Tag Archives: Josef Koudelka

Revisiting Josef Koudelka’s Wall – in 1944

River Jordan 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

River Jordan 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

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

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

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

Rachel's Tomb 1944 - Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Rachel’s Tomb 1944 – Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

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

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

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

River Jordan Fishermen 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

River Jordan Fishermen 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

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

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

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

Cana of Galilee 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Cana of Galilee 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

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

 

The Good Samaritan Inn 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

The Good Samaritan Inn 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

Books

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

 

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Philip Jones Griffiths – An Engaged Observer

Bringing Home the Spoils from a Manila Rubbish Dump 1990

Bringing Home the Spoils from a Manila Rubbish Dump 1990

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

This post, to use Stuart Freedman’s *(1) phrase, is about “photo journalism as a mechanism for story telling” and about a photographer, Philip Jones Griffiths, who the Getty Museum included in a group of what they called Engaged Observers *(2) and who Magnum would call Concerned Photographers. The Getty grouping is a little arbitrary but the work of these practitioners is part of a common thread that runs through contemporary narrative photography that is initially captured or subsequently published in the context of photo journalism. These photographers have identified so closely with their subjects, become so totally absorbed in their projects and become so involved with the narrative that they have become part of the story they set out to tell. The Getty Museum also included W. Eugene Smith and Aileen M Smith in the same grouping but I have already discussed their work in WW2 to Minamato.

Harold Evans *(3) argues that a picture or photo essay is not confined to a single event or even by time, it addresses a broad subject and argues and analyses more than it narrates. It sets out to make a point. I have selected Jones Griffiths and the Smiths because each have produced at least one major work that sets out to fundamentally change the view about an important subject. Maria Short, in Context and Narrative *(4), quotes Karin Becker Ohrn as defining documentary photography in Dorothea Lange and the Documentary Tradition as:

“The Photographer’s goal was to bring the attention of the audience to the subject of his or her work and, in many cases, to pave the way for social change.”

This definition would have found favour with Philip Jones Griffiths who believed that his role as a concerned photographer and photo journalist was to “draw attention” *(5). Whilst holding the Presidency of Magnum in the 1980s he promoted the philosophy that, because of the institutional status the agency enjoyed, it had a responsibility not to give people what they wanted to see, but what the Magnum photographers wanted them to see. He believed that Magnum had survived because its photo journalists had something to say and who said it with independence and integrity *(5). But nearing the end of his life in 2008 he was deeply concerned that Magnum and the world of photo journalism in general was “dumbing down” partly because the audience was swamped with so many images from every imaginable source that the powerful and important images were losing their effect and partly because professional photographers had become “addicted to triviality”. This later quote might have been specifically directed at Martin Parr whose membership of Magnum he bitterly opposed.

This question of whether photo journalism and documentary photography has been dumbed down is a theme picked up by Stuart Freedman *(1). His concern is that too many photo journalists are “shooting visual clichés of suffering because it sells and advances their careers.” He finds common ground with the Jones Griffiths’ philosophy when he argues that the true photo journalist must look at the stories that they want to make not the stories that editors ask for otherwise they are merely providing pictures for someone else’s stories. So, we can establish one clear attribute of photo journalism, at least in the eyes of these two recognised practitioners, the photo journalist is telling the story not illustrating it.

Freedman discusses a second attribute that David Campbell quotes Tod Pappageorge summarising as:

“if your photographs aren’t good enough you aren”t reading enough” *(6).

This speaks of the photographer’s depth of understanding. The argument that superficial research leads to superficial photographs and that to tell a story the photographer must have acquired or developed an intimate understanding of their subject. Many established photo journalists express their concern that too many young photographers are chasing blockbuster, award winning, single images before quickly moving on to their next subject. Freedman calls for story telling to be “as rigourous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution” *(1) and, whilst he said this in the context of photo journalism, it is equally relevant to documentary photography and any other form of serious narrative.

As discussed elsewhere the power of Julian Germain’s For Every Minute you are Angry you lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness lies in his total engagement with the subject. In that instance his deep knowledge came from investing time over many years because he enjoyed his subject’s company and not because he saw him as a project. Josef Koudelka’s Wall is moving because, having been born in a place that ended up behind the Iron Curtain, he instinctively understands the emotional impact of arbitrarily imposing a divisive structure on a landscape. As I will come onto discussing, Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. is considered to be one of the most important books about that war or war in general because he went native and left many other war photographers in the bars of Saigon waiting for the next US Army briefing. He became engaged with the Vietnamese people whom he saw had much in common with the Welsh and through this engagement over an extended period of time he grew to understand them and felt empowered to tell their story. Robert Capa said “Like the people you shoot and let them know it”.

