Assessment pack pt 1: research and inspiration

Before going into any detail on my own assessment pack (in a separate post) I want to start with a little wider context on photographic presentation.

As I have probably mentioned frequently in these pages, Gesture & Meaning is quite an eclectic course, being made up of four genre-specific sections followed by two academic assignments. The challenge for assessment presentation is how to present such a diverse array of projects in a coherent manner.

Helen my tutor suggested looking at photographic presentation in other projects that contain a selection of different materials, to see if there were ideas or directions that I could pursue in some way.

Three projects sprang to mind: Eamonn Doyle’s End, the catalogue that accompanied the 2016 exhibition of evidential photography ?: the Image as Question and the Foto/Industria 2013 catalogue box. Each, in different ways, dealt with the point of collating multiple items into a coherent whole.

Eamonn Doyle’s End

The exhibition of Doyle’s trilogy of Dublin projects, ION and End was the highlight of my visit to Arles this year. It featured a breathtaking array of presentation methods, materials, colour schemes, sizes and sounds, turning the photography exhibition into more of a multi-sensory experience. It made me realise that there are many possible ways of presenting photography and 90% of exhibitions play it rather safe.

I ordered the book that specifically covered the most recent project, End, as soon as I got home. It’s not really a book as such, but I’m not quite sure that the right word is! It’s a kind of a boxset of photographic artefacts. It comes in a white leather-style slipcase, covered in yellow cellophane.

The contents include concertina fold card prints, pamphlets, posters, and even a translucent tracing paper-esque sheet that wraps around a 7″ single (haven’t seen one of them in a while). The prints and pamphlets are slim enough to mount and frame as pieces of art without dismantling them – as I did for my favourite image.

It’s a hugely impressive piece of work, and really plays with what an ‘art book’ is, or can be.

Takeaway points

Thinking of how (or whether) to apply this approach to my own G&M assessment presentation: I concluded that this kind of diversity of material works really well for Doyle as he has the strong backbone of coherent content (the streets of Dublin) running through the work. My challenge is that the four photographic projects are really quite different in genre, content and tone – so applying an eclectic presentation approach might actually make the whole thing just too incoherent.

I came away from examining this particular work with the sense that there needs to be a strong line of consistency in either the content or the presentation method. I will return to this point.

?: the Image as Question

This exhibition at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London was on evidential photography, an extremely broad and flexible subject – the kinds of images included reportage, forensic, investigative, judicial, astrological, even record sleeves. The catalogue that accompanied the exhibition was particularly interesting – so much so that I bought one.

It’s presented in the form of an evidence folder, with all the component parts inside held in place loosely by an elastic spine. It means that one can remove or order the contents in an almost infinite number of combinations. It also means that, like the Doyle work above, one can easily remove and frame an individual print (again, I did).

In contrast to the Doyle boxset, this has an eclectic set of contents in terms of subject matter. Like the Doyle set, it uses different materials and sizes of print, in this case tailoring each artefact to the content and format of the original image. So it’s kind of a hybrid format in this sense.

What makes this eclectic mix of both inner contents and presentation formats really work is the ‘wrapper’ – the conceit of treating all the diverse components as items of evidence. The existing cultural code of the ‘evidence folder’ is exploited to provide a veneer of consistency and coherence to what would otherwise be a bit of a mish-mash.

Takeaway points

Again, though this execution is interesting and it ‘works’ for this set of images, I don’t believe that the contents of my four photographic assignments can really be crowbarred together into an arbitrary category like ‘evidence’ as used here, and even if I did go down that route, I’m not sure what the unifying theme and therefore ‘container’ would be.

Foto/Industria

A couple of years ago I bought this boxset of booklets when I was researching workplace photography. It was the catalogue for a photographic festival that I hadn’t attended (nor even heard of to be honest) in Bologna in 2013.

The catalogue is 17 individual square booklets presented in a grey shell box. The spines are all exactly the same thickness and designed with a small black bar that steps down the set like a staircase. The colour subtly shades from yellow to green and back again. The set is clearly designed to work beautifully together when filed in the box.

The contents are very eclectic though; the loose connection is that they are all somehow related to business, but they range from ad campaigns to company reports to corporate portraits to factories to offices.

I really like the format, as I find it gives a strong, professional backbone of consistency to what is in fact quite a diverse set of exhibitions.

Takeaway points

Though they are physically quite different, this ended up being the strongest parallel to my own implementation. It marries very eclectic content to a highly standardised and consistent set of design principles – not just a surface ‘wrapper’ like the evidence set above, but a design style that persists throughout every one of the 17 booklets.

