Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

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

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Reading Photographs

 

NK1_1781Reading Photographs, an introduction to the theory and meaning of images (1) is a helpful primer introducing a wide range of subjects from semiotics to ethics. Overall I found it interesting and it stimulated several chains of thought that have helped me identify new paths of research.  It is written for students of photography by Richard Salkeld, a senior lecturer in the History and Theory of Art and Photography at the University of Gloucestershire and needs to be approached in that context. Slakeld presents each subject in the form of a short essay, occasionally accompanied by a case study. Whilst the case studies are usually interesting and often introduced me to the work of practitioners I had not previously known they are accompanied by exam-type questions for the reader that seem out of place in the overall structure of the book. If the subject is in any way contentious or open to debate Slakeld offers both sides of the argument but in doing so without offering us his own opinion the book lacks any critical bite.

The essays that most caught my attention were connected to the question of the degree to which a photograph can be read in isolation of its context. Not surprisingly this is a recurring theme throughout the book.  Initially touching on Walter Benjamin’s idea of the “The Optical Unconscious” which says that our visual knowledge base once comprised of things that we saw in person but the advent of the camera has dramatically increased our number of visual sources and this has created a background of visual memories that we subconsciously take into account when we look at photographs.

Benjamin documented this idea in 1931 at a time when the ordinary person’s life was far less impacted by the visual image than it is today, in fact large numbers of people, even in the UK, would have seen few images outside of a few family photos, religious imagery, advertising or the cinema. In 1931 a comparatively small percentage of a person’s visual memories would have been acquired second hand. Today, in the developed world, we are constantly surrounded by moving and still images and a high percentage of our visual memories are memories of those images, there is an argument that even when we “we were there” the memory of a photograph is often stronger than our direct memory of the actual event or person. We often remember photographs of family and friends rather than recalling a direct visual memory.

Much later in the book Slakeld presents the work of Marc Garanger (2) who was a conscripted French soldier  tasked with photographing Algerian women for their identity cards during the Algerian crisis. He took two thousand photographs in ten days (2). Each women is photographed in a nearly identical manner, full face and upper body, straight on. Garanger later said that he “saw that I could use what I was forced to do, and have the pictures tell the opposite of what the authorities wanted them to tell”  and he has suggested that the pictures speak for themselves but Salkeld asks whether this is really the case. He includes five of these photographs in his book and, with a reasonable amount of general knowledge, it is possible to read some of the clues. The women are not Caucasian, the jewellery on one appears to be North African, none of the expressions are relaxed and there is a tension about them. Ultimately we have read very little from the images.

If we are told that the photographs were taken by a French soldier in Algeria in 1960 we can begin to gain a fuller understanding because we can add previous knowledge to our reading. We bring a wide range of known subjects to the viewing:- colonialism, the relationship between the occupier and the occupied, the relationship between a French soldier and muslim women, the absence of veils in the photographs and add this to what we can see. Quickly our interpretation changes, we see the women’s expressions as one of protest not discomfort, we see suppression and abuse, and as Carole Nagger (2) suggests, they are symbolic of the collision of two civilisations.

The conclusion is clear. We can only read what Garanger wants to say when we are given enough clues to be able to put his photographs into context. Even as a group what they tell us is at best incomplete and, at worst misleading. In the example of the Algerian women we only needed a small amount of information to be able to unlock the meaning of the photographs which speaks to a question asked by Walter Benjamin:

“Will not the caption become the most important part of the photograph?”

The importance of the caption is an area that Salkeld does not explore in any depth but it reminded me of Anna Fox‘s idea of of using quotes from business books and magazines as captions for her study of office life in the 1970s, an idea I copied in my assignment 3. The use of a caption can provide enough information, or clues, for the viewer to proceed with interpreting the visual clues contained in the photograph. However, regardless of the hints they provide the photographer cannot control all the elements of context as ultimately “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (3).