This can all be summarised by saying great documentary or journalistic narrative has three key attributes:

  • The photo journalist is telling a story that they believe is worth telling;
  • The story will be based on an in-depth understanding of the subject;
  • It will be beautiful in construction and execution.

These principles set a high standard to aspire to but Philip Jones Griffiths, whose work is discussed below, has been part of the history of the concerned photography movement that set the bar at this olympic height. However, by focussing on the greats of the industry there is a risk that we measure the importance of a story on a national or global scale and this would be a mistake. Julian Germain in Sixty Seconds and more recently in Classroom Portraits, Richard Billingham in Ray’s a Laugh, Martin Parr in The Last Resort and Think of England all show that powerful and important narrative can be created close to, or even in the, home.

Philip Jones Griffiths – Vietnam Inc.

In 1966 Philip Jones Griffiths decided to focus all his energy on a single grand project; in an interview for Photo Histories * (5) he said that he more or less decided that he needed to “get passionate” about something. The something was the Vietnam war and the end result was Vietnam Inc. The project took three years of in-country journalism in which time Jones Griffiths moved further and further away from reporting the war as the Americans with white hats defending democracy from the evil of communism. This meant that Magnum could not sell his photographs to the American media but, once published in Vietnam Inc., they became an important factor in changing opinions both at home in the USA and abroad. In its obituary for Jones Griffiths The Independent newspaper *(7) is one of many reviews to describe Vietnam Inc. as the single most important book about the Vietnam War, the most important photo book of the 1970s and goes on to argue that its publication changed photo journalism for ever.

The significant change was that it placed the photographer’s own experiences at the centre of the story, the photographs are highly subjective because of his choice of subject, he is expressing his own anguish by concentrating on the impact of the war on, not just on the Vietnamese but also on the young American soldiers who seem to be blundering around in an alien land fighting people and a political system they don’t understand and defending an American backed regime that is equally complex and baffling.

This book is a broad, sweeping narrative with many sub-themes within its overriding anti-war message. Jones Griffiths sent pithy and acerbic captions back to Magnum along with his photos and together they create a complex and detailed narrative of the war. Even now, nearly 40 years after the war ended, it is easy to understand why this book changed attitudes in America because it humanises the conflict. We are introduced to rural Vietnam, to pretty women farmers, children with the family buffalo (South East Asia’s tractor), families in their homes, fishermen on their boats, but these images of a rural idyll are punctuated with photos of shell holes and dead Vietcong. The American military is shown imposed on the landscape, heavily laden soldiers wading past farmers in their paddy fields, strangers in a strange land. We see  homesick, American soldiers holding Vietnamese children and talking to villagers but we are made aware that the context was not wholly philanthropical and often part of an attempt to Americanise the locals by introducing them to Disney films, toilet seats and filter tipped cigarettes.

I expected to see dark photos, similar perhaps to Josef Koudelka or Don McCullin, but Jones Griffiths has given us beautifully composed, bright prints to the extent that some could be taken out of context and used in a black and white Lonely Planet travel guide. He presumably didn’t feel that he had to hammer home the message with dark gritty images, he used all his artistic flair to present us with the beauty of the land and its people, the handsome young marines and the ugly scars and terrible effects of war. Jones Griffiths was a political being and this is a political book, he wants us to be shocked and to question what are we seeing and why is it happening ? How can an American marine point his automatic rifle at a mother holding her beautiful baby who is staring at the camera with solemn eyes like a miniature Chinese Emperor? What chain of events led the marine to this village and how had he reached the point where he could casually allow his gun to point at these people in front of a British journalist. Even though his stance is non aggressive I found this casual disregard for basic firearms safety as deeply concerning as the more horrific pictures because it talks of the man’s state of mind where things he could not image doing in Missouri or California or on the firing range are acceptable behaviour in Vietnam.