What I took from this is that if the overarching design ‘rules’ – layout materials, colours, typefaces and so on – are both consistent and professionally done, this provides the connecting  thread to compensate for the component projects themselves being quite differentiated.

Sources

Doyle, E. (2016) End. Dublin: D1

?: the Image as Question (exhibition) Michael Hoppen Gallery, London autumn 2016

Various (2013) Foto/Industria: Bologna Biennale 01 Bologna: Contrasto

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Assignment 4: context and inspirations

Whilst I tried to avoid any direct, conscious influences on this assignment – as it was a very personal project that I wanted to deliver in the way that felt right to me – I am aware that it exists in a context of related works and it is inevitable that some will have provided some inspiration to me.

In this post I look at such context and inspirations under four headings:

  • Photographic responses to tragedies
  • Artistic responses to the Nice attack specifically
  • Concept of embedding realistic text in photographs
  • Calendar design

Photographic responses

Whilst there is a significant body of work built up over the years around the response to, of aftermath of, specific tragedies, I was more specifically interested in those that are in some way centred around the people impacted by such events – either in terms of honouring the direct victims or examining the impact on those left behind. My project is intended to be simultaneously a memorial to the dead and an expression of the emotions that the survivors and the bereaved might be going through.

My tutor Helen gave me a few pointers. Paul Fusco’s 1968 RFK Funeral Train series is perhaps a touchstone for this kind of photography.

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RFK Funeral Train, 1968 by Paul Fusco

It focuses on the mourners lining the route more than it does Robert Kennedy, and the movement of the train gives a motion blur to the images lends an air of bewildered sadness, whilst simultaneously speaking of the transience of life. It’s hard not to see the people mourning not so much the death of an individual but of an ideal, a potential future.

OCA student Stéphanie d’Hubert (who coincidentally commented on one of my preparatory posts for this assignment) did a photographic and video project The Crowd about her individual response to the Paris terror attacks in January and November 2015. It’s a very personal reaction to being away from her home country at the time of the attacks, as evidenced by the subtitle Je suis trop loin (I am too far away).

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The Crowd (2015), 2016 by Stéphanie d’Hubert

Stéphanie uses photos and video to communicate “the profound sense of disorientation and disconnection that ensued in the aftermath of these events”. It’s expressive, visually poetic and experimental. It is though a very different approach to the one I ended up taking. It’s good to see however the many different ways there are to react to events such as these.

These two examples both express the emotions of the bereaved, the left behind, the indirectly rather than directly affected. I wanted to dig further to find examples of work where the victims themselves are more prominently referenced.

Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder series (1988) came to mind. In this he does not name the victims of the murders but describes them using text from newspaper reporting of the time. Each image is about a particular murder, and the text description is key part of the photograph.

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Sunday 9th July 1972 (1988) by Paul Seawright

As an aside, one of the most powerful aspects of the presentation of the images is the deliberate use of white space around both the image and the text; it gives a sense of silence and thinking space that enhances the sensation of considering the death of an individual.

Faces of Srebrenica (2015–ongoing) is a collective project by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty to bring together photos of those killed in Srebrenica in the massacre of July 1995. So far photos of about 2,400 of the estimated 8,000 men and boys have been collected.

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Faces of Srebrenica, 2015-

It’s an extremely simple but potent device. Each image is cropped to a headshot (with a few exceptions) and the name and age of each victim is given. It’s the accumulation of similar-but-different faces that gives this its power. One can simultaneously consider the scale of the massacre (and therefore the wiping out of a couple of generations of a community) and of the individual stories behind each picture, since these are predominantly edited from family snapshots donated to the project.

Responses to the Nice attack

There were (still are) a huge amount of memorial responses around the city itself, most of which are individual spontaneous expressions of grief (flowers, candles, toys etc) –  in huge numbers though they form a kind of accumulated visual expression of public and private grief, almost sculptural in look and feel.

Some more intentionally ‘artistic’ works also started appearing:

The city’s official response was a pair of banners outside the mayor’s office listing the victims’ names.

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Banners at the Nice Mairie, August 2016

Though very simple and without any particular artistic intent, it was the only act of memorial I saw that was built around the victims’ names en masse*. Looking back, I think seeing this is most likely what planted the seed of the idea of using the names in my project. I had seen individual names as parts of the huge public displays of grief, but this was where the scale of the attack really sunk in.