We cannot avoid using our prior knowledge when we view a photograph and that knowledge is outside of the photographer’s control but the photographer can sometimes control where we see the photograph and that element of context can significantly impact our interpretation of the image. John Berger says that if we take a photograph of a painting we multiple and fragment the meaning of that picture each time we show the photograph because, by moving it, we are constantly changing the context of the original painting. If a photographer makes a single print and shows that print in a gallery they are controlling its “locational” context. However, as soon as the image is reproduced and shown elsewhere that control is lost and our interpretation increases in subjectivity. I know that where I see an image prejudices my view of it so a news photograph on  the BBC website or on Time Lightbox will tell me that it is true and unadulterated, this, by the way does not make it true or unadulterated because another viewer might distrust one or both of these publishers and take a diametrically opposite view.

Another element of context that is not explored by Salkeld is the importance of the collection or series. Without knowing the answer I wonder whether the idea of a collection is much more important in photography than it is in the other visual arts. Martin Parr is very firm about the need for his pictures to be viewed in the context of the collections he publishes and we understand that the skill of curators is to create and display collections so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I am currently coming to terms with Stephen Shore’s latest book (From Galilee to the Nagrev) and trying to understand how his work has changed, or not, since American Surfaces and Uncommon Places. It has struck me that in “Galilee” there are a number of photos that verge upon being impossible to interpret if viewed completely in isolation, something I did not feel existed in, for example, Uncommon Places. This emphasises the point that, especially in documentary photography, the context of the “rest” of the set is absolutely fundamental to us reading the individual photograph.

This leads to a separate but connected point in that the name of the photographer has a significant impact on how we read an image . Shakespeare tells us that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but I am uncertain whether this is quite so true in the art world. Leading on from my previous point I would suggest that the photographer’s name is less relevant when viewing collections than it is of single image.  Using Stephen Shore as an example again I don’t know how I would read “Tavor River Reserve, January 17, 2010” if it did not have his name on it or I had not seen it in the context of a collection. I cannot find this image on line but it is of a field of fairly featureless long grass taking up 60% of the frame with a pale blue sky. The grassy horizon slopes gently from left to right. It is photo of green emptiness in a flat light that I would not pause to look at if it was taken by the chap next door. Because it is “a” Stephen Shore I have spent quite a bit of time looking at in and interpreting its meaning in its relationship to the other “empty” spaces he has photographed in Israel and the West Bank. This is not to say that we cannot read unknown photographers work but we come at certain photographer’s work knowing something of what they are likely to be saying to us and, dare I say it, with a little awe and an inbuilt tolerance because we assume it must be good and must be meaningful because so and so took it. Being introspective I know that I am more tolerant of a photo that I don’t really like or understand by a photographer that I respect than I am about music. I love the Beatles but some of their tracks are, to me, truly awful. This is probably because we believe we are qualified to judge modern music but, if we don’t understand a famous visual artist’s work it is probably because we think we aren’t clever enough.

A final point might be that our age, race, education, gender, sexuality, faith, politics and nationality, i.e. aspects of our identity that are driven by birth and circumstance have a strong impact on how we read a picture. Marketing and adverting executives understand this better than most and design campaigns to target specific social groups based on these factors (and many more).

The conclusion is that we view a photograph through a lens of complex social factors, knowledge and emotions, where we see the photo, who took it, who published it and in front of that lens we put the filter of semiotics to read the image. It all suggests that the beholder has more influence on the meaning than the photographer.

I’ve enjoyed “Reading Photographs”, it is a primer and needs to be approached with that in mind. It covers a lot of ground at a summarised level but it points the reader in many useful directions for further research and it started me thinking about a number of subjects that I had not previously considered. It is succinct without being superficial, well laid out and because it is essentially a collection of essays it is a book that has longevity on the bookshelf and can act as a first port of call when researching specific subjects within the general area of photographic interpretation.

Sources

Books

(1) Salkeld, Richard. (2014) Reading Photohgraphs: An Introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images. London: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC.

Internet

(2) Time Lightbox. lightbox.time.com/2013/04/23/women-unveiled-marc-garangers-contested-portraits-of-1960s-algeria/#1

(3) The Phrase Finder. www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder.html

Assignment 3 The Reality and Illusion of Mannequins

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Background and Influences

The aim of Assignment 3 is to show a command of colour in photography. To show this command we are asked to take a series of pictures that exhibit:

  • harmony through complimentary colours;
  • harmony through similar colours;
  • colour contrast;
  • colour accent.