Phillip Jones Griffiths made no secret of his views and his captions are often highly loaded and critical. After its publication he talked extensively about his motives and the misguided policies of the American Government. He wanted the Americans to ask why their politicians thought it made sense to fight alongside people whose motives, culture and language they didn’t understand against an enemy who was equally enigmatic in an alien landscape on the other side of the world. This message is the overriding theme of the photographs, in simple terms, what are we doing here?

I chose Philip Jones Griffiths as an example of the engaged observer or concerned photographer for a number of reasons. Firstly because, as I said in my introduction, he became part of the story he was telling, secondly because Vietnam Inc. is the very definition of making photographs with the intent of achieving social or political change and lastly because although he is best remembered for his grand project he showed in his work on the Philippines *(9) and many other places that his empathy with distressed people came from his deeply held personal convictions and not because he could spot a global headline.

Sources

Books

(3) Evans, Harold. (1979) Pictures on a Page: Photo-journalism, Graphics and Picture Editing. London: Book Club Associates.

(4) Short, Maria. (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVa Publishing.

(8) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.

Internet

(1) Freedman, Stuart. (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism – http://www.epuk.org/The-Curve/952/ethics-and-photojournalism

(2) Getty Museum – Engaged Observers: Documentary Photography Since the Sixties, Photographic Essays – http://www.getty.edu/news/press/engaged_observers/photographic_essays.pdf

(5) Photo Histories (August 2014) – Philip Jones Griffiths – http://www.photohistories.com/interviews/23/philip-jones-griffiths

(6) Campbell, David. (2010) Photography and narrative: What is involved in telling a story? – http://www.david-campbell.org/2010/11/18/photography-and-narrative/

(7) The Independent (March 2008 ) Philip Jones Griffiths: Photographer whose Vietnam images changed photojournalism – http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/philip-jones-griffiths-photographer-whose-vietnam-images-changed-photojournalism-799333.html

(9) Jones Griffiths, Philip – Garbage dump in the Philippines.1996 – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2S5RYDYUP9O7

(8) Jones. Griffiths, Philip – Magnum – https://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K7O3RP3N9U

 

The Role of Olive Trees in Koudelka’s Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josef Koudelka – Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

Books

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

Internet

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

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

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

Stephen Shore – From Galilee to the Negev

Israel 1/80 at f/9, ISO 100

Israel 1/80 at f/9, ISO 100

This Place

In 2006 Frédéric Brenner *(1) launched This Place, a photographic project involving 12, internationally renowned photographers to document a single small place – Isreal. It has been compared with the Mission Heliographique which set out to record France in 1851 and it is undoubtably one of the most ambitious documentaries ever undertaken by still photographers. For four years between 2009 and 2012 this group of photographers, mostly operated independently of each other, compiled very personal accounts of this troubled land. Brenner’s own book, An Archeology of Fear and Desire *(2) has been published by MACK and extracts can be found in several places including his own website at FredericBrenner.com *(1)

In an interview with the NY Times *(7) Brenner explains that he was partly motivated by the binary way in which Israel is portrayed, “for and against, victim and perpetrator” and that this had led to a lack of complexity when describing the place. The tone for This Place is best summarised by another Frédéric Brenner quotation from the New York Times article *(7):

“I did not bring people here to see the land of milk and honey. I brought them here to see the land that devours its inhabitants.”

As well as Brenner the photographers include Josef Koudelka, Jungjin Lee, Stephen Shore, Rosalind Solomon, Thomas Struth, Fazal Sheikh, Wendy Ewald, Nick Waplington, Martin Kollar, Gilles Peress, and Jeff Wall.

Charlotte Cotton is the curator of the This Place Exhibition opening in Prague and touring to Israel and the USA  but unfortunately not to the UK. Speaking of the exhibition she says  “Each artist has created a profound and personal narration of Israel and the West Bank, that, collectively, act as a series of guides, leading the viewer into a deeper identification with the complexities and conflicts of the Holy Land.” *(3) and this summarises my reaction to From Galilee to Negev *(9), I do feel I have been led towards a deeper understanding.

From Galilee to the Negev

I am from a generation of Englishmen that was taught Bible stories alongside history and geography as entirely factual subjects. Looking back it is obvious that we were taught history by people born during the days of Empire, we used atlases that still showed great swaths of the world coloured pink and Bible stories were so intertwined with the rest of our early education that, for many years, I though a “green hill outside a city wall” was where they were, then, building Guildford Cathedral.

