Tag Archives: John Szarkowski

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

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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/

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

Assignment 2 Elements of Design

Introduction

Assignment 2 asks for the elements of design to be incorporated in a set of photographs directed towards one type of subject. My subject is a personal view of a single place based on a week of taking photographs in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) in December 2013. In the context of the groups of subjects suggested in the course notes my “type of subject” is a mixture of landscape and intimate landscape with a touch of human interest. I recognise that, in doing this, I have strayed from the path but to have stayed within a single “type” would have limited my ability to express my personal view.

When I first returned from Turks and Caicos I posted a blog article describing my impressions of the islands and how I set out to capture a personal view. The Caribbean in my View.

For the assignment submission my aim was to select a series of photographs that captured my overall impressions which meant I needed to:

  • Convey the strong colours, bright sunlight and deep shadows of a typical day in the islands.
  • Capture a sense of the constantly changing light as rain clouds rushed across the sea and land.
  • Show how these tiny specks of coral are exposed to dramatic weather events that seek to destroy anything but the strongest structures and, even without the storms, that nature is relentlessly degenerating anything left in its path.
  • Provide a glimpse of the people who came unwillingly to these islands from the other side of the Atlantic and who can trace their ancestors to the ship wreck of a slave trader off these islands in 1841.
  • But, in doing this keep the view wide enough to feature the larger beauty of the place and explain why we escaped here in mid-winter.

Because this submission is a intended to be a collection I would like them to be viewed in sequence before each image is considered individually as included below.

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In preparation for finalising my chosen images for the assignment I worked on some specific themes. These are studies of particular visual elements that captured my imagination and seemed representative of the place. Four collections are included in this blog at:

Each collection could have formed the basis of this assignment but I wanted to document my personal view in no more than 15 images  and within that view to express my overall feelings about TCI. To tell this story I needed to select images that represented the whole. “Openings” and “Metamorphic” are both important as part of the picture but are too narrow in subject.

Single Point Dominating the Composition

Man on Beach at Grace Bay 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100. 24mm - 70mm lens at 32mm

Fig. 1 Man on Beach at Grace Bay 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100. 24mm – 70mm lens at 32mm

Man on Beach, my choice for “a single point dominating the composition” represents the visitor experience. Emerald sea, blue sky, “white” beach under strong sunlight, a perfect day. I have place the central subject dead centre beneath the largest cloud to create a sense of tranquility but there is touch of tension introduced by the white boat leaving the scene to the left. Colour is an important element of this image with the contrast of the man’s red shorts lifting an otherwise blue image. His body shape, the slight movement blur on his raised foot and the long leading shadow give a sense of movement.

My tutors suggestion to look at the work of Josef Koudelka *(4) arrived after completing this shoot but I think my initial study into his compositional skills (see Josef Koudelka and Composition) has had some influence on the my editing. I realised that he is not adverse to placing his subject in the centre of the frame such as in France 1973 (man and hovercraft) or Slovakia 1973 (man in handcuffs) and this was in my mind when editing my Man on Beach.

I took several shots where the sand, sea and sky dominated the image, some with one or two boats or people in the composition and some without anything other than the landscape in the frame. I was drawn to these simple three tone images and had Richard Misrach’s “On The Beach” * (1) series in mind.

“On The Beach” is a collection of photographs taken from a high-rise hotel room in Hawaii so I could not follow his style on a flat, low rise island but I like his simplicity of composition and the way he often offers us a large empty space with a single small subject. I tried several shots from different angles to try and capture the scale of the TCI beaches, especially Grace Bay which is 12 miles long, and how people are often tiny specks within a landscape of limited colours and textures albeit often with a wide variety of tones. Misrach wants to show how insignificant and vulnerable we are within the landscape and I see this is an important idea at a time when climate change is threatening our complacent view of where it is safe to live.

None of my images following these ideas made it to my final selection partly because the most effective were vertical aspects and did not fit into the collection. Some are included in the contact sheet below.