In addition to this brief I wanted to build a series of pictures that challenged me at a creative and technical level and that felt progressional. It is nearly five months since I finished assignment 2 and, in that time, the main focus has been to start studying the evolution of colour photography from William Eggleston in the USA through to Martin Parr in Britain. I have discussed these influences in a separate post (here) and each of the studied artists is separately discussed elsewhere in this blog. (EgglestonShoreParr – Ray-Jones and Parr). I also researched a group of Magnum photographers to understand how they dealt with reflections and, in some cases mannequins (here).

The study of contemporary colour photography is ongoing with many other paths to explore but I have established a simple list of attributes that stand out for me in the work of Eggleston, Shore, Vergara, Parr, Fox and others and that I want to bring to my work:

  • photography is communication, say something;
  • explore strong, saturated colours;
  • have the freedom to use colour in a bold & uninhibited way;
  • work in sets or series and don’t chase single spectacular images;
  • recognise the photographic potential in the banal and in everyday life;
  • remember that every part of the frame has a part to play in composition;
  • create layers of detail that ask the viewer to pause and look more closely;
  • use depth of field to fill the frame in terms of depth as well as vertically and horizontally.

Beyond these general points I am interested in the specific technique of daylight flash or artificial lighting that are notable features of Martin Parr’s and Anna Fox’s work. It brings an additional layer of depth to an image by creating a distinction of light between foreground and background. My choice of subject matter in assignment 3 did not lend itself to this idea so I am exploring it as a personal project (here) with the view to devleoping it in a later assignment.

Tutor feedback on assignment 2 suggested that I could have focussed on developing the theme of abandonment and decay and I have noted several tutor’s comments on the OCA forum about using assignments to create cohesive sets of photographs. In assignment 2 I put achieving the list of design elements ahead of developing a cohesive series of images and feel the submission was weakened by that decision. In this assignment I have come nearer to putting the images and the cohesion of the set first.

Finally I like the idea that Anna Fox used in Workstations of collecting text and images about a single subject and (only) bringing them together in the final edit. Workstations is a collection of photographs taken in offices in the post industrial era of the Margret Thatcher premiership. Fox is quite clear that the photos are a critique of the Thatcher-influenced society but by using quotations from various sources she simultaneously underlines the message of the picture and adds an element of satire and humour. I have chosen to use this idea in assignment 3 and, without any specific pictures in mind, have collected quotations about fashion and by fashionistas which I have only paired with the photos as I placed them into the final presentation.

Mannequins

The mannequin, in its modern form,  started to appear on the high streets of Paris, London and New York in the 1870s and quickly became an essential part of any window display. They have always been much more than an elaborate coat hanger parading the fashionable clothes of the day, but also mimicking the fashionable body shape of their era and appearing in displays that reflect the en-trend topics of the times.

In their day they have been modelled on royalty, film stars, musicians and fashion models; they have been the target of the same campaigners who helped push the American Government into passing the alcohol prohibition laws; there are museums dedicated to them; they star in novels and films; they are an ever present feature of every high street and shopping centre in the developed world.

The Ultimate Role Model

I became intrigued by mannequins when working on my first test shots for assignment 3; shop windows present us with an illusion based on idealised human forms standing behind distorted reflections of the real world so the reality and illusion become interwoven in complex patterns.

From the street we see layer upon layer with varying intensities of lightthe interior of the shop, the mannequins in the window display, the reflections of the street, the shop fronts opposite, and in this mix of interior and exterior, of reflection and reality, of mannequins and people we have the sharp end of a fashion world that uses fibre glass role models to sell clothing designed for super models.

The high street is the public face of an industry employing nearly 1 million people in Britain and contributing more than £21 billion a year to the UK economy and, at the other end of the supply chain, a trade that represents 80% of Bangladesh’s exports? But, behind beautiful mask there is an ugliness.

