores form, texture and colour, often simultaneously.

Fig. 15 Green Backdrop Shoot

Fig. 16 Green Backdrop Shoot

Fig. 16 is a contact sheet from my final two shoots where all the ideas finally came together. I am disappointed that “G” which is the colour shot from the very final shoot is weak, the colours seem desaturated and what seemed right in the “studio” did not process as effectively as I had expected. I may be fooling myself but I suspect the the choice of fruit in “A” through “D” lent itself to colour better that the subjects in “E” through “H”.

Fig. 16 Green Backdrop (colour) - 1/60 at f/18 (-1/3 stop), ISO 100

Fig. 17 Green Backdrop (colour) – 1/60 at f/18 (-1/3 stop), ISO 100

This is a shame as fig. 17, “G” from the contact sheet, is very close to the effect I wanted to achieve, the lighting seems very soft and natural, (I believe that Halliday works with natural light) and without having any vanitas motifs it has a 17th century oil painting feel. I have just failed to bring out the colours as strongly as I wanted.

This has been a very frustrating assignment at times and I still questions whether setting such a simple question is pushing a student to explore lighting in real depth. It is too easy to take one object with a bit of colour and texture and setup:

  • Colour – lights above and in front
  • Form – 3/4 lighting
  • Texture – hard light at acute angles
  • Shape – backlight

I set out to learn about still life as a genre and to explore lighting for effect. I have enjoyed the research and test shoots immensely and believe that I have learnt a considerable amount about, not just lighting, but how to introduce a mood into simple still lifes.

Sources

Books

(1) Weston, Edward. (1999) Edward Weston. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH

Internet

(2) Weston, Edward. EdwardWeston.com – http://www.edward-weston.com/edward_weston_natural_1.htm

(3) Norfolk, Simon. SimonNorfolk.com  http://www.simonnorfolk.com/pop.html

(4) Lippmann, Peter. Peter Lippman Official Site  http://www.peterlippmann.com/lippmann3/menu.html

(5) Davies, Dominic. Dominic Davies Official Site. http://www.dominicdavies.com/fat-duck/

 

 

Irving Penn – Still Life

Fig. 01 Router Plane,  from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Router Plane, from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

On the recommendation of my tutor I acquired a copy of Irving Penn’s book Still Life *(1). Penn supervised the collation of this book and, as such, it is a revealing representation of his work. Penn is not the easiest photographer to pin down to a specific category because so much of his work was commercial and most notably for Vogue magazine from 1943 until his last contribution in 2007.

In his introduction to Sill Life John Szarkowski points out that, as a genre, still life offers the artist the greatest level of control. It is one of the few subjects where the artist controls the subject as well as the lighting, exposure, framing and final presentation. Szarkowski *(1) suggests that still life is unique in that its history is only a history of art, any other set of Iriving Penn photographs could be partly seen as a history of fashion, or of the changing landscape, or of the people who feature in his most famous work. When we look at still lifes and Irving Penn’s still lifes in particular we are reminded of the early photographers such as Fox-talbot and Daguerre and of the vast number of painters who preceded them. Like many of these artists Penn take humble subjects, pays them great attention through his approach and creates artistic representations that might alter the viewers preconceptions of that object or might just make us feel better by seeing something simple presented as beauty.

My research suggests that Penn was not a man who talked much about his work so it is not clear whether his commercial career was being parodied by his personal work or whether he saw them as quite separate streams or whether one just bled into the other. He is described as a prolific and incredibly hard working photographer who would often spend his days photographing for Vogue or Harpers Bazaar and his nights working on his own projects. Often his day job was to make the mundane beautiful or to empathise and express the obvious beauty in his subject yet in his private work he time and time again selects ordinary everyday items and creates beautiful pictures by exploring the colours, textures, shapes and forms in his elegant, minimalist still lifes.  In many ways his two worlds seem closely entwined. Fashion might appear to be an obvious channel for still life photography as stylish photographs of cosmetics, shoes and fashion accessories are now common place but Szarkowski *(1) tells us that before Penn’s first Vogue cover in 1943 he can find no copies of the magazine that feature still life in any meaningful way so, it might be said, that Penn created the first bridge between artistic still life seeped with the heritage of painting and commercial still life.

Penn is one of a significant group of photographers who are recognised as artists as well as reaching the pinnacle  of commercial photography, David Bailey would be another, and there is a common ground between them, perhaps in part because Penn was an established senior photographer at Vogue when Bailey was first making his name at the same magazine.

