Tag Archives: William Henry Fox Talbot

Exercise 42 Illustration by Symbols

White Vanitas - Colour - 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

White Vanitas – Colour – 1/60 at f/14 , ISO 100

Symbolism has been used throughout the history of both commercial and art photography. In art many symbols have been carried forward from religious painting, especially from the vanitas movement which flourished in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. During my research for assignment 4 I looked at the types of symbolism used by these Dutch painters and how photographers such as William Henry Fox Talbot and Roger Fenton brought that tradition into photography with it later becoming the basis for a lot of Irving Penn’s work and how vanitas symbols are regularly found in the work of contemporary still life photographers including conceptual artists such as Mat Collishaw. Many of the symbols used by contemporary artists have their roots in traditional religious, and especially Christian, art for the simple reason that they are readily understood by both religious and non religious audiences or because they have become so universal they have transcended their original religious meaning and become a common secular symbol so, for example, the Archangel Michael who was historically depicted holding scales as the warrior-guardian of righteousness and justice becomes Lady Justice on the top of the Old Bailey.

Advertising, and therefore commercial photography, is hugely dependent upon symbolism either by using commonly recognised symbols such as the sun to suggest health, vigour or goodness when advertising orange juice or breakfast cereals, shields, gates and castles for insurance and for security services or roses for valentine day products. All these uses of visual symbols rely on the concept of semiotics, which in simple terms is a sign that stands for something else *(1). The idea of semiotics was first described by Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, who explained that it involves a sign, word or object, the signifier and a concept, idea or thought that is to be communicated, the signified. Semiotics is a broad and complex subject that will no doubt be a subject for in-depth study at a later date but at its heart our ability to communicate an idea through the use of a symbol relies upon either, an obvious association between that thought and the symbol, or a common acceptance of the meaning of the signifier. There are many symbols that have instantly recognised meanings in Western society, a dove or an olive branch for peace, a red cross for medical care or a dollar sign for money or wealth (even in countries that use the pound or the euro). However, these symbols can be interpreted differently by different societies and cultures so a red cross might evoke a negative response in the Middle East where it is associated with the crusades.

In effect we all carry a mental register of codes that allow us to interpret these signs to understand their intended meaning, and although these codes might vary between cultures, we are often sophisticated enough to combine the code with its context to identify alternate meanings. These codes are constantly evolving, partly because the advertising industry sets out to design and introduce new signifier / signified relationships through the use of symbols in the shape of logos or by the repeated use of specific images in close association with a product.

Through this process we not only decode MacDonalds and everything it stands for from a large yellow “M” we come to associate meerkats with a consumer choice portal or, for those of a certain age, tigers with petrol. Once such strong brand identities are established the most sophisticated advertising can move beyond advertising a dull and unexciting product such as home insurance and provide short entertaining mini-dramas that become an end in themselves but subtly  promote the product by making the audience feel connected or just good about the family story in a series of gravy adverts, the students obsessed with the speed of their internet connection or the lives of Russian meerkats.

At a more sophisticated level charities are especially prone to leverage preconceptions and, arguably, prejudices, to attract our donations. A black child with a fly on their face is code for suffering, illness and deprivation even though many healthy children all over the world will have a fly land on their face in the course of a day, try visiting the Australian bush in summer, and using dogs and cats in an advert for an animal charity at Christmas is more effective that the same advert used in mid-summer because it is coded as “a dog is not just for Christmas”, “people are acting badly during the season of goodwill”.

Photographers can draw on all these sources and code their images to communicate a message by appropriating established signifiers or inventing new ones that leverage established ideas. In some of my test pieces for assignment 4 I tried to use contemporary items as modern day vanitas symbols. This led me to use lipstick and stiletto heals to signify the vanity of the fashion industry but I mixed in traditional vanitas symbols such as plentiful fruit and watches in an attempt to suggest to the audience that all of the items in a still life needed to be interpreted in the context of vanitas.

This exercise suggests that we avoid clichés but the de-coding system we carry in our heads is reliant on our ability to instantly recognise and interpret symbolism in art or advertising. As a result there is a very thin line between a symbol being able to communicate the idea intended and it becoming a cliché. In practise a cliché is just a matter of timing, so the 1914 Lord Kitchener “Wants You” recruitment poster or “Keep Calm and Carry On” only became clichéd when they became over copied.

Growth

Avoiding plants, charts, upward pointing arrows and other common ideas:

  • I might try to photograph the wall in a house where parents have marked off their children’s height over time. The more dilapidated the wall the better, indicating that it has been left undecorated as a family treasure. This could provide a underlying message of love and nurture and sense of time passing.
  • On a similar theme a heap of, obviously discarded shoes of varying sizes might work.

Excess

  • Without wishing to appear obsessed with the subject all the traditional vanitas symbols work here, over-laden tables and so forth but, if I was planning to work on this subject again I would build on Mat Collishaw‘s ideas with his studies of American junk food. The concept of over sized portions and what we throw away offers powerful imagery.
  • Skips behind supermarkets and, a subject dear to my heart, all the food we dump in land fills that used to be fed to pigs because we have allowed government to over legislate to stop pork products being fed to pigs and cow products being fed to cows. As ever, we introduce new, sweeping, ill thought through laws instead of policing existing and sensible regulations.

Crime

  • I would look to go beyond symbols of crime and look for images of social situations that inevitably nurture crime. Disproportionate unemployment in areas with large populations of  ethnic minorities could provide interesting subjects.
  • The other angle might be crime waiting to happen such as open windows, keys in locks or visible purses in handbags.

Silence

  • A wealth of religious symbolism comes to mind and although this might verge on being clichéd it would rely on the image being strong enough to lift itself above the cliché. A lone monk walking towards an abbey or a simple altar in an empty church, someone praying alone in a church. Something with an Eleanor Rigby feel from Yellow Submarine might work so that loneliness was linked to silence. Note the use of a Beatles’ film as a source of symbolism.
  • Nearly any rural landscape with a pond if it is photographed with a long exposure so the surface is misty and perfectly smooth. Even a fisherman by a river might work.

Poverty

  • Probably a cliché but my first instinct would be to look for a juxtaposition of unnecessary wealth and extreme poverty. I spent many years in Asia and the images that still leap into my mind are slums next to Chinese graveyards where the dead were “living” in marble mausoleums and the living languished in huts made from flattened oil cans and packing cases.
  • If, it was to be a project, I would probably focus on rural poverty which is over-shadowed by the more obvious urban equivalent. The regular car boot sale in Aldershot would provide plenty of opportunities.

Sources

Internet

(1) Moriarty, Sandra. An Interpretive Study of Visual Cues in Advertising. http://spot.colorado.edu/~moriarts/viscueing.html

Chandler, David. Semiotics for Beginners. http://visual-memory.co.uk/daniel/Documents/S4B/sem01.html

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Developing Assignment 4

Over the last several weeks I have been researching, planning and shooting test photos for assignment 4, Applying Lighting Techniques. Originally I wanted to carry forward ideas about the vanity of fashion, which had featured strongly in assignment 3 combining this with the symbolism of vanitas to create faux 17th century still life. As ever with these assignments some ideas work, some do not, new ideas arise, new inspiration is discovered and the end result is quite different from the images imagined at the start. To that end it is helpful to record the development process.