  • It is an industry built on waste with this season’s lines inevitably destined for next year’s landfill; sustainability and durability are its enemies; fad, whim, self indulgence and disposability its allies.
  • Fast fashion, the rush to bring cheap copies of catwalk designs to the high street, generates a scramble for ever more cost effective supply chains so the rich buying world exploits the poor supply world driving down costs and consuming depleted resources.
  • Sweat shops abound from Asia to the Americas; children, prized for their nibble needlework, make up a substantial part of a workforce housed in unhealthy, dangerous and often deadly factories.
  • Wages in many parts of the world are so low NGOs talk of slave labour.
  • Badly managed farms, being paid the bare minimum for their crop, consume 2,000 litres of water to produce enough cotton to make one t-shirt. A t-shirt that quite probably will be dyed in a factory that blends toxic chemicals with scarce water supplies before discharging poisonous waste, untreated, and often running denim blue, into rivers and oceans.

Closer to home young people are offered abnormal body shapes as desirable, perhaps even essential, so they pursue the “thigh gaps” and “concave stomachs” of unhealthy fashion models who themselves can be suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia or from substance abuse and alcoholism.

This is the background to my short study of mannequins. In layers of direct and reflected light I set out to capture the cocktail of illusion, fantasy, reality, truth and untruth found in shop windows in every high street. Mannequins mindlessly promote a self obsessed, egotistical and hedonistic industry in denial; a global industry under increasing pressure to address fundamental issues of environment, sustainability, ethics and fair trade on one side of the equation and the physical and mental health of consumers on the other.

The Photographs

Layers are the common thread that link the mannequin series . These can be seen as layers of space or layers of light. For example in fig. 01 there is a “real” layer that includes the mannequins and the shop’s lighting, a two dimensional layer comprised of the photograph of the two models and a reflected layer which appears to be behind the photograph but is, in fact, the nearest layer to the camera. The three layers are presented as a photograph “flattened” into a single two dimensional image.

The three spacial layers often have differing intensities of light within them so there are more layers of light than of space and the relationships and interplay between the layers becomes more complex with similar levels of brightness or tone linking across the spacial layers. The reflections often appear as a backdrop as we sub-consciously decode the layers and place them in logical positions; the mannequins and the photograph are placed in front of the building.

The shop window display presents a world that we know to be an illusion but by consistently associating particular brands or styles with a specific fantasy the fashion industry adds data to, what Walter Benjamin called, our “optical unconscious”. We learn these links between brands and social categories so we know that Ralph Lauren represents the polo set, that gentleman farmers wear brown and green checked shirts, that “Twickenham man” wears a Barbour jacket. Having learnt this code we can dress to tell people how we want them to see us and we can de-code the way a stranger dresses so we know how they wish to be viewed. We don’t assume a person in a Ralph Lauren shirt plays polo with Prince William but we know they want us to see them as a person of style and taste who aspires to drink Pimms at Cowdray Park.

These photographs try to express the complex relationship between society and fashion and between reality and illusion by exploring the layers of space and light in shop windows.

"body attitudes bespeak a visual language that is an integral part of visual merchandising" Marsha Bentley Hale Fig. 1 Pescara - 1/125 @ f/11, ISO 1,600

“body attitudes bespeak a visual language that is an integral part of visual merchandising”
Marsha Bentley Hale

Fig. 01 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 1,600 – Colour Accent 

Headless mannequins are often combined with photographs of models to deliver the marketing message. The classic Italian architecture acts as a projection screen for the models and the yellow jacket stands out as an accent in the foreground. The models and the mannequins form a tight central group whose lack of faces allows the ethereal faces of he models to dominate. The tattoo on his right hand looks suspiciously like Margret Thatcher who would be an unlikely, but intriguing, role model for an Italian model.

"we try to use organic fabrics and low impact dyes but we won't do so unless we can achieve a high quality product" Stella McCartney
“we try to use organic fabrics and low impact dyes but we won’t do so unless we can achieve a high quality product”
Stella McCartney

Fig 02 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 220 – Colour Accent

The faceless mannequins and the plaques on the wall of the white shop front create wide-mouthed silent screams while the the crossed highlights suggest a more angelic interpretation.  The beams of light are the accent. The seemingly broken mirror might offer a punctum. This is one example of a number of this series where I have looked for very subtle tonal variations rather than dramatic, bright colour variations.