* EDIT: the Nice football team subsequently designed a commemorative shirt with the names of the victims formed into a heart:

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OGC Nice football shirt design

Aside from the inclusion of names, the other thing I took from the public memorials was that I didn’t want to produce work that actually depicted these memorials themselves – I wanted to perform a kind of temporal shift to depict a future Nice where these memorials are no longer in sight but the victims are still being remembered.

Embedded text

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Road safety campaign by Julian Calverley

I’ve been wracking my brains to come up with examples of where I’ve seen photographers manipulating images by introducing fake-but-realistic text into them. I’m sure I’ve seen projects like this (certainly advertising campaigns) but am really struggling to bring details of specific examples to mind… So I tried some research to come up with examples that I hadn’t seen before but illustrate that the concept isn’t entirely revolutionary. A fellow student suggested that some of Julian Calverley’s advertising work fits the description, although I think this is a little heavy-handed and I was looking for more subtle examples.

I did find Jenny Holzer’s 1990s Marquee images working in a similar visual style, but hers are examples of real-life text that she had placed there, then photographed – so a different execution, even if a similar outcome.

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Times Square Marquee, 1993 by Jenny Holzer

Taking a sideways look at this, one of my acknowledged inspirations for this idea was the work of Charley Murrell in Constructed Childhoods (2010), in as much as that used the device of inserting a realistic element (albeit imagery not text) into a scene that on closer inspection is proven to be a composited construct to make a point.

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from Constructed Childhoods, 2010 by Charley Murrell

This is the kind of thing that I’ve been calling ‘magic realism’ (a term borrowed from literature) in a photographic context.

Calendar design

The last context in which I position this work is that of calendar design. To me this is the least important context, as I see my main set of six images first and foremost as a self-contained art project, and a calendar as second priority to meet the brief. I am however aware that calendars do have their own visual vernacular that I should either follow or knowingly subvert.

In terms of photographic imagery, calendars – especially those pertaining to places – have a distinctive look. They are technically high quality, free of blemishes or other distracting elements, often feature quite bright and saturated colours and are generally aesthetically pleasing – an idealised depiction of the place being portrayed.

I did try to follow these norms, generally speaking.

In terms of layout, the predominant style for a wall calendar is that in which the image and the month data are the same size, as per examples below:

However, I wanted as much as possible to downplay the calendar aspect of the presentation and focus on the imagery. Also, the brief asks for one page to cover two months, which led to odd potential layouts bearing in mind I wanted to keep a standard (landscape) ratio for my images, as they are first and foremost ‘scenes’. Arbitrarily cropping to a non-standard ratio in order to fit in the month text wasn’t a viable option.

So I made the decision to deploy a reasonably unorthodox (but not totally unknown) design approach of having the dates run in a linear style rather than the more normal tabular one.

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This was an instance therefore where I acknowledged the design norms of the medium but decided to deliberately avoid some of them in order to better achieve my communication objectives.

Sources

RFK Funeral Train pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx (accessed 12/10/2016)

The Crowd (Je suis trop loin) stephaniedhlearninglog4.wordpress.com/…/assignment-5-the-crowd-je-suis-trop-loin (accessed 12/10/2016)

Sectarian Murder paulseawright.com/sectarian (accessed 12/10/2016)

Faces of Srebrenica rferl.org/a/27114531 (accessed 12/10/2016)

Julian Calverley http://www.juliancalverley.com/commissioned/ (accessed 12/10/2016)

Constructed Childhoods charleymurrell.wix.com/charley-murrell-photography (accessed 12/10/2016)

Jenny Holzer http://interiorator.com/jenny-holzer-marquees/ (accessed 14/12/2016)

Exhibition: Yousuf Karsh

Beetles & Huxley, London. 20th September – 20th October 2016.

More of a print sale than an exhibition, and in one of London’s smaller photographic galleries, this is a compact but excellent collection, featuring 23 large black and white portraits – all of the globally great and the good, from the 1940s to the 1980s.

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Karsh described his career as “a search for greatness”, and he sought out subjects that were famous and respected in their own field. He seemed to be trying to capture the indefinable qualities that make a person ‘great’, and by all accounts treated each subject with an enormous amount of respect and dignity.

His most well-known image and the one that kickstarted his portraiture career is the iconic shot of Sir Winston Churchill where the subject’s belligerent scowl is famously down to the photographer having snatched a cigar out of his mouth the moment before the shutter was pressed. It’s not only iconic but highly topical, as I realised when I got one in my change that day that it is the image on the back the new £5 note…

Karsh’s images are technically superb. As noted in the catalogue, the detail in his portrait of Ernest Hemingway is sufficiently rich that the beard and woolly jumper look so three-dimensional that you could stroke them.