This post looks at the evolution of the idea and at some of the technical challenges that were encountered along the way. In each phase of this course my work has been influenced by three things:

  • “text” book and other informed opinions about the genres of photography that are relevant to the exercises and assignments in that part of the course;
  • the photographers, both contemporary and more historic whose work appears relevant;
  • and, my previous experience and knowledge of relevant techniques.

For assignment 4 my previous experience of photographic lighting was limited to trying to develop better daylight flash techniques in an attempt to capture a Martin Parr look and feel for outdoor documentary photography and extensive experimentation with food photography which I regularly undertake as part of my role in the family business.

This food photography is effectively the starting point for assignment 4. Partly because it means I own 3 flash guns, a remote infra-red flash trigger, three cold-shoe soft boxes and various other bits and pieces such as grids, reflectors, LED lights, stands and backdrops. But, it was only by beginning to think about assignment 4 that it became clear that it is also a starting point because food photography, along with some fashion and product advertising, is one of the most commonly viewed forms of still life in books, magazines and on-line.

It is interesting to note that Irving Penn and David Bailey both worked as commercial fashion photographers yet also produced still lifes as part of personal projects that are generally highly respected. The dividing line between commercially driven and artistically driven still life is blurred with photographers such as Peter Lippmann *(4) producing compelling personal studies alongside similar commercial projects. As someone who sees many high quality cookery books as part of my work I would argue that there is much to be learnt about still life from the food photographers working for the most celebrated chefs. Dominic Davies *(5) is an excellent example of a food photographer producing creative and exciting food still lifes for Heston Blumenthal. In the last six months I have learnt that it is dangerous to pigeon hole contemporary photographers without trying to explore the breadth of their work. I found Peter Lippmann when looking at a Christian Louboutin advertising campaign but his personal still life work is, in many ways, even more exciting as is his unusual approach to intimate landscape in Paradise Parking. Dominic Davies is no doubt a highly sought after food photographer having worked for Blumenthal but before putting him into that pigeon hole it is worth looking at his other still lifes and his Mapping London project which is a William Eggleston like view of the details of London.

Fig. 1 Food Photography

Fig. 1 Food Photography

Food photography was quite alien to me until the last few years and whilst it has been a steep learning curve and a journey that is far from complete it has provided me with a basic understanding of working with small lights in restricted spaces. There is little or no room for big lighting systems in a commercial kitchen.

Initially, for assignment 4, I wanted to work with natural light and to photograph still life or human subjects within the landscape as I felt that this would take me into new areas and would keep me away from using the type of equipment I used for food photography. However, whilst I felt inspired by the work of Edward Weston * (1) and would have liked to try something along the lines of his beach nudes I quickly realised that the logistical challenges were significant and to meet the requirements of the assignment with a human model outdoors was unrealistic at this stage. Despite this early change of direction I did find inspiration from Weston’s 1927 Shells, and his studies of vegetables a few years later. Pepper No. 30, (1930), Pepper (1929), Eggplant (1929) and Cabbage Leaf (1931) are classic studies of form.* (2)

My first tests, with Weston’s work in mind, were with small groups of fruit to allow me to experiment with lighting for colour, form and texture.

Fig. 1 Contact Sheet of Fruit Test Shots

Fig. 2 Contact Sheet of Fruit Test Shots

This experiment highlighted some of the challenges that would arise time and again in this assignment. My instinct is to light for a combination of colour, form and texture (at least where the subject makes all three relevant) and I found it difficult to think in terms of isolating one attribute of a subject to the exclusion of all others.  In the context of Weston’s work the plum tomatoes bottom left and the pears bottom right come nearest to the effect I was trying to achieve where form was the main study but the raspberries and the vine tomatoes have a sense of both depth and colour. I knew that this type of subject could be carried forward into the assignment and that a series based on any of these groups could be lit in the four required, different ways. The fat Duck series on the Dominic Davies *(5) web site shows how food can be lit for colour, texture and form, for obvious reasons silhouettes are less common but a few examples in this series come very close.

I was also looking at the work of Irving Penn and a number of contemporary still life photographers and to stick with Weston style fruit and vegetables would be very limiting and too close to food photography.

As mentioned previously I was interested in the origins and history of still life photography and that research trail inevitably leads to Fox-Talbot, Roger Fenton and through them back to the vanitas painters of the 17th century. The symbolism of the vanitas style appealed in a very direct way and immediately spoke to my original agenda of weaving in the modern vanities of the fashion industry.

Fig. 03 A Small Study in Grey - 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

Fig. 03 A Small Study in Grey – 1/60 at f/13, ISO 100

My first shoot was a very simple set-up. I spray painted a number of common household objects, set them up on a white acrylic sheet, added a pink rose for colour and took a few test shots. The vanitas elements were limited to the rose, symbolising the fragility of beauty and the fly to symbolise decay. This was primarily a light test using two cold-shoe soft boxes, one left and one right, both at about 45 degrees. The lighting worked to a point but I was uncomfortable with the fade to grey in the upper part of the background and noted that I either had to increase the intensity of the lights or find a way to fill the background. As an idea it was very limited and not something that could be taken forward into the assignment. I also felt that it was difficult to achieve the intensity of colour that I wanted using a white background.

By this point I had looked at the work of a lot of photographers and was identifying ideas that could come with me into the assignment. When looking at any photographers for inspiration there is an element of thinking about their subject matter, their overriding style and their technical approach but for studio based still life the technical approach in terms of backgrounds and lighting become a major consideration. It is clear that there are a lot of different ways to set-up and light a still life and I wanted to experiment with some of the options.

Fig 2 Still Life Inspration

Fig 04 Still Life Inspration

Fig. 04 shows the various photographers that were researched in some detail. A write up on these photographers is included here. This research led to a series of still life experiments where I looked at using different set-ups and techniques. One of the first experiments was inspired by Simon Norfolk whose archaeological study of objects found on the battlefield of the Tigris valley interested me at a number of levels. This is stripped down, simplified approach to still life that focusses total attention on a single object. Norfolk has photographed a series of small items excavated from a modern dessert battlefield so, unlike excavating  the site of the Battle of Hastings where the best one might hope for is a piece of broken and decayed metal, he has found tattered identity cards, pieces of clothing and personal photographs amongst the spent bullets and shell casings. This is a very human form of still life, exploring the memory of people through their lost possessions. I was keen to test out this idea quickly with objects that I already had to hand but with the intent to take this idea into the field and photograph found objects in a single location at some later point.

