Tag Archives: Lewis W Hine

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

Advertisements

Assignment 1 – Reflection and Objectives Going Forward

I found Assignment 1 to be challenging partly because I am quite literal by nature and nurture, forty years in IT has to have some effect.

To try and overcome this limitation I spent a lot of time thinking about and planning this project. I found that slowly leafing through the work of several photographs helped. I have mentioned Camilo José Vergara as a specific inspiration for my pair of graffiti images and, although I did not use the images as part of the assignment, I took several photographs in Aldershot that were influenced by his work.

Sweet Shop - 1/100 at f/8, ISO 125, 24 - 70mm zoom lens at 56mm

Sweet Shop – 1/100 at f/8, ISO 125, 24 – 70mm zoom lens at 56mm

Sweet shop is one of those photographs and shows two Nepalis outside an Asian fast food shop in Aldershot.

One of my earliest ideas was to base many of the images around an industrial theme. This led me to seek out artists who had used this theme extensively and this took me to Lewis W. Hine. I found a copy of  “Women at Work” second hand but I’m still looking for an affordable copy of “Men at Work”.

Hine’s work is remarkable, in his introduction to Women at Work, Jonathan L. Doherty points out that Hine saw the American Worker as a heroic figure.  Many of his photographs focus on the skill and application of his female subjects even though he is known to have held strong views on poverty and exploitation. As a result his images are very positive, I do not believe that he intends us to feel sorry for the workers, he wants us to see them as people with ability and strength, to celebrate and admire them.

I sought out Hine to see how he photographed machines but came away more influenced by the way he portrayed people in a positive light even if their circumstances were clearly unsatisfactory. An example of this is “Italian Immigrant, East Side, New York City 1910” which is of a women in a run-down district, carrying a heavy load but instead of this being a depressing image it emphasises her strength and purpose. His ability to emphasise the positives has made me think more deeply about street photography and how important it is not to fall into the trap of type casting people by the way you photograph them.

Overall I spent a lot of time looking at black and white photos from great photographers but lacked the confidence to bring much black and white to the assignment. My trip to the military cemetery in Aldershot was to look for many and few or large and small contrasts. I thought the gravestones and the memorials might offer these comparisons. But, I also thought that the older sections would provide strong gothic images that would work well in black and white so I could include this technique in my final set.

I think I captured several images that fitted those criteria but in every case I preferred the colour version.

Grave of a Small Child - 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child – 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child - 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Grave of a Small Child – 1/100 at f/3.2, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel - 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel – 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel - 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

Little Angel – 1/100 at f/4.5, ISO 100, 105mm prime lens

I found Michael Freeman’s Black and White Photography Field Guide immensely helpful and looking at the work of Henri Cartier Bresson, Lewis W. Hine and Ansel Adams is also a great help but I have to make major step up in terms of technique to produce even average results in black and white.

As a result only high and low had a monochrome element and I feel those images have several processing flaws. I have asked myself why I included them if I knew they were flawed but I like them as images and believe a “good” print is hidden in there but that I don’t have the black and white processing skills to extract it. It is therefore helpful to post them as a marker that I can look back on to measure whether I am improving these skills.

My first objective moving forward is to improve my ability to capture and print work in black and white so that I am confident to present it in an assignment.

I am very conscious that I lost momentum in the course of completing this assignment. I knew that my instinct would be to produce very literal representations of the contrasts and therefore spent a lot of time looking at the potential meanings of the words, brainstorming ideas, planning locations, taking and analysing test shots and selecting images. This all sounds very positive and it would be easy to spin it as a diligent and efficient process but it wasn’t.

I actually used very few of the dozens and dozens of ideas I had on my mind maps. I spent a second day at Milestones Museum to get one usable image and know that most of the unplanned “test” shots were better than the planned versions. In reality the process was flawed and it took at least three weeks of elapsed time before I changed tack. I was far more effective when I picked locations that might offer opportunity and just went out and took photographs or by just having my camera with me when I had to be in places for other reasons. Italy, MC Motors, Salisbury and The South Bank were all places I went to for work or social reasons; the three locations I used in Aldershot were more planned and the trampoline photos in our back garden were staged.