Contact sheet of other images considered

Two Points

Fig.02 Two Boys at Wheeland - 1/124 at f/16, ISO 720. 24mm - 70mm lens at 24mm

Fig.02 Two Boys at Wheeland – 1/124 at f/16, ISO 720. 24mm – 70mm lens at 24mm

Two boys at Wheeland introduces two local residents at a bar well away from the tourist areas. Colour is important to this composition with the bright woodwork providing a strong contrast to the shadows and skin colours. The image is given structure by framing the two boys with the yellow doors and the way they are looking into the space created to the right of the frame. These two young men were gambling on fruit machines in a room adjoining a local bar and I caught them enjoying the moment after sharing a joke.

This image as presented is a compromise because it was captured in a vertical aspect and worked well with the doors as strong verticals framing the length of the boys’ bodies but I am mindful of the advice provided by my tutor on assignment 1 and by other tutors on the OCA forum not to mix formats so I re-cropped to a horizontal aspect. I am satisfied that it still works.

The alternative crops and some other possibilities for two points can be seen here.

Several Points in a Deliberate Shape

Fig.03 Three Men on Grand Turk - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 560. 24mm - 70mm lens at 26mm

Fig.03 Three Men on Grand Turk – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 560. 24mm – 70mm lens at 26mm

The three men outside the general store in Grand Turk tell another part of the island story. The two men sitting down and the one standing form an implied triangle or perhaps more accurately a trapezium. The photograph was taken in quite deep shade and was challenging to process but the three differing poses and how differently each man relates to the camera make this a strong image. The man to the right was willing to talk to me and this is reflected in his direct connection with the camera. The man in the middle covered his face as soon as I rasied the camera and the man to the left seemed oblivious to me being there yet seems to be standing to attention. I think there is a story here, note the empty spirit bottle at the base of the post and the second one under the plastic tumbler.

The image is given structure by the verticals and horizontals that frame and link the men and the implied diagonal formed from the man with a blue hat to the man with sun glasses. In hindsight I can see a link back to Josef Koudelka who I have noticed often works with three subjects to give his images balance.

Grand Turk is visited by cruise ships most days but the ships dock in the southeast corner of the island and few of the passengers trouble to visit the old town where the, now abandoned, salt industry was centred. Apart from a run-down hotel and two dive shops there seems to be little industry in the town and these three men are representative of  the male population that appeared to just sit in the shade.

A Combination of Horizontal and Vertical Lines

A Combination of Vertical and Horozontal Lines

Fig. 04 Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point – 1/125 at f/8, ISO 125. 24mm – 70mm lens at 24mm

Moving away from people the Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point is a combination of horizontal and vertical lines. This image has a logical place in the collection but is different to most of the other images not least because it was captured during a short cloudy period. Colour is less important and the lack of saturation allows this image to offer a contrasting sense of place. The composition is consciously central as I want to lead the viewer through the arches, up the steps and across the bridge to the remains of this huge beach house with the symmetrical composition helping to make the steps and bridge the dominant subject.

The building is slowly being overgrown as it collapses and combined with the lack of saturation this makes the photograph quite melancholy. The image asks several questions about who the owners are and why it has not been repaired given its beach front location but I also wonder who neatly placed the empty beer bottle on the steps.

This house was in a small group of other houses that were all equally badly damaged so I presume that Emerald Point, which is on the northest tip of the island, was exposed to a major storm or hurricane at some point in the recent past. This image documents the power of the weather and is therefore an important part of the story and part of a theme of degeneration.

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Diagonals

Fig. 05 Ladder on Blue Wall - 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 24mm - 70mm lens at 36mm

Fig. 05 Ladder on Blue Wall – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 24mm – 70mm lens at 36mm

The first of two images using diagonals is Ladder on a Blue Wall. The harsh shadow and dry texture of the ladder and the wall communicate the heat of the sun in a simple graphic design that has become a geometric abstraction. The quirky design of the weathered ladder hints of a make-do-and mend economy.