Many of us have therefore grown up with a seemingly intimate knowledge of a tiny and confusing country clinging to the edge of the African continent to such an extent that many children would more readily  recognise the tribal names of the Philistines or the Samaritans than the Caledones or the Atrebates. My father finished the last war in Palestine and told stories of a frightening but beautiful place and I have spent a lot of time in Tel Aviv working alongside and negotiating with Israelis, yet I have no real sense of the place because when we look at Israel and the West Bank it is through a screen of attention-grabbing pictures of conflict and confrontation, of argument and stubbornness, of failed negotiations and broken promises since the 1940s until the six day war and right up to, literally, the present day, today. Occasionally something reveals itself behind the screen but, even then, it is often too distorted and out of focus for us to grasp its meaning.

Stephen Shore sets out, and to an extent manages, to push a corner of that screen aside and reveal a glimpse, nothing more, of this ancient land and its modern people. In an interview with ASX:TV *(4) he says that he is trying to “come to terms with what is essential about a place that’s visually accessible” but that he recognised that this was a more charged subject matter than he was used to. The challenge that Shore had was to avoid making a political statement but, in practice, this is one of the most politicised  places on the planet and Shore’s idiosyncratic style of recording the banal was always going to result in photographs that are charged with politics. Steve Sabella *(5), one of the essayists, speaks to this point when he says that his reading of the photographs may not necessarily originate from the image itself but what it might trigger him to think about. The political message we choose to take from his pictures will vary depending, as ever, on our background, education, faith (or lack of it), age, politics and all the other contextual baggage the viewer always brings to a photograph but, regardless of how they interpret the images many people will feel changed by this book.

Shore’s photographs are punctuated by essays from various writers and artists who have each selected a single image to discuss and these essays are often the key to understanding parts of the series. Shore tells us that a lot of the photographs, if not all of them, have a sub-text but without the essays few viewers would find more than a handful of the sub-texts and even then many of the hidden meanings remain hidden. There is more clarity in the overall structural theme which starts by putting Israel into the context of its ancient history before introducing the  vast and untamed wilderness of the land, closing in to show man’s impact on the landscape, moving closer still to see the ugly urbanisation and then on to investigating ordinary people and the trivia of their ordinary lives. Because the book is ultimately a travelogue that spans the length and breath of this sliver of a country this sequence is generally repeated as Shore investigates each of the four main regions.

Archeology plays such a leading role in this book that I intend to base much much of this essay on how Shore deals with and uses that subject. The first set of plates, which set the scene for the whole collection, reminded me of the Walter Benjamin question  “Will not the caption become the most important part of the photograph?”. Shore has included part of a set of his photographs from 1994 of a dig at Ashqelon, a site close to the coast,  just north of Gaza and south of Tel Aviv. They are simple photos, recordings of pottery, walls, trenches and a well but, for each, he has included a caption taken from the notes written on the back of each photograph by the professor supervising the dig. These captions lead us from the Canaanite Kings to Nebuchadnezzar, from the remains of monumental buildings to water supplies, from simple household utensils to the destruction of ancient city walls. We are pulled back to 1994 to be reminded that this single place, a spot on the map, has been settled and fought over for at least four thousand years. It is representative of a land that has seen occupation by the Canaanites, Philistines, Babylonians, Amorites, Assyrians, Persians, Israelites, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Mamlukes, Ottomans, Palestinians, British and Israelis and probably many others. The photographs are a metaphor for the substance of the book, monumental places and monumental events have ordinary people living ordinary lives inside.

Archeology is re-introduced to the plot with a photograph of an unusual poster found in an Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem. The poster shows archeologists at work but labels them as “grave robbers” and orthodox jews protesting and the reaction of the police who are labeled as “butchers”. The sub-text, and the use of archaeology as a subject of both text and images, is that this science that,by excavating ancient Israelite settlements, was used as part of the justification for the creation of the state has become an example of the deep divides that exist within the Jewish population. The Ultra-Orthodox community believe in physical reincarnation, hence the protests captured on the poster, and as their political power is in the ascendency archeology is being increasingly marginalised and important sites vandalised. A metaphor within a metaphor perhaps but the one science that can offer an unambiguous picture of history, uncoloured by religious myth or the histories written by the victors is being suppressed.