Overall I feel that I have been working on this assignment for far too long, I was defiantly bogged down and have my daughter, who teaches photography, to thank for getting me out of a lot of blind alleys and onto a clearer path. It is hard to define exactly what I need to do to address this going forward but I do not want to move steadily through the exercises and then stall when I reach the assignments.

My current thoughts are that I need to carefully manage the time spent planning and the amount of process and get out there with a camera more quickly. I feel that my best work was when I put myself in a good location, with the assignment objectives in my mind, and just took photographs that felt right. By doing this I took some photos that I liked but that didn’t fit the assignment but also found photos that did both.

The desk work that really did help was looking at top photographer’s work. Looking at the thousands of images that Google can find only helped to confuse the issue. I need to focus my attention on gaining inspiration from great photographers and to strive to learn from their skills. Although it didn’t directly impact the assignment I felt that reviewing Vergara’s work on a Saturday led to me taking better photos on Sunday morning.

My second objective is to focus my research on gaining inspiration as a creative fuel and to use this fuel by moving quickly to capturing images.

Sources:

Hine, Lewis H. (1981) Women at Work. New York, Dover Publications

Exercise 12 – Cropping

Fig 1 - Druid Original Image 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Fig 1 – Druid Original Image – 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Exercise 12 requires the re-cropping of a selection of existing photographs.

I endeavoured to select a variety of different subject types and to to try one or two different crops on each one.

This is an interesting exercise as it  forced me to look again at a small selection of old images. I did not want to just look at recent photographs and as a result they range from 2000 to 2012.

I have mostly restricted myself to 3:2 or square proportions whether landscape or portrait. The exception are two faux panoramic crops. I am questioning whether using traditional proportions is a sign of a lack of creativity or force of habit. Rightly or wrongly I have always cropped to 3:2 or square. This might be a bit of OCD, or we used to have the cardboard cropping guides to mark up 35mm transparencies for printing and they only worked in these proportions.

At the end of the exercise I can see that there were better crops available for at least 2 of the 4 images so I am clearly looking at these photographs in a different way. More telling was that I found a different and previously un-edited original of the sardine chef that would have be a much better edited image back in 2000. I see this as as more fundamental shift in my ideas, I was always seeking perfections and would exclude things from the frame that spoilt the image I wanted to see. I now realise that the litter on the ground, or in the case of the sardine image, the chef having a cigarette in the background, are the imperfections that potentially make the image. Studying the work of Cartier-Bresson, Lewis Hine and Sebastiao Salgado has been a revelation in this regard and I am now looking at opportunities and my old images in a very different way that I hope, over time, will lift my work.

My first choice is a picture of a druid, not just any druid but Rollo Maughfling, Archdruid of Stonehenge & Britain. I photographed Mr. Maughfling at the Stonehenge winter solstice in 2012 and originally framed the image as seen in fig.1.

I wanted to include his hands which I found interesting, to hint that he was in a crowded place but to isolate him as he appeared to be deep in thought.

Fig 2 - Druid Crop 1 - 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Fig 2 – Druid Crop 1 – 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

My first, alternative crop focusses attention on his face. I have positioned him to fill the frame from left to near the right hand edge.

Fig 3 - Druid Crop 2 - 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Fig 3 – Druid Crop 2 – 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

In fig.3 I have stayed in close but cropped into a landscape frame. The intent is to have him looking into space.

Fig 4 - Druid Crop 3 - 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

Fig 4 – Druid Crop 3 – 1/200 at f/2.8 ISO 100

The final crop is halfway between the original and the tight frame of fig.2. to show a little of his costume.

On balance I would be happy to use the original, or fig. 2, crop 1. The choice is between an interesting bearded face or a druid with an interesting face. I took the original as part of a study of people at the solstice so showing that he was a druid was important to that set. If I met him on the street I would probably prefer fig. 2, crop 1.

Fig. 5 Wreck at Anegada Original - 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 5 – Wreck at Anegada Original – 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

The second image, Fig. 5, dates from 2000 and is of a wreck on the island of Anegada in the British Virgin Islands. My original image was probably framed to put the wreck into the context of the beach and to include the windswept tree to the right which gives a sense of how strong the winds can be and why wrecks happen in these beautiful islands.