Fig. 05 My Dad's Stuff

Fig. 05 My Dad’s Stuff

Fig. 05 is the result of that experiment. My father was born in 1919 and died nearly 20 years ago. When I was thinking about subjects that might work as small items for simple, one object, white background still life I realised how few of his possessions I still own. His father’s silver watch, his scout knife, a bronze age axe he excavated, a few war time souvenirs and some tools.

At a personal level each object has a story which reminds me of my father, some objects are still being used by me, some are just beginning to be looked at and understood by my grandchildren and, when I have time I would like to repeat the exercise for other deceased relatives as a way of documenting an aspect of their lives. The items were photographed individually and then collected into a single image in Photoshop.

From a technical perspective it was a useful exercise as I was able to test different lighting in response to the material being photographed in a controlled environment. Some worked better than others.

Fig. 01 Bronze Age Axe , from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/11. ISO 100

Fig. 06 Bronze Age Axe , from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/11. ISO 100

For fig.06, the bronze age axe, I arranged the main light back of 90 degrees to the right, 3/4 lighting, and a fill light at a similar position to the left. This seems to have provided a sense of depth to the subject and the texture of the surfaces has been explored to some degree.

I have tried to use shadow as as way of exploring the form of the old fashioned router plane in fig. 07 as an alternative way of looking at the form of the object.

These test shots worked reasonably well but showed that 3/4 lighting is not the easiest to use if you still want to see the face nearest to the camera.

In fig. 07 the problem of backgrounds is also highlighted. In this instance I was using a flat acrylic sheet so the meeting point between the base and the background is very obvious.

I was also using a 105mm lens and working very close to the subjects so needed a deep depth of field to have the whole piece in focus. I have found depth of field challenging in food photography, occasionally it is interesting to only have part of a set in focus but generally it is desirable for the whole subject to be sharply focussed. This appears equally true for still life and  forces the use of small apertures.

Fig. 01 Router Plane,  from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

Fig. 07 Router Plane, from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

For my next series of test shots I wanted to create more complex vanitas still lifes bringing together classic motifs with modern objects.

ContactSheet-003a

Fig. 08 White Vanitas

For these shots I was still using a white background and, for all but “A” and “H”, I used the same acrylic sheet and a white background. A photography backdrop curved from background to base was used for “A”  whilst “H”, which is really just a bit of fun, was taken using a light box and a small amount of overhead light.

Fig.  Blue Vanitas - 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 09 Blue Vanitas – 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

“A”, the blue themed still life, was over complicated and didn’t work and was only useful as a learning experience for how not to set up a still life. However, I was pleased by the lighting in fig. 09 which is very even, brings out the various colours and avoids distracting reflections from the watch glasses and old mobile phones. In retrospect there could be a little more light to the left of the camera and on the coins at the front.

“B”, “C” and “D” were more successful, and worked when exploring colour but were much less successful when the same setup was used for texture, form and shape. I chose the red shoes specifically because they had both colour and texture but there was very little difference in the end result when I set up for colour and when I set up for texture.

“E” and “F” were taken as test shots for shape and “G” is my take on Irving Penn’s Vegetable Face.

Fig.09 White Fruit Vanitas 1 - 1/60 at f/14, ISO100

Fig.10 White Fruit Vanitas 1 (colour) – 1/60 at f/14, ISO100

Fig. 10 is a shot that is on the short list for my final submission as It meets many of my original objectives. It has obvious and less obvious vanitas elements, it brings fashion and classic still life together in a single shot and, I believe, works as an exploration of colour. The white background is difficult to work with, there is a 1 stop loss of exposure for every metre the backdrop is placed behind the subject so without extra lights to direct onto the backdrop it is always, at best, going to be grey. In this shot is just about acceptable but not ideal.

 

Fig. 10 Skulls - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 Skulls (edges) – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 Skulls (Edges) - 1/125 at F/16, ISO 100

Fig. 12 Skulls (Edges) – 1/125 at F/16, ISO 100

Fig. 11 is also on the short list as an example of lighting for edges. It could, and has been (fig. 12), processed as a full silhouette but it is not as interesting as a photograph.

In fact this picture sums up my frustrations with this assignment.

I can light or process this just to focus on the outer edges and perhaps that approach best meets the assignment criteria but equally by over exposing a little I can also bring out the texture of the skulls and explore their form.

This is a far more appealing image than fig. 12. so I might submit fig. 11 and hear my tutor’s thoughts.

After “White Vanitas” I wanted to carry out some test shoots using black backgrounds. When researching contemporary still life I saw that whenever black backdrops were used the colours of the still life became far more intense. Mat Collishaw and Paulette Tavormina use black backdrops in very different styles of still lifes but I think both are doing so to emphasise colour.

Fig. 12 Black Fruit

Fig. 13 Black Vanitas and Fruit

“A” through “E” continue to use vanitas motifs and are a natural progression from the White Vanitas shoot. “G” and “H” are straight forward colour studies. There is no doubt that using a black base and black background brings out the colours in the subject. If the aim was just to emphasise colour this is the set-up I would use.

Fig. 13 Black Vanitas (colour) - 1/160 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 14 Black Vanitas (colour) – 1/160 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig.14 is on my short list as part of the submission. It is “B” in the contact sheet at fig. 13. “A” would be an alternative but without the honeycomb grid and red gel used to emphasise the red shoes. The strength of these two photos are firstly that they are an evolution of my original idea so have some heritage in the project and secondly that they are strong studies in colour. The black background is much more interesting than the white with the subjects fading into or growing out of the black set, appearing suspended in space. In some ways the black set is easier to work with but it does suck up the light so the flashguns had to be run much nearer full power.

Fig. 14 Melon and Citrus - 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 15 Melon and Citrus (texture) – 1/125 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 15 is also short listed as a submission for texture. This was lit with hard light angled to maximise the different textures in the fruits. At this stage in the process I had a few images that had worked for colour, texture, form and shape but they were from different set-ups so I wanted to conduct a final shoot where the four attributes were represented by four different lighting techniques and photos from the same set.

The criticism might be levelled that, as this was the assignment brief, I should have gone straight to this point in the first place and this is a totally valid point. However, I wanted to explore the four attributes with different set-ups and for each shoot I did light the subjects in, at least, four different ways and took four different sets of photos but with all the above set-ups one or two, and very occasionally three attributes would come through strongly but never all four. I believe that this is because the way I worked through the process of looking at different techniques and using different subjects created environments that empathised one or two attributes above the others. Clearly I could back light the Black Vanitas and photograph a silhouette but it was a dull picture and I don’t see the point in trying to take dull pictures, I take enough by mistake already.

The process also allowed me to explore different photographers’ work and try some of their techniques and work towards a style of still life that was representative of me and that was an evolution of the style I have developed for food photography over recent years. I think I found my greatest inspiration in the work of David C. Halliday and Krista van der Niet. This is a move away from classic vanitas still life but they use light and simple sets to create atmospheric still life that explores form, texture and colour, often simultaneously.