One of the more powerful photographs in the book is of a small, ugly and complex house in an Arab village. As a house it is only remarkable for its muddled architecture and apparantly unplanned development but as a piece of living archaeology it is a history book describing two hundred years of modifications that have been made to an old, stone, Arab house by successive generations of inhabitants. We cannot know whether it is the same family that have added and generally not quite finished each phase of development or whether people have come and gone on this site but which ever is the case, this humble home for ordinary people, was probably first built during the days of the Ottoman Empire and as the great events of history have swirled  around it successive occupants have added a bit here and adapted a bit there, sometimes following the latest fashions and sometimes just being practical. Analog television came, better aerials arrived, satellite took over and better, bigger dishes became available but all these generations of equipment for watching the news and soaps and sport have been left up there on the roof, a museum exhibit of broadcasting. Shore says that “life there includes the conflict but it is far more than the conflict” and this little house shows how wave after wave of ordinary people have just got on with their lives by adding another bedroom or putting in a new window or getting a better signal to watch the football.

Everywhere is shaped by its history, the British Isles has a few communities that feel driven to fight yesterday’s wars but Galilee to Negrev describes a place that is not just shaped but shackled by the multiple histories of different groups. One group’s big history is another group’s minor event  and each group is so self absorbed in the distress of their own history that they forget the recent history of their feuding neighbour. There is a set of four aerial photographs of ruins, archaeological sites would be the obvious thought, taken to the South West of Tel Aviv. It seems unlikely that Shore knew what he was photographing from the low flying helicopter he was travelling in and it appears that the Isreali Government, who were hosting the trip, had forgotten what a select group of foreign dignitaries and journalists were being flown over. Eyal Weizman, another of Shore’s essayists choses one of these photos not just to write about but to investigate. He explains his path of research and concludes that these ruins are not Greek or Roman but the remains of a Palestinian village forcibly cleared by the Israelis when they took possession of this land in the late 1940s.

Perhaps Shore has focussed on archeology as emblematic of a region steeped in ancient history as a way of reminding the viewer that nothing lasts for ever but that the successive occupants of this land have left their mark and are even now leaving their mark. In the valley of Zin he presents eleven small images of found objects, pieces of modern debris that might last long enough in the dessert to be excavated in another age and this style of presentation sets the tone for the last sections of the book with a close-up investigation of Shivta, the ruined Nabatean city in the Negev. also presented as a series of small prints. Many are of ordinary everyday things, a mill stone, perhaps used to make olive oil, a rain gutter, storage pits and door frames but this develops into pieces of more monumental architecture and the book feels as if it has turned full circle to show that ordinary people lived here as part of great civilisations but now they are lost and scattered like the stones of their buildings.

The Photography

This book is vast, over 200 plates, and is a slow book. It has taken me several evenings to work my way thought it, going back and forth as new pieces of information become available allowing a better understanding of an earlier image.

The essays make compelling reading and I was steadily drawn into the narrative. However, this level of engagement with Shore’s subject was a pleasant surprise. I had ordered Galilee to Negev because it was Shore’s latest major publication and because it was about 40 years on from Uncommon Places which I reviewed some months ago. I was intrigued to find out how much his style has changed and whether he saw the world differently after all this time. This is undoubtably an old man’s topic, young people are (quite rightly) interested in now, not then and certainly nothing bores the young more quickly that a comparison between now and then.

The continuity in Shore’s style is quite remarkable, most of the landscapes are still taken with an 8 x10 camera although he says he fell in love with the digital camera he used for the shots of daily life.  The overall presentation of the books are very similar and it would be possible to swap a few of the plates between the publications without them appearing too out of place. There is still the occasional meal with humous replacing pancakes but note the regional flavour of these meals, the landscapes are mostly quite clearly Israel or middle America but he still offers pale skies and angles that exaggerate the scale of open spaces. He still introduces the viewer to the people he meets along the way and the street scenes in Galilee to Negev are composed in the same style as Uncommon Places.

We know that, between Uncommon Places and Galilee Stephen Shore has experimented with digital books, new technologies and different ways of presenting his images so it is interesting that he has returned to his best known and most iconic style when asked to join this project. I interpret this as an indication of the level of respect that he had for the concept and the importance he placed on obtaining the most compelling result possible. This was not a place for experimentation so he dusted off his 8 x 10 and brought that peculiar Stephen Shore eye to a tormented but very special place.

Sources

Books

(9) Shore, Stephen. (2014) From Galilee to Negev. New York: Phaidon.