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Ernest Hemingway, 1957 by Yousuf Karsh

His 1956 portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most striking portraits I’ve seen. O’Keeffe was, of course, no stranger to being photographed, being the wife and muse of the great Alfred Stieglitz, yet it is this portrait of the later, mature, widowed O’Keeffe that touched me more than any of the earlier images.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, 1956 by Yousuf Karsh

Karsh usually employed tightly controlled studio lighting but in this instance relied on natural sunlight, illuminating O’Keeffe’s noble profile. The skull and antlers hark back to both O’Keefe’s own artwork and some of Stieglitz’s portraits of her, and simultaneously act as a signifier for mortality. Visually, the twists and curves of the antlers echo both elements of the rest of the picture – the swirls of grey in her hair, the curve of her hand – and the gymnastic poses of her youthful Stieglitz portraits.

It’s such a magnificent portrait. If only I had the £30,000 to buy it…

I can’t write this up without mentioning the catalogue. It’s one of the most beautiful and tactile catalogues I’ve encountered, a black velvet hardback with all of the 23 images as plates inside, plus a detailed biography. And it was an unfathomably inexpensive £10 – the best money I spent all weekend.

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I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to compare one exhibition with another, but the context is that I saw this immediately after the William Eggleston Portraits show at the National Portrait Gallery, and whilst I loved them both, in many ways they couldn’t have been more different. Where Eggleston’s subjects were mostly unknowns, and his portraits mostly colourful, informal and loosely composed, Karsh’s are the opposite in every way.

This led me to ponder what it is I like in a portrait, if I found these two practitioners equally interesting. The conclusion I came to is that a good portrait makes you think you know more about the subject than you really do – the photographer has managed to tease something out of the sitter and hold it up for closer inspection. Eggleston does this with unknowns that he knows well, Karsh did this with people that we think we know.

Sources

http://www.beetlesandhuxley.com/exhibitions/yousuf-karsh.html (accessed 29/09/2016)

Yousuf Karsh Exhibition Catalogue (2016). London: Beetles & Huxley

Exhibition: William Eggleston Portraits

National Portrait Gallery, London. 21 July – 23 October 2016

I was fortunate enough to have a day in London last week and managed to fit in four photography exhibitions. Two were portraiture-themed (the other being Yousuf Karsh) so I will write about them on here – the others were documentary-focused so will be covered on my Documentary learning log.

I only took a serious look at Eggleston a matter of months ago, when I got Guide (1976) for the first time. I was struck not by the colour aesthetic that he is most famous for (I guess the shock of the new wears off after a few decades) but by the subject matter and the mood – he captured suburban inertia better than anyone I’d ever seen. There’s a banal, static kind of melancholy at which he excels.

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What I didn’t take away from Guide was the notion that Eggleston was primarily a portraitist, so it was with much interest that I went along to see this exhibition, buoyed by uniformly good reviews. I came away with the impression that Eggleston should have done much more portraiture, as I found it more interesting than his regular output.

A few of the pictures are in black and white, but they still come across as recognisably Eggleston. It’s in the naturalistic poses, I think – he’s very good at capturing facial expressions, for a start.

Most of the work is in his trademark colour, and a good few of them were in Guide, though overall there were more pictures that were new to me than familiar. A few of his most famous pictures are portraits to one degree or another, though the one of his uncle and his uncles’s driver below is perhaps more of a study of a relationship than a double portrait.

I was particular delighted to see his iconic 1975 colour portrait of Marcia Hare (known to me as the cover for a 2006 Primal Scream single), alongside a similarly-posed black and white counterpart. Printed large, the images are both as much about the dress as the girl – in the mono version it’s the sharpness and clarity of the pattern that is striking, while in the famous colour version it’s the selective focus that renders buttons sharp and lower flower patterns soft. It’s fascinating to see the two side-by-side.

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His posing and lighting are almost always very natural, and in the rare instance where this is not the case, it sticks out like a sore thumb. There is one in the set below that is not like the others – it’s almost Bruce Gilden-esque. I’m not sure why it was included in this set.