I have cropped this tight to allow the ladder to break the frame at the top and the bottom, I think that this lifts the image from being purely graphic to “offering evidence”, as Michael Freeman *(3) would put it, that there is more to the ladder and more to the wall than we can see and therefore asks the viewer to imagine where it is coming from and leading to.

Fig. 06 Stairs - 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100. 24mm-70mm lens at 24mm

Fig. 06 Stairs – 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100. 24mm-70mm lens at 24mm

My second diagonal returns to the theme of degeneration, the relentless weathering by sun and rain of all materials. This derelict house on Grand Turk is slowly decaying but in the meantime the stairs provided a strong diagonal across the image whilst throwing an interesting shadow that prevents the concrete wall from being dead space. I like the partly open door to the bottom left of the frame and the overall sense of neglect.

Diagonals are the easiest elements of design to find as they can often be achieved merely by changing the angle of view. The two I have chosen are strong diagonals that bring structure and balance to the images and the subjects fit well into the island story.

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Curves

Fig. 07 Small Boats at Chalk Sound - 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100. 24mm - 70mm lens at 24mm

Fig. 07 Small Boats at Chalk Sound – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 100. 24mm – 70mm lens at 24mm

Small boats at Chalk Sound interests me as a composition, whilst there is an obvious curve in the rainbow there is also an implied curve created by the angle of the boats’ masts and the shape of the clouds.

This is a photograph of the weather, sunlight in the foreground and a large raincloud in the distance with sheets of rain falling on the horizon. The sky and the weather is a dominant feature of these island landscapes and I wanted to include a composition where most of the frame is filled with dramatic cloud patterns but the two boats add just enough interest  to the foreground to lift the image above being just a cloud picture.

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Distinct, Even if Irregular, Shapes

Fig. 08 Weathered Timber - 1/125 at F/22, ISO 200. 105mm prime lens

Fig. 08 Weathered Timber – 1/125 at F/22, ISO 200. 105mm prime lens

The first of my three images featuring distinct shapes is of Weathered Timber. This continues the theme of degeneration and is another very graphic composition with three major blocks, rusty red, black and faded blue. This image and fig. 05 probably fit into John Szarkowski’s second category of “failure in colour photography” where the image is of beautiful colours in pleasing relationships* (2). Despite recognising that weakness I continue to like simple graphic combinations of colour as long as there is some context.

Fig. 09 Front Street Grand Turk - 1/125 at f/16, ISO180.  24mm - 70mm at 24mm

Fig. 09 Front Street Grand Turk – 1/125 at f/16, ISO180. 24mm – 70mm at 24mm

Front Street Grand Turk brings together a number of strong shapes including the large triangular block of the stairs and their supports, the rectangular yellow wall of the hut, the red roof and the blocks of shadow, sea and street. This image features several elements of place to give a sense of the elegant, if now weathered, old building contrasting with the more modern, but well maintained, tin hut on the other side of the street. I like the multitude of lines and shapes and the strong colours that together have a mid-day sun feel about them.

Fig. 10 Cruise Ship through Ruin - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 360. 24mm - 70mm lens at 24mm

Fig. 10 Cruise Ship Through Ruin – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 360. 24mm – 70mm lens at 24mm

The final choice for distinct shapes is Cruise Ship Through Ruin. I think this could have been included as a composition of verticals or diagonals but I see the square openings as the most dominant shapes even though the shadows cast by the remains of the roof are the most interesting feature.

Each day the residents of Grand Turk’s only town watch one or two cruise ships head to the custom built port at the tip of the island. There the passengers disembark to a groomed beach, a duty free shopping mall and the type of Caribbean bar you might find in a theme park, a few hours later they board ship and sail off through the night to another island with more duty free shops to drink cocktails from coconut shells.

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Implied Triangles

Implied Triangle

Fig. 11 Kite at The Bight – 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100. 24mm – 70mm lens at 56mm

The first of two implied triangles returns to the beach and is a simple composition of a man flying a colourful kite against the darkening sky. I have enhanced the grey of the clouds with a graduated ND filter and then deleted the filter over the kite. I took this shot through the grasses at the back of the beach to suggest the location is a little off the beaten track.