Fig. 6 Wreck at Anegada Crop 1- 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 6 – Wreck at Anegada Crop 1- 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

The first and most obvious crop was to try a portrait frame as in fig. 6. This focusses the viewer totally onto the wreck under a darkening sky.

Fig. 7 - Wreck at Anegada Crop 2- 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 7 – Wreck at Anegada Crop 2- 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 7 is tending towards a panoramic shape. I wanted to retain the sweep of the beach and to include the boat and the tree within the frame.

Fig. 8 - Wreck at Anegada Crop 4 - 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Fig. 8 – Wreck at Anegada Crop 4 – 1/200 at f/7.1 ISO 200

Seeing fig. 7 on the screen whilst writing up my notes made me realise that the wide expanse of beach was, in fact, un-balancing the image so I tried a tighter crop as shown in fig. 8 and I think this works much better than fig. 7. The boat and tree balance each other well and the sunlit portion of the beach still links the two. I did also try a square crop but this was uninteresting. I like fig.8 crop 4 as it feels a better balanced image than the original.

Fig. 10 - Sardines Original - 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

Fig. 9 – Sardines Original – 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

Sardines, fig. 9, also dates from 2000 and was taken in Portugal. The original image I found in my “portfolio” was cropped as a square. At that time I was still using a Bronica medium format film camera and although this image is taken with a Nikon D1 it is not unusual for me to crop images, especially portraits into square frames. I suspect my logic was to include all the sardines along with the chef and, as will be seen in fig.11, there was a distraction to the left. This is all about the chef and the fish.

Fig. 10 - Sardines Crop 1 - 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

Fig. 10 – Sardines Crop 1 – 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

In the interests of this project I tried a portrait crop as shown in fig. 10. It is workable but, of the two, I prefer the original. A few years ago I could have sounded very “grumpy old man” and said 1:1 was a very underused format and that it had a lot to offer as an alternative to 3:2. I do not, by the way, hold myself up as an expert in composing in that or any other format. However, since the advent of Instagram, there are now thousands of people successfully using the square format  everyday and there are companies printing Instagrams in the style of the old polaroid instant photos and sending them back boxed.

Fig. 11 - Sardines Alternative Original - 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

Fig. 11 – Sardines Alternative Original – 1/250 at f/8 ISO 200

When I went back to my originals library to retrieve the exposure information for fig. 9 I noticed  this original image (fig. 11) that was never edited. I was obviously not interested in the chef’s assistant having a crafty smoke and took the next shot excluding him. Now I would choose fig.11 as the more interesting photo. I have used it here with no cropping and just the smallest tweak in photoshop. It might deserve a bit more effort to adjust the shadows and highlights.

Fig. 12 - Table Mountain Original - 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig. 12 – Table Mountain Original – 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

My final choice is a photograph of Table Mountain behind Cape Town taken in 2008. The composition is framed to include the cloud pattern that adds some interest to the sky and the transparent sea inside the reef. I have framed this to create a nearly symmetrical balance.

Fig. 13 - Table Mountain Crop 1 - 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig. 13 – Table Mountain Crop 1 – 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig.13 is a much better crop, less sea and more sky brings a better overall balance to the image  and the viewer is led in to the photograph more effectively.

Fig. 13 - Table Mountain Crop 2 - 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig. 14 – Table Mountain Crop 2 – 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

The panoramic crop in fig. 14 is also quite effective and would work well as an internet or blog header or a banner in a printed article. I cropped to try and make the breaking waves the key component.

Fig. 15 - Table Mountain Crop 3 - 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

Fig. 15 – Table Mountain Crop 3 – 1/100 at f/7.1 ISO 100

In fig. 15 I wanted to try a square format again. I have cropped to include the breaking waves to the left as this gives some life to the image. this has broken up the semi-symmetrical pattern of the clouds and moved the mountain slightly off centre. I don’t dislike it but feel more comfortable with fig. 13 which I think is the best balanced of the set.