Fig. 15 Green Backdrop Shoot

Fig. 16 Green Backdrop Shoot

Fig. 16 is a contact sheet from my final two shoots where all the ideas finally came together. I am disappointed that “G” which is the colour shot from the very final shoot is weak, the colours seem desaturated and what seemed right in the “studio” did not process as effectively as I had expected. I may be fooling myself but I suspect the the choice of fruit in “A” through “D” lent itself to colour better that the subjects in “E” through “H”.

Fig. 16 Green Backdrop (colour) - 1/60 at f/18 (-1/3 stop), ISO 100

Fig. 17 Green Backdrop (colour) – 1/60 at f/18 (-1/3 stop), ISO 100

This is a shame as fig. 17, “G” from the contact sheet, is very close to the effect I wanted to achieve, the lighting seems very soft and natural, (I believe that Halliday works with natural light) and without having any vanitas motifs it has a 17th century oil painting feel. I have just failed to bring out the colours as strongly as I wanted.

This has been a very frustrating assignment at times and I still questions whether setting such a simple question is pushing a student to explore lighting in real depth. It is too easy to take one object with a bit of colour and texture and setup:

  • Colour – lights above and in front
  • Form – 3/4 lighting
  • Texture – hard light at acute angles
  • Shape – backlight

I set out to learn about still life as a genre and to explore lighting for effect. I have enjoyed the research and test shoots immensely and believe that I have learnt a considerable amount about, not just lighting, but how to introduce a mood into simple still lifes.

Sources

Books

(1) Weston, Edward. (1999) Edward Weston. Cologne: Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH

Internet

(2) Weston, Edward. EdwardWeston.com – http://www.edward-weston.com/edward_weston_natural_1.htm

(3) Norfolk, Simon. SimonNorfolk.com  http://www.simonnorfolk.com/pop.html

(4) Lippmann, Peter. Peter Lippman Official Site  http://www.peterlippmann.com/lippmann3/menu.html

(5) Davies, Dominic. Dominic Davies Official Site. http://www.dominicdavies.com/fat-duck/

 

 

Irving Penn – Still Life

Fig. 01 Router Plane,  from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Router Plane, from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/160 at f/16, less 1/3 stop, ISO 100

On the recommendation of my tutor I acquired a copy of Irving Penn’s book Still Life *(1). Penn supervised the collation of this book and, as such, it is a revealing representation of his work. Penn is not the easiest photographer to pin down to a specific category because so much of his work was commercial and most notably for Vogue magazine from 1943 until his last contribution in 2007.

In his introduction to Sill Life John Szarkowski points out that, as a genre, still life offers the artist the greatest level of control. It is one of the few subjects where the artist controls the subject as well as the lighting, exposure, framing and final presentation. Szarkowski *(1) suggests that still life is unique in that its history is only a history of art, any other set of Iriving Penn photographs could be partly seen as a history of fashion, or of the changing landscape, or of the people who feature in his most famous work. When we look at still lifes and Irving Penn’s still lifes in particular we are reminded of the early photographers such as Fox-talbot and Daguerre and of the vast number of painters who preceded them. Like many of these artists Penn take humble subjects, pays them great attention through his approach and creates artistic representations that might alter the viewers preconceptions of that object or might just make us feel better by seeing something simple presented as beauty.

My research suggests that Penn was not a man who talked much about his work so it is not clear whether his commercial career was being parodied by his personal work or whether he saw them as quite separate streams or whether one just bled into the other. He is described as a prolific and incredibly hard working photographer who would often spend his days photographing for Vogue or Harpers Bazaar and his nights working on his own projects. Often his day job was to make the mundane beautiful or to empathise and express the obvious beauty in his subject yet in his private work he time and time again selects ordinary everyday items and creates beautiful pictures by exploring the colours, textures, shapes and forms in his elegant, minimalist still lifes.  In many ways his two worlds seem closely entwined. Fashion might appear to be an obvious channel for still life photography as stylish photographs of cosmetics, shoes and fashion accessories are now common place but Szarkowski *(1) tells us that before Penn’s first Vogue cover in 1943 he can find no copies of the magazine that feature still life in any meaningful way so, it might be said, that Penn created the first bridge between artistic still life seeped with the heritage of painting and commercial still life.

Penn is one of a significant group of photographers who are recognised as artists as well as reaching the pinnacle  of commercial photography, David Bailey would be another, and there is a common ground between them, perhaps in part because Penn was an established senior photographer at Vogue when Bailey was first making his name at the same magazine.

In their fashion and portrait photography, both Penn and Bailey had an economic style that concentrates attention on the subject and expresses their empathy with the models. When working in the world of high fashion they presented their models as women not mannequins, interestingly they both married their favourite  model, and their fashion photographs have outlasted the product they promoted leaving images of the people inside the clothes. Bailey describes his portrait style as not having one, that he was seeking “very sophisticated passport pictures” but neither his nor Penn’s style are easy to copy because their ability to see and capture the essence of the person is a highly tuned skill.

Penn said “Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to show the world. Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject dares to believe.” *(2) This could also be said of his still lifes where many of the subjects are “more wonderful” that we dare to believe.

Whether Penn felt constrained by his highly successful commercial career is a matter of conjecture but it is easy to interpret his private projects as counterpoints to the fashion industry’s obsession with youth and packaged beauty. Another easy answer to many of the photographs in Still Life or his Cranium Architecture *(3) series is that Penn was communicating by using the traditional motifs of vanitas and momento mori. Whatever his motivation might have been we are offered a remarkable collection of images in Still Life that lead us to much larger series along a variety of themes.

My perspective on the photographs in this book has changed over the last two weeks as I have been working on test shoots of assignment 4. It is only by trying to create a compelling still life that one realises that this is a highly challenging art form. As Szarkowski *(1) says, this is probably the only form of photography where the photographer has complete control over the choice and presentation of subject, the lighting, the technical aspects of the picture taking and the post production whilst this excites the artist and draws many to the form, equally it leaves the photographer nowhere to hide. This is photography with no excuses other than a shortfall of skill in one or more areas.

Penn’s range of subjects and approaches was very wide. Stationary, found objects, “classic” food ingredients including raw, frozen and cooked, vanitas motifs including musical instruments, skulls and dice, constructed sets which are best described as sculptures and many subjects linked to the fashion industry of which he was a part. There are common stylistic themes such as a simplicity of lighting and an elegance of set design combined with a formal complexity in his composition but over the many years represented by this book he switched back and forth between black and white and colour, between an emphasis on texture, a focus on shape and form and exercises in colour.

He asks us questions to which we may never know the answers. Does his extensive series of, what we would call dog-ends, represent a cycle of life from neat unused items in a pack to used and discarded rubbish in the gutter to being re-organised and painstakingly lit and photographed? Are his flowers symbolic of the fragility of nature and life or did he just see the opportunity to undertake intense studies of form and colour ? He said of the seven studies of a single type of flower each year that his lack of horticultural knowledge gave him the freedom to concentrate on colour and form and this might be the key to his work.