(2) Brenner, Frédéric. (2014) An Archeology of Fear and Desire. Mack Books – http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/1024-An-Archeology-of-Fear-and-Desire.html

Internet

BJB On-Line – Stephen Shore’s New Book – http://www.bjp-online.com/2014/05/stephen-shores-new-book/

(1) Brenner, Frédéric. Frédéric Brenner Official Web-Site – http://www.fredericbrenner.com/archeology-of-fear-and-desire/2xv80i99p9auggl3mchke43r82w3le

Brenner, Frédéric. Frédéric Brenner Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/fredericbrennerphotographer/timeline

New York Times – Lens Blog – Josef Koudelka: Formed by the World – http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/josef-koudelka-formed-by-the-world/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

The Times of Israel – Portraits of a Many Layered Country – http://www.timesofisrael.com/portraits-of-a-many-layered-country/

(3) Time Lightbox. Picturing the Holy Land: 12 Photographers Chart a Region’s Complexities. – http://lightbox.time.com/2014/04/16/west-bank-israel-photos/#1

(4) ASX:TV. Stephen Shore in Conversation (2014) – http://www.americansuburbx.com/2014/05/asx-tv-stephen-shore-in-conversation-2014.html

(5) Sabella, Steve. Steve Sabella Official Website – http://stevesabella.com

(6) Goldsmiths University of London – Eyal Weizman – http://www.gold.ac.uk/visual-cultures/w-eizman/

(7) New York Times – Top Photographers Try Looking at Israel From New Angles – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/world/middleeast/photography-project-seeks-new-angles-on-israel.html?_r=2&

(8) Photo-Eye Blog – Interview: Stephen Shore on a New York Minute and From Galilee to the Negev – http://blog.photoeye.com/2014/03/interview-stephen-shore-on-new-york.html

Steal Like an Artist and an Audience with Anna Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Fox Leaving Day 2010

Anna Fox Leaving Day 2010

Anna Fox Wooden Donkeys 2011

Anna Fox Wooden Donkeys 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The list is longer but the point is made.

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

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

Assignment 2 Tutor Feedback and Reflection

I have received my tutor’s feedback on assignment 2. It is included below along with my comments, reactions and reflections. The assignment was submitted on 14th February and the feedback was received back on the 2nd April. I have quite obviously covered a lot of ground in the intervening 6 weeks so a number of feedback comments have been overtaken by events.

” Overall Comments

Again this was another strong submission Steve, including a diverse range of imagery from the Turks and Caicos Islands.

 The issues raised in the previous report are as follows:

  • Further consider the Monochrome versus Colour debate
  • Look at the work of Josef Koudelka in particular relation to image composition.

I can see you have responded very well to this feedback and enjoyed reading about your thoughts on Koudelka (and here and here and here) posted on the blog.

Feedback on assignment

This was a strong series of images Steve, which took the opportunity to develop a themed body of work via a place already full of visual interest.  From a technical perspective I couldn’t really see much wrong with the way in which you construct an image IE: Composition / focus / exposure etc. I do think some worked better than others in my opinion … I’d guess others would have a different opinion though. ”

A Combination of Vertical and Horizontal Lines

Fig. 01 – A Combination of Vertical and Horizontal Lines (Fig. 4 from submission)

” The imagery that stood out for me was as follows: Fig. 4 – Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point. ”

Distinct Shapes

Fig. 02 – Distinct Shapes (Fig. 10 from submission)

” Fig. 10 – Cruise Ship Through Ruin ”

Rhythm

Fig. 03 – Rhythm (Fig. 13 from submission)

” Fig. 13 – Bottles.  This was not to say the other imagery didn’t answer the brief, but just these images stood out for me with the beer bottle on the left of the first step of fig. 04 being the ‘Punctum’ for me personally. “

Response

The “cruise ship through ruin” always felt like one of the strongest images because it had so many graphic design elements to go with the colour and the juxtaposition of the cruise liner on a perfect sea with the ruined building.

I can see why the bottles in fig 13 attracted particular attention as the subject was odd, I felt that this image was the nearest I came to capturing the unusual hidden in full view and, as I said in my submission, it made me feel that I could have created a more interesting set if I had “found” William Eggleston and Stephen Shore before, rather than after the trip. I believe that my subsequent study of Eggleston, Shore, Ray-Jones and Parr have helped me improve my observation skills and become more alert to potential subjects.