I was drawn back time and time again to the different tones of the shallow water inside the barrier reef and the way this divided the frame into horizontal blocks. I think that it is interesting to have alternative implied triangles, the people and the kite might be the more obvious but the triangle between the white sails and the kite are equally strong. I like the calm symmetric composition with the kite at the centre which fits with the calm sea and empty beach.

Implied Triangle

Fig. 12 Conch Fisherman – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

The conch fisherman is my favourite photograph in the collection. The implied triangle formed by his body and arms as he reaches into his tub to take another conch to clean is a very strong shape. I have cropped tight to focus all attention on the subject but the sea and the specks of sand on his body give the photograph a context. I considered whether to dodge his face to reduce the shadow but because one side of his face is so well lit I think the shadows show the strength of his features and add more texture to the image.

It is fortuitous to be able to include a conch fisherman in the collection as this large shell fish is the staple protein in the islands and appears on every menu. TCI is the only place in the world to have a commercial conch farm and conch shells are to be found washed up on every beach.

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Rhythm and Pattern

Rhythm

Fig. 13 Bottles – 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Bottles is the first of two rhythm images. This photograph of the wall of the local Coca Cola importer appealed at many levels. The ubiquitous nature of Coke is an obvious story but the huge, out of scale bottles were so out of place I wanted to capture them. I have cropped in tight to the bottles to emphasise the rhythm as the eye moves across the row and, in some ways, this tight crop makes the viewer work a little harder to realise that the roof line gives the photo scale.

I have included a wider crop in the contact sheet below. I think that I would have captured this image quite differently if I had studied William Eggleston or Stephen Shore before I left rather than after I got back. I say this because they are so incongruous and out of place but are also such recognisable items that they are, at the same time, everyday and mundane.

Rhythm

Fig. 14 Conch Shells – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 125. 105mm prime lens

Conch shells as mentioned above are emblematic of these islands and in that regard made the perfect subject for the second example of rhythm. It does not have the regular rhythm of the bottles but after several test shots and crops I liked the inclusion of  a small area of background and the diagonal lines formed by the edges of the shells.

Pattern

Fig 15 Metal Lizards – 1/125 at f/8, ISO 110. 105mm prime lens

Metal lizards completes my collection and is included to represent pattern. The lizards are on sale in a local craft market so are destined to leave TCI behind them. Until then they are tacked to boards in their thousands and create striking macro and micro patterns.

Contact sheet of other images considered.

All contact sheets collected together in one post.

Sources

Books

* (1) Higgins, Jackie. (2013) Why it Does Not have to be in Focus: Modern Photography Explained, Thames and Hudson

* (2) Eggleston, Wiliam. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide, 2nd Edition, 2013 reprint, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

* (3) Freeman, Michael (2010), the Photographer’s Mind. Lewes, The Ilex Press.

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

Internet

* (1) National Gallery or Art (2008) Misrach Exhibition www.nga.gov/exhibitions/2008/misrach/

William Eggleston – One Picture of One Thing

NK0_1572-eggleston-guideFollowing on from my earlier post on Banal and the Topographical Movement, I ordered a copy of William Eggleston’s Guide (*1). Having read about the original guide which was published in 1976 in conjunction with the Photographs by William Eggleston Exhibition and having looked at so many of his photographs on-line it was something of a revelation to discover that Guide had been republished in 2002 and re-printed many times since. It is a beautifully presented book, elegantly bound with a faux leather look and we are told, on the copyright page, that the publishers have endeavoured to reproduce the original form.

As I have been working towards presenting assignment 2 I have been thinking about how to capture a place from a personal perspective and how this differs from the type of travel photography I am more used to seeing and, to a greater or lesser degree, mimicking. Because Eggleston’s images are centred around one place I feel it is worthwhile to divert myself once more from preparing  assignment 2 to look more deeply at this collection.