I sense that his still lifes were a form of release where not only did he gain the complete control of the image that would have, to some degree, been lacking in his professional career he also was able to photograph subjects, to use Eggleston’s idea, to simply see what they looked like photographed. His education and knowledge of the history of photography and art meant that vanitas motifs were naturally introduced into his sets but there may not have been a strong moralistic message.

The nearest I came to gaining an insight to his ideas was this quote: “A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.”

In the context of preparing for assignment 4 it was helpful to look at his work and try to understand how he used lighting to emphasise one or more element of each subject.

In Lavender Glory, Poppy, Vogue, 1968, *(4) , he lights a soft object with hard light against a white background to emphasise texture with deep shadows in the petal creases. It is interesting that he accepts a quite de-saturated finish with this photograph but approaches Rose, Color Wonder, Vogue, 1970, *(5), quite differently with strong colours and plenty of depth to the partially opened rose so obviously lit for colour and form.

Ripe Cheese, Vogue, 1992, *(6) is lit from above and in front for colour.

The key point is that Penn saw properties in his subjects that defined the subject so he arranged his lighting and exposure to concentrate on that property. As I have worked through test shoots for assignment 4 I have been frustrated by the idea that we should use a single subject and light it to bring out different properties. Whilst I would in no other way compare myself to Irving Penn I suspect he might have shared this frustration. In Lavender Glory he sees wonderful texture and invests himself in bringing out that feature, the apple and the cheese offer him a captivating colour contrast in Ripe Cheese so that is what he concentrates on. I do not believe that he would have then considered lighting the cheese and apple as a silhouette because that would have been pointless.

Sources

Books

(1) Penn, Irving. (2001) Sill Life. Boston: Bullfinch Press

Internet

Vogue Archives. Irving Penn: Uncommon Elegance – http://www.vogue.com/culture/article/irving-penn-uncommon-elegance/#1

Masters of Photography – Irving Penn – http://www.masters-of-photography.com/P/penn/penn_articles2.html

(3) Hamilton’s Gallery – Irving Penn – http://www.hamiltonsgallery.com/artists/27-Irving-Penn/series/cranium-architecture/

New York Times – Photographer Who Broke Molds – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/arts/25iht-photog25.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

(2) Hodgson, Francis. (2013) The Quizzical Chamois: Irving Penn’s Cranium Architecture – http://francishodgson.com/tag/irving-penn/?blogsub=confirmed#blog_subscription-2

(4) Pace Macgill Gallery – Irving Penn http://www.pacemacgill.com/selected_works/detailspage.php?artist=Irving%20Penn&img_num=123

(5) Christies – Irving Penn – http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/photographs/irving-penn-rose-colour-wonder-london-1970-5494381-details.aspx

(6) We Are Selectors – Irving Penn – http://weareselecters.com/2013/10/Irving-Penn-On-Assignment/

Contemporary Still Life

Fig.  01 Pincers and American Grips (war souvenir) from a series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Pincers and American Grips (war souvenir) from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/16, ISO 100

Having looked at the origins in painting of still life  and specifically at vanitas painting and before focussing in more closely on Irving Penn I wanted to look at a cross section of the still life work of contemporary photographs. The research trail has led me to a number of interesting photographers, some commonly working with still life, and some who have, seemingly, only used the genre occasionally. Some are obviously taking inspiration from the 17th century painters and some are working from a different starting point. The only connection is that each of these photographers has something in their style or approach that might feed into my assignment 4.

Contemporary Still Life 

The Tate Guide to Art Terms has no clear definition of “contemporary” offering a number of options ranging from the last ten years to the last sixty seven so I generally use my own life time as a period that is contemporary to me, not quite the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ 1947 until until today but not far off. However, this arbitrary moment in time needs to be stretched a little further to include Edward Weston whose shells and vegetables were original in their own day and a high watermark for simple, uncluttered, even austere, still life images that focus on light and form to the exclusion of all else.

Contemporary still life is a house with many rooms, and I know that I have only visited a small proportion of them but I see five clear groups of work.

There are many artists who are using the old masters as a template to create modern interpretations of the fruit, flowers and skulls of the 17th century. These would include Sharon Core who wants to recreate the time it took the masters to paint a still life by cultivating the rare fruits and plants that star in her productions;  Ori Gerscht who creates “classic” still lifes that are often directly modelled on paintings but then exploded whilst shooting frames at 1/6000th of a second to freeze the action; Laura Letinsky uses the framework of the Dutch and Flemish masters but moves away from their subject matter by bringing a strong sense of narrative to still life. Her photographs of the remains of meals look at what is “after the fact, at what lingers and by inference, at what is gone.” *(2) I have focussed in on photographers from this group that are more directly using the abundant styling of vanitas such as Lynne Collins and Paulette Tavormina and at Peter Lippmann who flamboyantly uses the vintage styling as props for shoe advertisements. Associated with this group but not quite part of it is Mat Collishaw who uses the look and the language of vanitas to express his concerns, however his subject matter and style are far removed from fruit and flowers.

Irving Penn, who like Lippmann, worked in the fashion industry has a simpler, crisp, clean, razor sharp style which has no obvious link to the Dutch and Flemish painters until you note the tiny details that echo vanitas motifs and thereby challenging the viewer to de-code his meanings. Other photographers have taken a further step towards minimalism in still life and I particularly like the work of Simon Norfolk, who is better know as a war photographer and whose series on found items in the Tigris valley inspired me to build series of simple still lifes of dead peoples’ possessions.

Penn used advertising and fashion as his vehicle for developing a collection of remarkable still life pictures but he was not alone. Paul Wolff and Alfred Tritschler founded Germany’s first photo agency and their archives show an eclectic mix of commercial work *(5) but it is their Short Collars photographed as advertisements in the 1930s  that provide another excellent example of the blurred line that divides commercial advertising work from art. Paul Martineau, in his paper The Still Life in Photography *(4), describes these images as cubist and points out that they are closely related to Paul Outerbridge’s work for vanity Fair from the previous decade. Outerbridge, who in his career worked for all the major fashion magazine titles of the age brought a highly tuned talent for arrangement to his commercial work which included a number of cubist still lifes. *(6)

Another group who have attracted my attention are artists who have fused vanitas influences, modern food photography and artistic interpretation to create photographs that, like Weston, are about light and form but use colour, thoughtful lighting and inventive sets to make the subject, which is often raw food ingredients, the hero of the piece. I will look more closely at two such artists in David C. Halliday and Krista van der Niet both as potential inspiration for my work and partly because I have a professional interest in food photography.

Finally there are conceptual artists working with mundane everyday objects that are made extraordinary by being photographed but, unlike the historical painter’s idea that the ordinary is made extraordinary by the technical skill of the artist many of these photographers present photographs that, at first glance, might appear casual and lacking in high technique. The Peter Fischli and David Weiss’ series Quiet Afternoon presents everyday objects built into unlikely structures. Charlotte Cotton, in The Photograph as Contemporary Art *(1), believes that this series played an important part in moving photography towards more playful and conceptual territories. Cotton explains that this approach to asks the viewer to identify the significance of the subject, knowing that there must be one, because the artist has made it significant by photographing it.