"the shop mannequin sees endless activity that passes for human existence" British Film Council
“the shop mannequin sees endless activity that passes for human existence”
British Film Council

Fig. 03 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 10,000 – Colour Accent

A summer clad mannequin watches shoppers huddled under a bright umbrella to escape the rain. The translucent turquoise blouse adds to the mysterious layers in this low light photograph. The bright shop’s lights contrast with the darkening street which is lifted by the splash of colour accent from the umbrella.

"there is a sense of movement, a feeling that someone is there" Tanya Ragir - Mannequin Artist
“there is a sense of movement, a feeling that someone is there”
Tanya Ragir – Mannequin Artist

Fig 04 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 450 – Colour Accent

All of the photographs are about mixing reality and fashion but it was difficult to capture real people in a way that worked with the shop displays. In this picture the two photographs and the young women are neatly positioned so each face looks towards the camera. The photographs provide a ghostly presence over the women. The till to the right might be a punctum.

"at each of the six stages to make a garment the negative impacts on the environment are as numerous as they are varied" Bangalore University
“at each of the six stages to make a garment the negative impacts on the environment are as numerous as they are varied”
Bangalore University

Fig.05 Godalming – 1/125 at f/13, ISO 640 – Colour Contrast

Colour contrast between the blue sky, signs and dresses with the red brick buildings on a perfect spring day, in a perfect Surrey dormitory town where the mannequins and models project the classic Surrey “yummy mummy” look onto the quaint, old, town centre shop fronts. The target market for these type of clothes are almost certainly blissfully oblivious of how cotton dresses are produced. As a photograph this is one of a few where the angles, lines and perspective create a sense of movement so we could be passing Godalming on a train. The small figure top right seems to be perched on a window sill looking down on us.

"black is modest and arrogant at the same time, it says I don't bother you - don't bother me" Yohiji Yamamoto
“black is modest and arrogant at the same time, it says I don’t bother you – don’t bother me”
Yohiji Yamamoto

Fig. 06 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 6,400 – Colour Contrast

Contrast is between the muted greys, greens and blacks with the bright strip of yellow light from the shop’s interior on a wet day in Pescara. Warm colours dominate the centre and contrast with the many cool colours and tones in the rest of the image. . The perfect mannequins dressed with elegant style in summer dresses contrast the woman wrapped up against the unseasonal spring rain. In addition to the contrasts there is a strong sense of left to right movement created by the perspective and the lines and the women’s direction of travel.

"you know she has been touched by human hand and interpreted by human feelings" Cyril Peck - Mannequin Artist
“you know she has been touched by human hand and interpreted by human feelings”
Cyril Peck – Mannequin Artist

Fig. 07 Guildford – 1/125 at f/8, ISO 1,100 – Colour Contrast

One of the simplest pictures with only a hint of reflection. Blue, pick and yellows are all strongly contrasting. The psychology  of window displays is complex and could be a study in its own right. There are complete mannequins, headless mannequins limbless mannequins, mannequins set in the context of photographs of models, faces with personality, featureless faces and everything in between. Most designers seem to be de-personlising their models yet every now and again there are “human” touches like these two mannequins holding each other’s stylised hands.

"a cosmos of heavenly bodies set in a complex orbit" Prada
“a cosmos of heavenly bodies set in a complex orbit”
Prada

Fig . 08 Citta S’Angelo – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 560 – Colour Contrast

The very bright sunlight has helped create an ethereal scene where it is difficult to distinguish between mannequins and humans and to de-cipher the various layers. The main contrast is between blue and orange but the violet/purple is so strong it creates tension with all the other colours. I think this adds to the other-world feeling. The punctum for me is the silhouette of the boy on his scooter under the eye of the taller silhouette who might be human or mannequin.

"only in an imaginary world can the unexpected and irrational intertwine with spontaneity and naturalness" Dolce and Gabbana
“only in an imaginary world can the unexpected and irrational intertwine with spontaneity and naturalness”
Dolce and Gabbana

Fig. 09 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 800 – Complimentary Colours

The greens to the left blend into the reds on the right in a gentle way so the combination of the elderly couple, the empty road, the angle of the photographed model and the two mannequins create a relaxed, Sunday morning (it wasn’t) feel to the composition. This particular shop had large plate glass windows providing sharp reflections and I picked this one partly because of the human couple and partly because everything seems to fit so perfectly together. A “comfort food” sort of photograph.