Szarkowski’s introduction to The Guide feeds into my thinking as he talks of how he sees this collection as being very personal to Eggleston as the subjects of Memphis and northern Mississippi were the photographer’s home, he saw them as being as much about his identity as about the places. I question whether the area being his home is the only, or even main, reason that the images are personal or whether they are a personal statement because of the viewpoint he adopts, because of the way he sees the place and because he decided to photograph what he saw in a very direct manner without embellishment and without obvious concern for the perceived laws of subject matter or composition. Perhaps using a place he knew intimately enabled him to more easily create this style as his attention was more on photography and the detail of the place than on understanding and working his way into the location. In a BBC Film interview*(2) Eggleston’s wife makes the point that he photographed Memphis and northern Mississippi because that was where he was and what was there. She tells the story that he asked a close friend what he could photograph as everything was so ugly and his friend told him to photograph the ugly and this is what he did.

Looking at this body of work presented in its original form is an improved basis for review. Review via internet tends to be unstructured and the viewer is not often being led through a collection in the sequence the artist or, in this case the curator, intended. In the same BBC interview *(2) Eggleston hints that this collection was primarily chosen by Szarkowski, they worked together but Eggleston’s son suggests that his father would not have been able to make the choices.

NK0_1552-eggleston-guideComposition

Some reviewers suggest that Eggelston’s style is casual and that part of the sense of banality is created by this style so whereas Shore will photograph ordinary places with very careful and studied compositions using a large format camera, Eggelston’s images are snap-shots in the true sense of the words taken with a 35mm Leica. We know that Eggelston was influenced by and interested in amateur colour snaps so he is probably looking to create some sense of the snap-shot in his images but The Guide is a collection of carefully considered compositions that are anything but casual. In fact I do not believe that it is in Eggelston’s character to be casual.

A number of interviewers report that Eggleston is measured in his response to questions, for example Sean O’Hagan writing in the Guardian *(3) says:

“Eggleston is the slowest and most softly spoken person I have ever met, and the silence while he considers a question is so deep and long that I find myself wondering if he has simply chosen to ignore my fumbling attempts at elucidation.”

In the BBC documentary *(2) when he is being interviewed we see the same carefully considered reaction to questions and, in the same film, we see Eggelston taking photographs around Memphis. He wanders, camera in hand and at the ready, moving slowly whilst looking at the detail of the landscape, he homes in on a potential subject, adjusts his position one, two or three times and then shoots one frame and walks away. It is clear that his photography reflects his personality, slow, measured and thoughtful. He says that he has a personal discipline to only take one picture of one thing. He decided upon this after realising that having multiple shots of the same subject made later selection confusing and difficult. When asked what if the one shot is no good, he shrugs, it doesn’t matter.

Each composition in The Guide is completely intentional, they are the result of this process of spotting a subject, stalking it to find the right angle and finding the right composition to tell the story he sees in the subject. He would argue that he is just photographing what is there but his selection of angles and what he includes and excludes in the frame result in a careful composition that presents something that few people would have realised was there.

My overriding impression of his compositional style is one of balance. Image after image has balanced shapes and tones across the frame, spaces balance shapes as in the jigsaw in Tallahatchie County, or the car on the empty street in Southern Environs of Memphis. Shapes balance each other as in the dog drinking from a puddle in Algiers or the white man and the black man in Sumner and, in other cases, tone provides the balance such as in the low rise house in Tallahatchie County where the horizontal tones are nearly balanced in pairs.

At times this construction seems simple such as the grey door and blue flowers in Memphis, or the child’s coat in the dirty room in Near Jackson, or even the iconic tricycle in Memphis but often, as in the tricycle, the angle of view is key. Eggeston is on record as saying he was interested in unusual viewpoints and the tricycle is a good example of this idea in action with the child’s toy being made huge by the choice of angle.

So my first reaction can be summarised as careful, considered and balanced composition.