Although it is clear that there are different schools of artists using still life it is also interesting that, as a genre, it was very popular in the 18th century and rather faded in the first half of the 20th century. Since the war there have been a few notable photographers in this field but not enough to make it a main stream genre to compare with the popularity of landscape or portraiture. Of course throughout this period and up to the present day commercial photographers have been creating fashion, food and product advertising that is, in effect, still life and many of those, such as Penn and Lippmann have become well know outside their original world.

However, since the millennium there appears to been a resurgence as more artists take to still life as their favoured medium of expression. This may be because it is the genre that is closest to the classic visual arts where every aspect of the image is in the direct control of the artist. The artist collects the subject, arranges the set and deals with the technical challenges of lighting and exposure and post production and publishing.

In my next post I will look more closely at some of the specific artists mentioned here.

Sources

Books

(1) Cotton, Charlotte. (2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art: Second Edition. London: Tames and Hudson Ltd.

(2) Higgins, Jackie. (2013) Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus: Modern Photography Explained. London: Thames and Hudson.

Internet

(4) Martineau, Paul (2011) The Still Life in Photography http://www.theasc.com/blog/2011/03/28/paul-martineau-the-“still-life”-in-photography/

(5)  Dr. Paul Wolff and Alfred Tritschler – http://itaibachar2.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/dr-paul-wolff-tritschler-alfred.html

(6) The J Paul Getty Museum  (2009) Paul Outerbridge: Command Performance – http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/outerbridge/

Still Life, Symbolism and Vanitas

Fig. 01 Watch from the series My Dad's Stuff - 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Fig. 01 Fob Watch from a series My Dad’s Stuff – 1/60 at f/11, ISO 100

Assignment 4 “Applying Lighting Techniques” initially appeared to offer a wide choice of subject and approach and I was considering the merits of building a series of photographs in the landscape, this led me to Edward Weston. However, my tutor had also suggested that II looked at Iriving Penn and this began to pull me further from Weston’s nudes in the landscape and towards Weston and Penn’s still lifes.

The more I looked at the photographs in Penn’s book Still Life *(11) the more I became interested in still life as a genre and, given Penn’s background in the fashion industry and his still life style, there is a natural progression from assignment 3 to 4 and this in itself is appealing.

Still life, as a photographic genre, makes its entrance nearly simultaneously with the “invention” of the medium. Liz Wells tells us, in Photography A Critical Introduction *(1), that Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre both announced the process for making and fixing a photographic image in 1839 and it is notable that many of those earliest photographs are forms of still life. In 1839 Daguerre photographed Shells and Fossils *(2) and Fox Talbot sent a “Table Set for Tea” to his friend, the Italian naturalist, Antonio Bertoloni *(3).

There are no doubt many reasons for the genre’s early entry onto the stage, not least of which was the restrictions of the new technology calling for long exposures and still subjects, but it is also relevant that Henry Fox Talbot was a frustrated artist who referred to his invention as the “art of photogenic drawing” and who named the first photographically illustrated book “The Pencil of Nature”. According to Graham Clarke *(4) The Pencil of Nature “both predicted and set the terms of reference for the way photography was to viewed for much of the nineteenth century”. Fox Talbot saw photography in the context of painting, describing his techniques using the language of the existing visual arts and thought as a painter. From the outset Fox Talbot was in no doubt that photography was an art and that he was drawing “without any aid whatsoever from the artist’s pencil”.

So, from the outset, the new artists were thinking in the language of painters and as well as assuming the most obvious techniques such as compositional rules and lighting they started to use the same types of subjects and, perhaps most importantly, the same symbolism. In “The Open Door” 1844 Fox Talbot carefully constructs a scene containing positioned objects, even the “set” is manipulated to provide the effect he was seeking, the half open door, the backlit window, the twigs symmetrically crossed in the bottom corner. The photograph is as constructed as a painting, it is far from casual, far from capturing a chance moment.

Many of the early photographers were painters and many had enjoyed a formal education that would have included gaining an understanding of the great painters so it is not surprising that when they took up photography they came to the medium heavily laden with the baggage of fine art. Roger Fenton, who had studied painting before qualifying as a lawyer, made his name photographing great places and great people before turning to still life in the late 1850s. Still Life with Ivory Tankard and Fruit (1860) *(5) is one of his most famous works and as well as displaying his mastery of both technique and composition it reveals his roots as a fine artist by borrowing symbolism from the much earlier work of the Dutch artists. He includes the religious symbols of a chalice and bread, but the chalice is on its side suggesting consumption, there are grapes in the background suggesting Bacchanalian pleasures, over-ripe fruits suggesting that life is fleeting and the two ripe peaches have been associated with buttocks and the pleasures of the flesh.

This type of symbolism could be traced directly to the Dutch painters of the 17th century *(9) who used still life to communicate a religious, moral message in a style of painting known as “vanitas” from the quotation in the book of Ecclesiastes “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. The message of these paintings is not complex; live a better life, spurn the pleasures of the flesh in this life and focus your attention on the next. Their audience was offered repetitive symbols in paintings that, on face value, celebrated the wealth of a trading nation that was punching well above its weight in the 17th century with compositions built around an abundance of fruit, flowers, wine, imported goods and the fruits of the sea but often included snuffed candles, timepieces, books, musical instruments and human skulls.

The symbolism would have been understood by the wealthy residents of Amsterdam and Rotterdam in the the 1600s. Over-ripe fruit spoke of the brevity of life and if mixed with citrus suggested the sweet and sour nature of existence. Flowers symbolised the fragility of life, everything beautiful is short lived, beauty is transient, it decays. Skulls, more obviously, signified impending death whilst clocks and snuffed candles said “time flies”. Oysters, thought to be an aphrodisiac, represented sexual pleasures, an idea that could be underlined by the careful positioning of a knife. Books and musical instruments, expensive luxuries at the time, symbolised worldly pursuits. (A more comprehensive list of symbols can be found here)

The overall message was saying we are living in a rich and successful country with the fruits of the earth coming to our door but don’t get carried away as life is short, all these earthly pleasures are short-lived, focus your attention on the hereafter. The Gospel of Matthew 6:18-21 was at the heart of their thinking: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The obvious irony being that only the very rich could afford to commission such works of art.

The work of the vanitas painters, their predecessors and those that were influenced by them, can be viewed at another level all together *(10). In their day these were highly sought after pieces of art attracting the wealthiest patrons and some of the most accomplished artists of the time worked extensively in this field. The still lifes that have been preserved represent the work of highly skilled master technicians who were creating objects of great beauty. The Dutch prized flowers and wanted accurate and skilful renditions to brighten up dark winter evenings, the aristocrats wanted paintings that expressed the wealth of their country estates, the merchants wanted to show off their ability to import the rarest plants, fruits and objects from across the world. Many still lifes have no hidden message other than the artists’ delight in form, colour and texture and, more prosaically, market forces.