In their fashion and portrait photography, both Penn and Bailey had an economic style that concentrates attention on the subject and expresses their empathy with the models. When working in the world of high fashion they presented their models as women not mannequins, interestingly they both married their favourite  model, and their fashion photographs have outlasted the product they promoted leaving images of the people inside the clothes. Bailey describes his portrait style as not having one, that he was seeking “very sophisticated passport pictures” but neither his nor Penn’s style are easy to copy because their ability to see and capture the essence of the person is a highly tuned skill.

Penn said “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject dares to believe.” *(2) This could also be said of his still lifes where many of the subjects are “more wonderful” that we dare to believe.

Whether Penn felt constrained by his highly successful commercial career is a matter of conjecture but it is easy to interpret his private projects as counterpoints to the fashion industry’s obsession with youth and packaged beauty. Another easy answer to many of the photographs in Still Life or his Cranium Architecture *(3) series is that Penn was communicating by using the traditional motifs of vanitas and momento mori. Whatever his motivation might have been we are offered a remarkable collection of images in Still Life that lead us to much larger series along a variety of themes.

My perspective on the photographs in this book has changed over the last two weeks as I have been working on test shoots of assignment 4. It is only by trying to create a compelling still life that one realises that this is a highly challenging art form. As Szarkowski *(1) says, this is probably the only form of photography where the photographer has complete control over the choice and presentation of subject, the lighting, the technical aspects of the picture taking and the post production whilst this excites the artist and draws many to the form, equally it leaves the photographer nowhere to hide. This is photography with no excuses other than a shortfall of skill in one or more areas.

Penn’s range of subjects and approaches was very wide. Stationary, found objects, “classic” food ingredients including raw, frozen and cooked, vanitas motifs including musical instruments, skulls and dice, constructed sets which are best described as sculptures and many subjects linked to the fashion industry of which he was a part. There are common stylistic themes such as a simplicity of lighting and an elegance of set design combined with a formal complexity in his composition but over the many years represented by this book he switched back and forth between black and white and colour, between an emphasis on texture, a focus on shape and form and exercises in colour.

He asks us questions to which we may never know the answers. Does his extensive series of, what we would call dog-ends, represent a cycle of life from neat unused items in a pack to used and discarded rubbish in the gutter to being re-organised and painstakingly lit and photographed? Are his flowers symbolic of the fragility of nature and life or did he just see the opportunity to undertake intense studies of form and colour ? He said of the seven studies of a single type of flower each year that his lack of horticultural knowledge gave him the freedom to concentrate on colour and form and this might be the key to his work.

I sense that his still lifes were a form of release where not only did he gain the complete control of the image that would have, to some degree, been lacking in his professional career he also was able to photograph subjects, to use Eggleston’s idea, to simply see what they looked like photographed. His education and knowledge of the history of photography and art meant that vanitas motifs were naturally introduced into his sets but there may not have been a strong moralistic message.

The nearest I came to gaining an insight to his ideas was this quote: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

In the context of preparing for assignment 4 it was helpful to look at his work and try to understand how he used lighting to emphasise one or more element of each subject.

In Lavender Glory, Poppy, Vogue, 1968, *(4) , he lights a soft object with hard light against a white background to emphasise texture with deep shadows in the petal creases. It is interesting that he accepts a quite de-saturated finish with this photograph but approaches Rose, Color Wonder, Vogue, 1970, *(5), quite differently with strong colours and plenty of depth to the partially opened rose so obviously lit for colour and form.

Ripe Cheese, Vogue, 1992, *(6) is lit from above and in front for colour.

The key point is that Penn saw properties in his subjects that defined the subject so he arranged his lighting and exposure to concentrate on that property. As I have worked through test shoots for assignment 4 I have been frustrated by the idea that we should use a single subject and light it to bring out different properties. Whilst I would in no other way compare myself to Irving Penn I suspect he might have shared this frustration. In Lavender Glory he sees wonderful texture and invests himself in bringing out that feature, the apple and the cheese offer him a captivating colour contrast in Ripe Cheese so that is what he concentrates on. I do not believe that he would have then considered lighting the cheese and apple as a silhouette because that would have been pointless.