It is interesting that “The Ruined Mansion at Emerald Point” appealed and why it appealed. The beer bottle was the special feature for me as well and the sense of something very normal having happened here in the recent past made the ruin more intriguing as it has moved from a millionaire’s holiday retreat to a ruin and appeared to now have a role as a place for someone to sit and drink beer but instead of throwing the bottle onto the piles of rubbish they had carefully placed it on the step.. 

” I thought the idea of exploring this island was already ahead of the game in terms of visual interest. Many of these assignment submissions come in and do not really leave any kind of comfort zone. That is not to say that a series of images must be shot in an exotic location to be of interest … probably the opposite actually, once you scrape the surface.  I did find that the images that intrigued me the most made reference to an area of abandonment or former glory IE: Fig 04 or Fig 10. I think this might have been the theme to explore as many of these relatively new tourist locations have a hidden or unseen past to explore, with deep significance. “

Response

I am in total agreement and the idea that developed on location was exactly that. I initially wanted to bring together a combination of ruins, abandonment, new developments,  the degeneration of new and old and the restored and unrestored historic colonial buildings to paint a picture of flawed progress. However, and I see this as the fundamental challenge of these assignments, instead of selecting 15 images that told this story I had to find 15 images that told this story and “ticked off” the various design elements. In editing I had to choose between the story, the strongest images and exhibiting the design elements and these objectives were often mutually exclusive.

To satisfy my own need for the story I pursued three themes in parallel. I looked for the design elements, I worked towards a study of degeneration  and looked for ways to document the islands without producing a cliché ridden travel guide. (here and here)

In a few cases the three objectives intersected and where that happened I captured the strongest images in the submission. I didn’t want to shoehorn in an image that fitted the theme of the series when it was a weak answer to the design criteria but I also felt uncomfortable broadening the series to include images that fitted the criteria but were not as strong in terms of the theme.

I do not intend to use this as an excuse to ignore the assignment or to argue that my work would have reached great heights if only I had not been constrained of the assignment. The test is to present strong images, tell the story and meet the criteria. However, I am close to completing my shoots for assignment 3 and know that the images collected so far are tending to place theme above the perfect completion of the assignment criteria so only time will tell whether that is a step in the right direction in terms of feedback and assessment.

Implied Triangle

Fig 04 – Implied Triangle The Conch Fisherman

” I also liked the action portrait of the Conch fisherman, but felt this might have worked better if it had been shot deliberately, with collaboration, in a setting where the background gave significance or context to the image. “

Response

Point taken and accepted. I took half a dozen pictures of this chap and whilst he was willing to chat about his trade and was quite friendly I’m not sure whether I could have tempted him to collaborate. The resident population, or “belongers” as they call themselves, are not especially comfortable with tourists who presumably might be called  “unbelongers”. I recently watched the excellent Bill Nighy drama “Turks and Caicos” and the point was made there that the locals just clean up after rich tourists. 

But, back to the point. I could have used one of the following shots of the same man as these contain far more context but de-power the design element but this does raise another issue which I struggled with when editing the series. In his feedback to assignment 1 my tutor suggested that I should not mix the aspect of my prints, i.e. do not mix horizontal aspect and vertical aspect prints in the same submission. I subsequently used the OCA forum to ask whether this was the general view. The tutors on the forum did express the same view so all of assignment 2 was presented as horizontal aspect prints.

I am still struggling with this inferred rule. Whilst I recognise that the majority of photo books have a consistent format there are many examples where the occasional vertical or square aspect is included in a book of horizontal aspect prints. I also noted that David Bailey did not feel constrained in his Stardust Exhibition where he mixed vertical and horizontal on the same wall or where he created photo montages of related prints in single frames that included square, vertical and horizontal.

If I had not felt bound by this inferred rule I would have used 2 or 3 vertical prints including fig. 05 below.

Fig. 05 Conch Fisherman - 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 05 Conch Fisherman – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 06 Conch Fishermen - 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 06 Conch Fishermen – 1/500 at f/8, ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

” When you look at a series of images and one makes you stop, this can be referred to in terms of what Roland Barthes would call ‘Studium’ or a general enthusiasm or interest assigned to an image. This is as opposed to something that might be classed as a rare detail or piercing moment of either pain or delight, which Barthes would term ‘Punctum’.  I have listed a publication below by Barthes entitled Camera Lucida, which I urge you to read in relation to developing your photographic critical position.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

The Blog is working very well for you and you appear to be updating it regularly, which is excellent. It is very easy to navigate and contains some really strong and diverse research, which is excellent at this stage of the degree. Just check the spelling of the ‘Bibliography’ link.