Photographers not only adopted the genre they often adopted the symbolism and we can see the same symbols repeated by Roger Fenton in the 1860s, Edward Weston in the 1920s and 30s, Irving Penn in the 50s and 60s right up to Ori Gersht in recent years. This lineage is intriguing and we can see a clear connection between Caravaggio’s “A Basket of Fruit” *(6) painted around 1599 and Ori Gersht’s Pomegranate *(7) in 2006, despite there being over 400 years between the two.

This connection is exciting and continues to be exploited by contemporary photographers but we are not restricted to the symbolism of the 16th and 17th centuries or the interpretations of the 19th century. Mat Collinshaw, a British photographer born in Nottingham in 1966, whose work spans many genres published a small set of still life images in 1994 entitled “Natura Morte” *(8) which are feasts of American junk food and speak simultaneously of wealth and waste, gluttony and over-abundance. Collinshaw communicates a strong message using the broad style of the Dutch Vanitas painters but using his own set of symbols. We readily understand his message because we recognise the Macdonald’s fries and the chicken nuggets and this in itself makes it easier to understand how effectively the 17th and 18th century artists communicated their message using symbols that were as quickly recognised and read by their audience.

Sources

Books

(1) Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction. Abingdon: Routledge.

(4) Clarke, Graham. (1997) The Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

(5) McCabe, Eamonn. (2008) The Making of Great Photographs: Approaches and Techniques of the Masters. Cincinnati: David and Charles.

(11) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bulfinch Press.

Internet

(2) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – A Table Set for Tea –  http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/36.37.36

(3) The Metropolitan Museum of Art – William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm

(6) The Bridgeman Art Library – Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio “A Basket of Fruit” – http://www.bridgemanimages.com/en-GB/asset/737485/caravaggio-michelangelo-merisi-da-1571-1610/basket-of-fruit-by-michelangelo-merisi-da-caravaggio-oil-on-canvas-1594-1598?context=%25searchContext%25

(7) Museum of Fine Arts Boston – Ori Gersht Exhibition – http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/ori-gersht

(8) Collinshaw Mat (1994) Natura Morte – http://www.matcollishaw.com/art/archive/natura-morte/

(9) Metropolitan Museum – Still Life Painting in Northern Europe, 1600 – 1800 – http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/nstl/hd_nstl.htm

(10) The National gallery of Art – Still Life Painting – https://www.nga.gov/kids/DTP6stillife.pdf

Rodriguez, Levin. The Berkemeyer Project – http://levinrodriguez.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/symbolic-meaning-of-objects-used-in.html

Phelps, D G. the Art of D.G.Phelps – http://www.easy-oil-painting-techniques.org/still-life-symbolism.html

 

Assignment 2 Self Assessment

Marleys 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100

Marleys 1/250 at f/8, ISO 100

Self Assessment

Quality of Outcome – My  concept was to provide an insight to the islands in no more than 15 images based on a cross section of subjects held together by a common style that represents me and the type of images I want to create.

The collection is no better than half way to achieving this objective. The positive is that all 15 images are very personal and reflect my sense of the place. I believe there is a common style but it doesn’t flow through all the images in a consistent enough manner to give me the sought after cohesiveness.

I now question whether a more narrow perspective of the place might have resulted in a stronger and more coherent collection.

Technical and Visual Skills – I am reasonably satisfied with the technical and visual skills I have employed in assignment 2.

Having made the decision to use the trip to Turks and Caicos as a shoot location for the assignment it was important to observe and photograph what was there rather than what I wanted to be there. I wanted images that went beyond the obvious and to do this I had to be visually aware. The first two months of TAoP has made me more aware of potential subjects and viewpoints and I know that I approached this location quite differently than I would have done before starting this course. My only regret is that I found the work of William Eggleston and Stephen Shore after completing the shoot as I believe I would have been better prepared to find the mundane and everyday things that would have more uniquely described the islands.

I believe that my compositional skills are evolving as I research the work of more photographers and Josef Koudelka has influenced my photographs of people in terms of how I thought about what to include and exclude and where to position my subjects. I generally continued to crop fairly tight and only took a wider view when that added to the image. I would criticise a lot of my pre-TAoP work as being too conformist and over reliant on the rule of thirds so I believe I have made a step forward by being more willing to break the rules to achieve the right emotional effect.

Technically I believe my images are generally competent although I struggled, as I always have struggled, with getting the right overall exposure when photographing black skin tones if there is strong light and shadows.

I have not introduced any new techniques in post processing the assignment collection but, in my testing and preparation, I processed a black and white series using NIK Silver Effects Pro after reading Michael Freeman’s description of its features. (see Black and White Caribbean).

Demonstration of Creativity – Perhaps as a result of 30 years of Kodachrome slide photography before completely switching to digital in 2000 I respond to saturated colours and strong contrasts. My challenge is to create images that use my love of colour positively without producing clichéd travel photographs. My subject selection and composition endeavours to counter-balance the use of strong colour and I feel that I have achieved the result I wanted in most of the collection.

Judging my own creativity is very challenging. My studies of openings and degeneration are progressional and built on ideas developed photographing rural Italian villages but on this shoot I was searching for and testing how to bring a common thread to these fairly narrow subjects. A little of this work has found its way through to my final selection and I am pleased by that. I would say that I have approached nearly all these images in a “new” way and that half of the final collection are of subjects that I would not have photographed prior to starting TAoP. In those terms I see this set as being developmental.

In thinking about whether I am developing a personal voice my main conclusion is that it is too early to tell so I will talk a little about my current creative thinking as I begin to build a clearer picture of my next steps based on the images captured as part of TAoP that interest me the most.

The first idea that crystallised by being focussed on the TCI shoot and that is influenced by Koudelka’s “Czechoslavakia, Slovakia. Bardejov. 1967. Gypsies” and William Henry Fox Talbot’s “The Open Door” is to start looking at openings, windows and doors, as an insight into a community, sometimes with the occupants included and sometimes using everyday objects to suggest occupancy.

I continue to be interested in degeneration by the forces of nature but need to significantly develop my ideas to avoid becoming over focussed on “pretty” colours and patterns.

Context – I am enjoying the research and reflection aspect of this course much more that I had expected. My tutor suggested that I looked at the compositional skills of Josef Koudelka (see Josef Koudelka and Composition) and to investigate “The Banal” (see Banal and the Topographical Movement  and  William Eggleston – One Picture of One Thing).

It is quite clear that this type of research is an essential part of the course and key to my personal development. I want to delve more deeply into Eggleston and Stephen Shore’s work in particular as I am particularly interested in their ability to capture a sense of place by documenting the ordinary. I see no particular link between their work and mine but I find their images of America compelling and want to understand them better as an enabler to being influenced.