Sources

Books

(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Sill Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press

Internet

Vogue Archives. Irving Penn: Uncommon Elegance – http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/irving-penn-uncommon-elegance/#1

Masters of Photography – Irving Penn – http://www.masters-of-photography.com/P/penn/penn_articles2.html

(3) Hamilton’s Gallery – Irving Penn – http://www.hamiltonsgallery.com/artists/27-Irving-Penn/series/cranium-architecture/

New York Times – Photographer Who Broke Molds – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/arts/25iht-photog25.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(2) Hodgson, Francis. (2013) The Quizzical Chamois: Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture – http://francishodgson.com/tag/irving-penn/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2

(4) Pace Macgill Gallery – Irving Penn http://www.pacemacgill.com/selected_works/detailspage.php?artist=Irving%20Penn&img_num=123

(5) Christies – Irving Penn – http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/photographs/irving-penn-rose-colour-wonder-london-1970-5494381-details.aspx

(6) We Are Selectors – Irving Penn – http://weareselecters.com/2013/10/Irving-Penn-On-Assignment/

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.

Roland Barthes Camera Lucida

It was suggested that I should read Camera Lucida (1), the last work of French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes. I had previously heard of “studium and punctum” but had not read the original book.

I think of myself as an avid reader, fiction, history, photography, sport, even literature but I found this short book difficult to break into, in fact, often quite impenetrable. Taking the man’s cleverness as a given I can only assume that this book was written for himself or for people skilled at translating the philosopher’s thoughts. I find his style rambling and confusing and his key ideas appear hidden behind a fog of words that, in fairness, might have lost sometime in translation.

At the outset Barthes tells us that he wants to learn, at all costs, what photography was in itself and he goes in search of the fundamental feature that is the basis of all photography. He questions whether photography has a “genius” of its own, something that would set it apart from, what he calls, the community of images. His tone might be interpreted as generally one of disappointment with photography, a medium that he feels  “crushes all other images by its tyranny” and that fails to capture the essence of his dead mother.

Perhaps the genius of photography lies hidden amid his criticisms. If in 1980 he sensed that photography was overwhelming other art what might he think in 2014 when photography has become so overwhelming that we have invented on-line galleries that probably have more images uploaded per day than there are paintings on display in all of galleries in Britain or maybe even Europe yet has it really crushed the other communities of images? The genius of the medium might lie in this accessibility . According to Digitrends (2) every fifteen minutes users of Facebook upload the same number of photographs as are stored in the New York public photo archives. One might argue that the ordinary is swamping the extra-ordinary but this is true of any art form, just travel any distance in a taxi playing Euro pop, or listen to piped music in a shopping centre car park. Barthes appears to argue that quantity, in itself, diminishes an art form and that the quantity in one art form threatens to crush other forms. I do not accept this argument. Graham Clarke (3) in describing the development of the modern camera describes photography as “the most mobile and the most available of visual forms” and the “most democratic art form” and I subscribe to this view. By making photography possible from a telephone, an instrument designed for verbal communication people with no particular technical skills can communicate through images, even moving images. A biscuit tin of dog-eared, black and white family photographs has been replaced by an ever expanding library of photos of family, friends, places and events. The many can now document their lives to a level of detail that was once the preserve of the very few. Some of these pictures will match someone’s expectation of art – Ai Weiwei’s iPhone photo of the Forbidden City springs to mind – and many will not but this should neither diminish their role as a diary of memories, nor as an expression of current emotions, nor as a form of communication. “Look,” “See,” “Here it is,” as Barthes puts it, has value in its own right and who is to say that a cave painting of a bison ever meant more or that Holbein’s portraits say more than “Look,” “See,” “Here he is.”

Henri Cartier Bresson is famous for his “decisive moment” (4) and this is an idea that feels right to many photographers. It is the answer to Barthes’ question as to why we photograph an object at this moment rather than some other because this is the other genius of photography. The art of photography lies in, selection versus exclusion both in terms of subject and time. Stephen Shore, in The Nature of Photographs (5) discusses how we create order out of disorder by selecting a tiny moment in time and freezing it in a photograph. What we select as our subject and what we exclude from our frame is a hard, learnt skill for many of us.

There are clearly many insightful ideas in Camera Lucida , none more so than his much discussed concept of the studium and punctum of a photograph, but there are other truths here that are worth considering. He points out that all photographic portraits are posed because we adjust ourselves in some way when a camera is pointed in our direction and that, to manage this, the photographer becomes involved with manipulating the subject, using props, choosing meaningful backgrounds and that these actions move the portrait even further from the truth. It is of course an equally valid argument to say that the subject manipulates the photographer and the image by posing. He therefore believes that, if the subject is a person, no photograph is a true image capturing inner emotions and feelings. His argument contains some truth but not enough truth to make it a absolute. At one extreme we could look at a selection of Don McCullin’s (6) war photos where the subject is so deeply submerged in their private horror as to be oblivious to the camera, in “A Grunt Suffering Severe Shell Shock” I believe we see in his face a fleeting sense, of what he is feeling. McCullin offers many similar examples that could be categorised as people being so overwhelmed by their circumstances that the photographer is all but invisible to them. On the other extreme we could look at the work of David Bailey whose minimalistic portraits are repeatedly described as capturing the essence of his subjects. If Barthes was to visit the Stardust exhibition (7) would he agree with this view or would he say that the photographer was only capturing what Lennon or Caine or Beuys wanted him to see and that their pose hides the inner man? With Bailey’s portraits I believe there are nearly always two inputs, the visual document as put before us by the collaborative efforts of the subject and the photographer and all the other knowledge or perceived knowledge we have of the subject outside of the photograph, we put these together and might say that he has captured the true image but perhaps only the subject can say whether we are right.