Suggested reading/viewing

Parr, M.2004:Think of England. London. Phaidon Press Ltd.  (see follow up work here)

ISBN-13:978 – 0714844541

Eggleston, W.2002: William Eggleston’s Guide. New York. MOMA Press  (see follow up work here)

ISBN-13: 978-0870703782

Shore, S.2004: Uncommon Places. London. Thames & Hudson  (see follow up work here and here)

ISBN-13: 978-0500542873

Barthes, Roland.1993: Camera Lucida. Vintage Classics. London. (see follow up work here)

ISBN 13: 978-0099225416

Response

I also felt that leading into assignment 3 was the right time to explore Martin Parr. I have seen extracts from “Think of England” in Val William’s book on Martin Parr and have ordered “Think of England” but it is currently out of stock at Amazon. I have completed a review of “The Last Resort” (here) and although my choice of subject for assignment 3 is quite a long way from Parr’s style his approach has helped me understand the key role that observational skills play in photography.

 In his feedback on assignment 1 my tutor suggested that I start to research the banal and this of course quickly led me to William Eggleston and the new colour movement. I have already completed my shoots for assignment 2 when I received this advice but I have spent a lot of time researching Eggelston (here and here) and that led me to Stephen Shore and Uncommon Places (here) and ultimately to Tony Ray-Jones (here) and Martin Parr (here)

” Pointers for the next assignment

Apologies about the late response regarding this feedback, as I note you already have looked at some of these practitioners in relation to assignment 3. Anyway ….. please use the following to inform assignment 03 – Martin Parr, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Parr is a well known Magnum Photographer, so it may also serve you well to try and become acquainted with what the Magnum Photo Agency [http://www.magnumphotos.com] is all about. The other two [Eggleston & Shore] are very important American photographers especially in relation to the use of ‘Colour Photography’.

Eggleston in particular is cited as being the photographer who introduced the art world to Colour Photography, with his ground breaking exhibition at MOMA in New York in 1976.  Prior to this, most serious photography had been monochrome.

Lastly, regarding work already conducted on assignment 3 – in relation to reflections / portraits, please see the work Tom Wood conducted from Merseyside buses in the 1980’s called ‘All Zones Off Peak’.

I hope this is of help to you Steve and I look forward to your next assignment.

Response

Very helpful pointers and I sense that Parr, Eggleston and Shore are ideal influences at this stage. I have used the Magnum site extensively as it bypasses the frustrations of general image searches on the internet where separating the wheat from the chaff is laborious and frustrating.  Magnum has two massive advantages, they are all photographers at the top of their profession and the site has a powerful search engine so it is very easy to focus in on a single topic across many practitioners. They also provide a historical and contemporary cross section of styles so it is possible to find very different approaches to the same subject.

I will certainly look into Tom Wood, I did see some of his work when I helped take a school party to London last year but I will now search out images from “All Zones Off Peak”. It is too expensive to buy a copy as it is currently showing on Amazon at £165.

Overall Reflective Comments

I would obviously have been happier if more of the submission images had made the “short list”, 4 out of 15 seems a poor hit rate, but looking back on the submission six weeks down the track I fully accept that they were not all strong enough and, if I was to assess them now I would have only added 1 or 2 more to the “short list”. As mentioned above, I feel the key is to ensure the theme and what I want to say is given priority over ticking off the assignment criteria and I need to push further out to test where this takes me. 

There are a lot of lessons to be learnt from my tutor’s remarks and whilst I have collected plenty of test shots and have some potential final images for assignment 3 there is still plenty of time to use his guidance to good effect. 

Eggleston, Shore, Ray-Jones and Parr are influencing the way I observe but I am not seeing a clear influence coming through in my photos. There are fleeting glimpses of the way they see and capture the world in a some very isolated examples of the pictures I have taken in the last month so hope still springs eternal. I would have given myself a better chance of showing their influence more directly if I had chosen a different subject for assignment 3 as I have not come across many reflections or mannequins in their work.