Tag Archives: Richard Misrach

Assignment 2 Elements of Design

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single Point Dominating the Composition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact sheet of other images considered

Two Points

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

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

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

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

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

Several Points in a Deliberate Shape

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

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

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

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

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

A Combination of Horizontal and Vertical Lines

A Combination of Vertical and Horozontal Lines

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

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

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

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

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Diagonals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Curves

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

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

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

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

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Distinct, Even if Irregular, Shapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Implied Triangles

Implied Triangle

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

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

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

Implied Triangle

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

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

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

Contact sheet of other images considered.

Rhythm and Pattern

Rhythm

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

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

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

Rhythm

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

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

Pattern

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

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

Contact sheet of other images considered.

All contact sheets collected together in one post.

Sources

Books

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

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

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

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

Internet

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

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Contact Sheets to Support Assignment 2

This post supports my assignment 2 submission. For each element of design I collected a number of alternative images as part of my selection process. These contact sheets which are the unused photographs.

Single Point Dominating the Composition

Single Point Dominating the Composition

As discussed in my submission I was interested in the simple combination of sky, sea and sand which reminded me of Richard Misrach’s “On The Beach” series and tried many compositions with and without a human subject. On the bottom row I have included two wildlife images which I liked but were too weak and generic to use. Also on the bottom row are two examples of the many photos I took of small items washed up on the beach in interesting patterns or in isolation.

Two Points

Two Points

Included within two points are the vertical crops of Two Boys which I used in the assignment in a horizontal format. I was very intrigued with the stool and the concrete block top right and bottom right and might have made more of this subject if I had researched William Eggleston before rather than after visiting TCI.

Verticals and Horizontals

Verticals and Horizontals

Because I became interested in collecting images of openings I had a lot of choices for this category. The first photo in row 3 is a particular favourite with the beach viewed through a broken door and torn fly screen.

Diagonals

Diagonals

The unused images collected above show the wide variety of diagonals that caught my eye. The first two images are part of a study of degeneration in close up that eventually became a central theme along with a wider view of degeneration when looking at damaged buildings as included in the last two images.

Curves

Curves

It was difficult to avoid curved beaches in my short list of curves but a few other opportunities also presented themselves. I particularly like the “triangular” photographer taking pictures of the local wedding set under an arch.

Distinct Shapes

Distinct Shapes

There were a wide variety of distinct shapes ranging from towering clouds to strange little huts and it would have been easy to break my self imposed limit of 15 images and to have included either of the yellow bar (centre row 2) or the green bar to its right. The soft chair outside the green bar was especially appealing.

Implied Triangles

Implied Triangles

There were plenty of opportunities to capture implied triangles but very few dominated the composition or went beyond photographing three things. I am happy with my final choice which was a horizontal crop of the fisherman in the second image on the bottom row.

Pattern and Rhythm

Pattern and Rhythm

As can be seen above I tried a number of different approaches to pattern and Rhythm but eventually focussed in on the items on sale in the tourist markets because they seemed more specific to TCI than the leaves in the intimate landscapes. I was very tempted to use the first image on the forth row, the wavy metal, for rhythm but a variation of the conch shells appealed more because of their unique shapes and colours.

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