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There are a couple of his portraits that I hadn’t seen before that evoked the same static melancholy that pervaded Guide, and in both instances they were close friends of his. Viva, a member of Andy Warhol’s circle who became Eggleston’s lover, and artist William Christenberry. In both cases the composition, off-camera gaze and gestures give the same sense of contemplative isolation that I admired in my first reading of Eggleston’s work.

I think one of the marks of great portraiture is that it gives the viewer an impression of knowing something about the subject, even if they are entirely unknown. It’s the implication of depth of character that the photographer catches. Based on this collection, Eggleston was a natural at this game of making you think you know the sitter when you don’t, and I get the sense that this works because he knows the sitters so well.

Sources

http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php (accessed 29/09/2016)

Eggleston, W. and Szarkowski, J. (2002) William Eggleston’s Guide (2nd ed). New York: MoMA

Research point: Contemporary awareness 4

As directed, I have looked at a range of contemporary advertising photographers, and have picked out half a dozen that I felt were noteworthy.

Looking at advertising photographers is interesting in as much as it’s not always clear how much to credit the creativity of the photographer for the end result. Is it more the concept of a genius creative director, adequately executed by an able photographer? Or is the look of the ad as important as the concept? Or did the photographer contribute to the concept as well as the visual execution? One can draw some conclusions if enough of a photographer’s work is available to see – a consistently engaging visual style, regardless of commissioning agency or brand, is a good sign.

A few words on the ones I didn’t write about in detail, and why. Some had little or no advertising work in their online portfolio. Some were straight product photographers more than advertising photographer. Some had some really interesting non-advertising work in their portfolio but quite pedestrian advertising work. Some had unforgivably bad web sites. Some just didn’t stand out in any way so I moved on.

Final observation: compared to the other genres I’ve been looking at on this course, advertising is very male-dominated…

James Day

As well as working on lots of very clever campaigns (re my point on conceptual credit in the intro), Day has a distinctive and pleasing visual style. He errs towards very clean, light, often pastel-hued backgrounds.

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James Day

His work is a mix of good quality explicit messages and the cleverer implicit work that I find more interesting. He is good at either creating or interpreting the underpinning ideas that make implicit messages work successfully, such as the ‘packed with extras’ VW Golf sinking into the studio floor.

Andy Green

Green works more outdoors, though there is clearly a significant amount of lighting and post-processing used to get the looks he achieves. Some of his work is a little too artificial-looking for me – the kind of shots where I notice the over-processing before anything else, though maybe the aesthetic is intentional.

He produces some visually interesting, often witty, images – but rather maddeningly his portfolio doesn’t state who his clients are, so it’s difficult to judge the success or relevance of the images to the client’s product or brief!

John Lamb

Lamb produces high quality, stylised imagery. His ‘special effects’ work in particular is interesting.

This is the kind of work that I admire but have no real desire to emulate. The bulk of the work to produce such images will be done on a computer rather than with a camera. These are images that are visually striking but not necessarily conceptually interesting.

Peter Lippmann

Lippmann has an distinctive portfolio in that he very clearly delineates his commercial work from his fine art work, while others seem to blend them a little more. Much of Lippmann’s work is editorial rather than advertising, but theres enough overlap in terms of the visual language and intent, especially in the luxury goods markets that he tends to work in.

His is a rich, opulent style that suits the brands that he mainly works with. Now and again he takes on a more everyday commission like the Mikado chocolate one, and the execution is more light-hearted and reasonably witty.

George Logan

Logan is a photographer with a distinctive style in terms of the content of his images: very outdoorsy, often involving wild animals. He’s applied this approach to a number of disparate brands and concepts. It’s only when you see his body of work together that you see the pattern.

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George Logan

He stood out as a great example of someone who specialises in a content type, which could be vey commercially-savvy. If you know you want a wild animal in your campaign, who you gonna call…?

Dan Tobin Smith

I really liked his work, probably most out of all these recommendations. He works in a more formal graphical (sometimes verging on abstract) way than the others. He finds ways of seeing products in interesting ways, using shapes, colours, lines, patterns.

His work appeals to me not just for the pure visual cleverness, but for the way it helps to get across brand messages using semiotics. They are more subtle than the deliberately ‘clever’ implicit ad; they’re more about lending an atmosphere or characteristics to the brand via the visual language, rather than getting across a feature/benefit message.