NK0_1563-eggleston-guideColour and Light

Eggleston did not accept the colours that were on offer for the amateur photographer who would use print film processed by machines, nor was he satisfied with the more niche offering to the serious amateur of Ektachrome slide film. He wanted his colours to be strong, powerful, dominant and saturated. He used dye transfer printing, previously the preserve of the advertising industry,  to give him this saturation.

As a result The Guide shows us prints with rich saturated colours, not often bright primary colours but more muted tones of brown, orange and ochre. There are, of course, exception such as the lady in a bright red and blue dress sitting on an equally bright yellow, orange and green garden seat but I think here he saw a the similarity of pattern and the contrast of colours as an integral part of the story he is telling. Overall these saturated colours and his regular use of strong contrasts such as in the empty white plastic containers set against the subdued greens and browns of the Black Bayou Plantation or the rusty tank in the same location make sure that colour is an important element of many of the images. I have never been to Mississippi but I sense that he is offering us an exaggerated palette but still a palette that represents the place. Polarised blue skies and bright green grass might seem out of place but pale, mid-day blue skies above a dusty landscape seem right.

Most of the collection is taken in natural light, and whilst a few are obviously captured with warm afternoon light or at early evening I sense that he is not especially concerned with picking the perfect time of day to capture the perfect light. This might even work against the grain of what he is doing; if every photo relied on the golden hour morning or night it might suggest that this place only existed at these times. If the shot presented itself when the sun was high and shadows were short that is when he took the shot. When there is warm light available he uses it to good effect, such as the boy in a red shirt in East Memphis or the sun light in the tree behind the woman in a white cardigan in Memphis. Indoors he uses a variety of styles, natural light from windows, the artificial house lights (giving a warm yellow orange glow) or flash. In the same way that he photographs what is there he seems happy to use the light that is there.

Subject and Narrative

Colour is important to Eggelston and is certainly not a incidental component of his images but, like his composition, colour is a means to an end. The most important component of his images is the subject. I have come to that conclusion more from reading interviews with him and seeing the BBC documentary. I believe that he set out to create art and that is why the composition and colour are fundamental to the images but his sympathetic treatment of  human subjects and his descriptive, documentary style when looking at landscape makes me believe that his is constantly putting into practice his theory of democratic photography. By treating every subject the same he makes every subject as important as his photos of his own family.

He wanted to document without comment and I believe that this is what he achieved but the lack of comment does not mean that there is a lack of narrative. It is just that he leaves the narrative to the image with just the occasional hint in the caption such as Near Extinct Wannalaw Planation which is one of my favourite images in the collection. The ramshackle house, derelict car, dirt road and watchful dog all set in a dull landscape under cloudy skies tells of a past and present with little future. Mostly we are left wondering about where the story ends but we know that we are seeing part of that story. Some images are unsettling such as the boy on the garage floor in Whitehaven or the elderly man with his gun in Morton and some ask more questions than they answer but many are warm images of friends and family.

William Eggelston took photographs of what was there, the sad, the ugly, the ordinary and the homely but, in doing so he documented a place at a moment in time so well that we have a sense of knowing it despite having less than 50 photographs upon which to visit it. His photographs were never casual and as a result they need more than a casual look to unravel but I feel that, by taking the time to look and try to see, I have learnt a lot about documentary photography.

My favourite piece in the film *(2) is when he talks about the c1976 exhibition that The Guide commemorates.  He says of the critics:

“They didn’t understand what they were looking at and it was their job to understand it.”

Sources

Books

*(1) Eggleston, Wiliam. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide, 2nd Edition, 2013 reprint, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Internet

*(3) O’Hagan, Sean. (2004) Out of the Ordinary, Guardian Newspaper. http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2004/jul/25/photography1

Film

*(2) The Colourful Mr Eggleston, (2009) Directed by Jack Cocker and Rainer Holzemer and edited by Alan Yentob for the BBC’s Imagine programme, BBC Scotland http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0TdYoithgeI

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