His analysis of why we like or dislike a photograph is at the heart of this book and he takes this thought forward to look at why some photographs have no impact on us at all, leave us so unmoved that we neither like nor dislike them, we are simply unmoved. This was obviously true for Barthes forty odd years ago and is true for us today. We are exposed to countless photographs every day, the internet is so image heavy we are shocked to see a page with more text than pictures, no television news item can just be described, a photograph must be displayed over the newsreader’s shoulder, they arrive unsolicited on our phones, in our email, on every page of the newspaper both in paper and on-line, they adorn every billboard and many shop windows; our world is wallpapered with photographs, so many that it is far too exhausting to take a position on even a small percentage and certainly not all of them so we subconsciously categorise photographs into “like” (a few), “dislike” (a few) and                                                                                                                                                completely ignore all the rest (the many) – the wallpaper? Bizarrely, in a world of too many, I go seeking more, buying photo books, hunting down websites, scouring the bookshelves of every charity shop I pass and in my work for assignment 3 I am even seeking out and photographing photographs; it’s bird spotting in an aviary, or looking for a square inch of art on the wallpaper. Barthes is looking for “adventure”, to be “animated”, to decide whether a photograph “exists” for him and this is his far more elegant way of expressing my “like”, “dislike”, “ignore”.

Barthes is searching for logical rules that explain why we make these choices. He recognises that many photographs are generally interesting and have, what he calls “an average effect” when we look at them in the context of what else we already know. He calls this the studium of a photograph, the photograph is of value, the viewer will have some enthusiasm for it because it documents a subject in way that seems “all right” and communicates, or provides an insight into the intent of the photographer. Beyond that it passes information, we learn something we didn’t know and in that we see that studium is related to study. He points out, that in journalism, the photograph can be interesting without any specific detail interrupting our reading. In effect the studium of a photograph provides a background, in many cases there is only this background but in some cases there is the punctum.

The punctum is the sharp point that pricks our attention and lifts a photograph to another level above just interesting. Barthes describes many examples of photographs that include a punctum and from this analysis we can readily see that, for him, it is a very personal response. In Barthes’ view the photographer cannot insert a punctum, if he or she does he rejects it. “I refuse to inherit something from another eye than my own”. This idea challenges the photographer to capture a subject with enough studium to hold the viewer’s initial interest and to unintentionally include a punctum, not an easy rule to follow. If we believe that the punctum is only ever a highly personal point of detail we, the photographer, will probably search for it in vain. If we believe that it is a point of detail that lifts the photograph to another level and that will be identified and recognised by most viewers we will fail his test but might have succeeded in creating a better or more exciting photograph that stands out from the crowd.

On finishing the book and after writing up my notes I remain a little frustrated by Barthes. I still think that he is very selective in the evidence he submits to prove his arguments and that he looks for rules when perhaps the whole point is that there are non. However, he offers a number of valuable insights that have a practical bearing on the study of photography and beyond that his writing is provocative and demands argument and this alone makes Camera Lucida a worthwhile read.

Sources

Books

(1) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books

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

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

(5) Shore, Stephen, (2007) The Nature of Photographs: Second Edition. New York: Phaidon Press.

(6) McCullin, Don, (1990) Unreasonable Behaviour: 1992 Edition. London: Vintage.

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

Internet

(2) Digital Trends www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/nearly-300000-status-updates-are-posted-to-facebook-every-minute/#!Eo6mQ 

Bailey’s Stardust

1/125 at f/11, ISO 900

1/125 at f/11, ISO 900

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

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

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

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

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

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

bailey-stardustBlack and White Icons

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

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

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

Democracy

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

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

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

NK0_2678East End

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

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

Naga Hills

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

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

Catherine Bailey

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

Books

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

Internet

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

Films

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

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