I have booked to see David Bailey’s Stardust exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, it has had mixed reviews but I am keen to see his work close up. He was a man who helped change photography in Britain by invading a world that had hitherto been the preserve of the “right sort of chap”.

Exercise 16 Vertical Lines

vertical-lines-word-cloudIn terms of their graphic qualities vertical lines have certain characteristics in common with horizontal lines. Because they will be seen in the context of a frame it is critical that they are aligned in parallel to that frame and through this relationship they can also express stability.

Vertical lines can be used to create a sense of strength and power, they are associated with standing, perhaps with standing tall and potentially with standing over or dominance. If they extend far into the image they will also denote height although I suspect the opposite is equally true so perhaps it is more correct to suggest that a vertical line acts as a measure within the frame. Generally I saw more verticals than horizontals when capturing images for this exercise. This may be me or it may be that human beings provide obvious verticals and there are plenty of those about. Trees, posts, walls, buildings and many other aspects of the landscape offer dominant verticals. My challenge was to find four distinctly different examples whilst continuing to avoid just photographing one straight line.

Fig.1 Farnham Church - 1/500 at f5/6. ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig.1 Farnham Church – 1/500 at f5/6. ISO 100. 50mm prime lens

Fig.1 is my safe choice that plays to tall, strong, dominant and powerful, a church tower. I wanted to dominant the image with the tower but to include soft shapes and other lines to create an interesting image. It would have been easy to select a viewpoint that isolated the tower but I wanted it to “tower over” something other than an empty churchyard. Churches were designed to stand out in the landscape, churches like this one, when built, would have dwarfed every other building in the town other than the lord’s castle. they might have been the only non-military building constructed in stone. I wanted to capture this dominance and to show the tower as being dramatically larger than its surroundings and filling the whole vertical perspective of the frame.

St. Andrews Church in Farnham is a favourite location in my home town. It brings back memories of my elder brother parading the scout’s colours for the annual remembrance day services, my first and certainly my last live performance as part of the school choir and the site of William Cobbett’s grave. Cobbett is my political hero, a man who championed the rural poor, battling  the urban centric politicians of his day.

Fig. 2 Statue in Winchester - 1/100 at f/7.1. ISO 180. 105mm prime lens

Fig. 2 Statue in Winchester – 1/100 at f/7.1. ISO 180. 105mm prime lens

In fig. 2 I wanted to balance the statue against the many verticals in the old house. I have used a moderately shallow depth of field and processed for high contrast to focus attention on the many tones of bricks and the strong lines of the chimneys.

Fig. 3 Old Wall - 1/100 at f/5.6. ISO 100. 24-70mm lens at 32mm

Fig. 3 Old Wall – 1/100 at f/5.6. ISO 100. 24-70mm lens at 32mm

Still in Winchester I took a series of photographs of the old wooden framed buildings around the cathedral. The wooden frames are quite constant and repetitive but the way the bricks have been placed inside them varies. Where the bricks were neat and horizontal the vertical beams did not dominate the image. However, in this one section, in fig. 3, where the bricks were laid at many angles the vertical beams became much more important as dividers of the frame and as frames within the frame.

Fig. 4 Cathedral Crypt - 1/50 at f/8. ISO 25,600. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 4 Cathedral Crypt – 1/50 at f/8. ISO 25,600. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 4 is one of a series of photographs of Antony Gormley’s self portrait statue in the crypt of Winchester Cathedral. I had gone to Winchester to specifically photograph this statue thinking it would be an interesting take on a person being a vertical line. I had hoped that the crypt would be flooded as the statues often stands with its feet in the water but it was not. I hadn’t realised that the crypt had railings across it but this gave me an image of many verticals. In this version I have used a mid-range DoF on a 50mm lens to have the railings just out of focus but strong in the image. This seems to have him imprisoned.

Fig. 5 Crypt Statue - 1/125 at f/3.2. ISO 9051. 50mm prime lens

Fig. 5 Crypt Statue – 1/125 at f/3.2. ISO 9051. 50mm prime lens

In fig. 5 I tried a shallow DoF but cropped a little wider. The statue is smaller in the frame and the railings less significant. He seems less imprisoned because the iron bars are less dominant and he might be a man taken through park railings, a more comfortable and gentle composition.

Fig. 7 - Crypt Statue - 1/125 at f/4.5. ISO 20,000. 105mm prime lens

Fig. 6 – Crypt Statue – 1/125 at f/4.5. ISO 20,000. 105mm prime lens

My third interpretation of the statue in fig. 6 is taken with a 105mm lens through the railings so that they are excluded and we see the statue as a strong vertical framed by another vertical and the arch. It is interesting how different framings in exactly the same light impart different moods. Imprisoned in fig. 4, distant, isolated and remote in fig. 5 and strong in fig. 6.

Fig. 7 Portsmouth Landmarks - 1.200 at f/9. ISO 100. 70-300mm lens at 120mm

Fig. 7 Portsmouth Landmarks – 1.200 at f/9. ISO 100. 70-300mm lens at 120mm

I wanted something quite different for my third study. Fig.7 is an exercise in how strongly multiple verticals can dominate the composition. The bandstand at Southsea stands between the naval war memorial in the same town and the Millennium Tower representing a curved sail on the edge of the naval dockyard in Portsmouth. I believe the distinct vertical lines are the main element. The Millennium Tower is a strong vertical and looks powerful in the landscape despite having a clear curve on its left edge. Perhaps, because it is deep into the image we ignore the curve or the message of strong, high reaching, straight-up and vertical outweighs any other impression.

I see the curves on the roof of the bandstand long after seeing the vertical frame and the two towers but this is probably partly because I wanted the white towers and the frame to be prominent and have processed to have crisp whites against the grass and the sky.

Fig. 8 - Girl on Phone - 1/100 at f/8. ISO 180. 50mm prime lens.

Fig. 8 – Girl on Phone – 1/100 at f/8. ISO 180. 50mm prime lens.

I wanted a real person as my last vertical. In fig. 8 I was lucky to find a women standing between a black post and the verticals of the door frame with her back to more straight lines and even a near vertical row of books in the window. A composition containing lots of verticals. I seem to have a large collection of doorway images, some were taken because the fabric of the door was interesting, rusty metal or cracked timbers, some are because the door is impressive in some way but now I am taking more that are only interesting because someone is standing by them. The portrait shape of a door appears to be a strong compositional feature that I keep including in my photos.

I am beginning to think that a series of open, ajar and closed doors with glimpses of their occupants or hints of the occupants would be interesting. In the famous “Open Door” by William Henry Fox Talbot (1844)* we see a broom leaning by the partly open door but no sign of the broom’s owner or the building’s occupant. We are told that people were here, probably quite recently, we are shown what they were probably doing before they left but we know nothing more about them. I like this sense of a partly solved mystery.

Does the women in fig. 8 live behind the white door or is she just standing there to take her phone call?

Sources

*McCabe, Eamonn. (2008) The Making of Great Photographs, Approaches and Techniques of the Masters. Newton Abbot, David & Charles