"avoid the masculinity problem by producing mannequins that are abstract or even completely headless" The Mannequin Mystique
“avoid the masculinity problem by producing mannequins that are abstract or even completely headless”
The Mannequin Mystique

Fig. 10 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 10,000 – Complimentary Colours

It was important to me to explore less obvious colours and this is one of a small number of my selected images that are predominantly monochrome. I was looking for tonal relationships away from yellow/blue or green/red and this shot is about these subtleties. The harmony is between the greys and brown/oranges. The composition has a lot of the features I was seeking; the bicycle, the people with umbrellas and the suited mannequin are all in stark contrast with the seemingly incongruous matching bag and shoes.

"they must convey idealised images of ourselves, what we aspire to rather than what we are" Fashion Institute of Technology
“they must convey idealised images of ourselves, what we aspire to rather than what we are”
Fashion Institute of Technology

Fig. 11 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 450 – Complimentary Colours

For many years the fashion industry has identified minority sports that few shoppers can or even want to engage in but the private school exclusivity of polo, sailing, rugby and rowing make them attractive as statements of good taste or breeding or manliness. The pale greens and pinks work well together and the interior and exterior combine to create lines of movement from the background into the foreground which seems to work especially well with the sporting theme. The punctum for me is “oars 21% off” – who wants oars and, if they did why would they buy them from a fashion boutique? why 21% not 20% ?.

"able to claim a unique duality in its brand positioning pairing modernity and heritage" Gucci
“able to claim a unique duality in its brand positioning pairing modernity and heritage”
Gucci

Fig. 12 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 500 – Complimentary Colours

One of my favourites. with the Modigliani head positioned between the gold clock and the Body Shop sign staring, with no little attitude, into the far distance. The complimentary colours are the red/orange bricks and the blue sky but they are really just a background to the white model in the black dress which are equally complimentary. After all the headless mannequins and the ones with featureless faces this one is creatively sculptured. As often is the case there is also a sense of movement created by the camera angle and the receding perspective.

"androgyny and ethnic diversity rule the creative landscape" Rootstien - Mannequin Manufacturer
“androgyny and ethnic diversity rule the creative landscape”
Rootstien – Mannequin Manufacturer

Fig. 13 Guildford –  1/125 at f/11, ISO 1,100 – Similar Colours

This photographs is in yellow to brown tones and is representative of a common window display where the monochrome and severe lines of thin mannequin are softened by the warm colours of the photographed models. The yellow tape on the scaffolding creates interesting highlights.

"unique mix of innovative audacity and legendary Italian quailty" Gucci
“unique mix of innovative audacity and legendary Italian quailty”
Gucci

Fig. 14 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 450 – Similar Colours

I used shop mirrors in a lot of photographs but this was the one that worked the best. The reflection of the piazza is mysterious to the right and left but with window-like clarity in the mirror which also increases our view of the mannequin. The position of the head, just on the skyline, was important to allow her lips to become a focal point. I like the way the street lamp on the right seems large enough to be a large tower. I find a lot of the interest in many of these images is the way in which the reflections can distort scale and shapes which helps my objective of asking viewers to linger and study the image.

"available in male, female or child sizes and any skin colour" Red Beau Mannequins
“available in male, female or child sizes and any skin colour”
Red Beau Mannequins

Fig. 15 Guildford – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 320 – Similar Colours

All the colours are from the quadrant of pink through to yellow and are therefore harmonious. I wanted the photo of the child to tower over the two mannequins which might have been selected to offer ethnic diversity. The old houses opposite create a neutral backdrop.

"models are there to look like mannequins not real people" Grace Jones
“models are there to look like mannequins not real people”
Grace Jones

Fig. 16 Pescara – 1/125 at f/11, ISO 11,000 – Similar Colours

This nearly monochrome image works very well for me. If it is possible to have multiple punctums  there could be two here with the group sitting at the street cafe to the left and the ice cream tricycle to the right and the way that both are framed by the model. I very consciously framed the model to exclude her face as I wanted to reduce her human presence to reflect the idea that a large black and white photograph is probably the cheapest mannequin you can buy so her role is as a mannequin not a woman.

Photography Notes

The subject matter and my approach posed a number of technical challenges. It was essential to use deep DoF to bring out the detail in all the available layers and typically I was photographing from a light place into a dark place through glass and reflections. On the rare occasions when there was a little more light, I under-exposed by 1/3 of a stop to help saturate the colours. The combined result was an exercise in low light photography and I was regularly using high ISOs to get the result I wanted. This doesn’t over-concern me as the images still work at 10 x 8 and whilst a few are grainy this might increase the mystery of the layers. I have post processed to maximise contrast and saturation either by using curves in Photoshop or pro-contrast in Color Efex Pro 4, but I didn’t want the images to look “over-processed” and hope my changes were within the realms of a “light touch”.

I looked at photos of reflections taken by Magnum photographers (here) and this taught me a lot about angles and on how to photograph through glass. I had no wish to include myself in any pictures so straight on (90 degrees) was usually a poor option, 45 degrees or less worked well but very few shots were successful when the “real” street as opposed to the “reflected” street came into the frame. Framing was often quite time consuming as I had to train my eyes to see all the layers at once and frame to combine the shop interiors and the exteriors effectively.

The best results were on days when it was bright enough to have a reasonable difference in the strength of light between the sunnier and shadier sides of the street. The best reflections were obviously achieved looking at the reflections of the sunny side in windows of the shady side. However, on one shoot in Italy the sun was so bright the contrast became too great and very few of the pictures worked (fig. 08 above is one of the few that I think did). Some of best layering effects came when the day was dull and the shop lights started to play a role. I undertook one shoot in an indoor shopping centre in Pescara Nord but there tended to be brighter lights in the shop windows than in the aisles and the reflections were minimal.

I have strayed some distance from the brief both in terms of not varying the subject matter, not creating movement diagrams and not using filters. In my opinion none of these ideas would have added value to what I was trying to achieve but I look forward to hearing my tutor’s views on the matter.

Links to Blog Posts for the Development of Assignment 3

Planning Assignment 3 with Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr

Developing Assignment 3

Evolving Assignment 3 – Mannequins

Researching Assignment 3 – Practitioners

Test Shots and More Thoughts for Assignment 3

Steal Like an Artist

Assignment 3 Contact Sheets

Sources

Photographer sources are detailed under each of the blog posts listed above. The following are a list of internet sources that I researched to provide background to the text.

Academia.edu – Fashion Industry and Media Today: The Negative Impact on Society by Ali Malik Al-Azzawi – www.academia.edu/1172572/Fashion_Industry_and_Media_Today_The_Negative_Impact_on_Society

The Daily Record – Damaging effect catwalk models are having on young women – www.dailyrecord.co.uk/lifestyle/fashion-beauty/damaging-effect-catwalk-models-having-1729385

Greenpeace International – Dirty Laundry: Unravelling the corporate connections to toxic water pollution in China – www.greenpeace.org/international/en/publications/reports/dirty-laundry/

Ecologist – Fashion’s Impact on the Earth by Safia Minney – www.theecologist.org/green_green_living/clothing/1055961/safia_minney_fashions_impact_on_the_earth.html

Mannequin Madness – The Mannequin Mystique by Emily and Per Ola dAulaire – mannequinmadness.wordpress.com/the-history-of-mannequin/

Not Just a Label – The Slow Fashion Movement: reversing environmental damage by Maureen Dickson, Carlotta Cataldi & Crystal Grover – www.notjustalabel.com/editorial/the_slow_fashion_movement

The Guardian – Britain’s rag trade revival – www.theguardian.com/fashion/2014/feb/15/britains-rag-trade-revival-marks-and-spencer

The Guardian – Britain’s fashion industry now worth nearly £21bn a year, report reveals by Imogen Fox – www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2010/sep/15/british-fashion-industry-report-business

The Guardian – To Die For: Is fashion wearing out the World? by Lucy Siegle – book review – www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jun/12/to-die-for-lucy-siegle-review

Unicef – Child protection from violence, exploitation and abuse – www.unicef.org/protection/57929_55452.html