Sources

James Day http://www.jamesdayphoto.com/advertising (accessed 14/09/2016)

Andy Green http://andygreenphotography.com (accessed 14/09/2016)

John Lamb http://www.john-lamb.co.uk (accessed 14/09/2016)

Peter Lippmann http://www.peterlippmann.com (accessed 14/09/2016)

George Logan http://www.georgelogan.co.uk/#Portfolios/Commissioned/ (accessed 14/09/2016)

Dan Tobin Smith http://www.dantobinsmith.com/commissions/ (accessed 14/09/2016)

Arles 2016, pt 2: the exhibitions

I’ve done a post on my overall observations on my first visit to Les Rencontres de la Photographie in Arles. This post is to cover the individual exhibitions I saw.

The festival is grouped under a number of headings: a mixture of genre, subject matter and arbitrary miscellany. I will use these categories for ease of organising my thoughts.

This is going to be pretty long. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. Put the kettle on.

If you want to skim to my highlights, these are titled in red text.

Discovery Award

Premise: five eminent photography figures nominate two up-and-coming artists each. I saw this in a group with four other people, and we agreed to view all the entrants’ works and then compare notes, including individually ranking the best three and the worst one of the ten projects on display…

Frank Berger

I confess I wrote this one off quickly and didn’t give it long enough to ‘get’ the underlying narrative at first. On re-watching, having had the premise explained by someone more patient, it made more sense. He photographed lorries entering and leaving an industrial abattoir over a period of years, and the (extremely banal) images are presented sequentially in a slide projection. The reality of what you are seeing unfolds slowly. Maybe I should be a little more patient and forgiving with seemingly uninteresting art? Or is the onus on the artist to engage the viewer with strong imagery first? Discuss.

Stephanie Kiwitt

Black and white, fragmentary street photography with a few underlying themes – absence, emptiness, consumerism. Some of the images are presented as split images with white space in between, in box frames placed on the floor. I found myself thinking about the connections between images, not always to the point of resolution. I liked this series more than my fellow exhibition-goers did, and rated it as my ‘bronze’ award of the set.

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Stephanie Kiwitt’s Maj/My

Basma Alsharif

This was a combination of video, appropriated images and a wall-sized room replica – and it did nothing for me, I’m afraid. We must not have been on the same wavelength.

Daisuke Yokota

Yokota exposes rolls of photographic paper to light, creating abstract patterns that sometimes resemble dreamy landscapes. The presentation method was quite distinctive – long rolls suspended from above, seemingly to resemble a waterfall. Unfortunately it also reminded me of a wallpaper display. A vaguely interesting curio.

Marie Angeletti

Like Kiwitt, quite disparate and fragmentary in subject matter, but employing a strong colour aesthetic. There’s a sense of narrativity to her images but any story is usually opaque and implied, leaving the viewer to fill in most of the details. She uses masks a lot, suggesting that identity is one of her interests. There’s a surreal and dark ‘Twin Peaks‘-y feel to many of her images. I like the way she sees the world. I voted this my ‘silver’ pick (no-one else agreed).

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Marie Angeletti

Christodolous Panayiotou

Four small photos (three of underground pipes, one of flowers) and three urban water features. Unanimously voted the ‘merde’ prize by all five of us. Balls of steel to be given a huge stand at Arles and do this with it.

Nader Adem

A study of people with disabilities in Addis Ababa. He has a good eye for simple, human moments, and captures his subjects without patronising them. One could question why such a (good but) straightforward documentary project was nominated for the Discovery Award, surrounded by more conceptual work – maybe it is recognising that places such as Ethiopia don’t have the same photographic history as other countries, and in that context it is progressive work.

Sarah Waiswa

My ‘gold’ pick for this set (we all agreed on this one) and also one of my highlights of the whole festival, so I go into more detail. And it deservedly won the overall Discovery Award. The series Stranger in a Familiar Land is a set of staged images of albinoism in Africa. The sole model is striking enough for the lightness of her skin, let alone her beautiful intricate purple hair braids. Posing her in the backdrop of Kibera slums makes her stand out even more than usual, giving a dreamlike quality to the images. The presentation made this project even more engaging: each photo was framed alongside a physical artefact; the viewer must navigate between the photo, the artefact and the title to interpret the image. A masterful series.

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from Stranger in a Familiar Land, Sarah Waiswa

Beni Bischof

Garish, pseudo-surreal, self-consciously wacky photoshoppery. Not my cup of earl grey.

Sara Cwynar

More photo-illustration art than photography really. Much use of appropriated imagery to build kitsch collages about the passing of time. I found the presentation of one half of the exhibit – images laid out in a consecutive horizontal line – more interesting than the individual images; it reminded me of Martin Parr’s Common Sense installation.

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Sara Cwynar

Street

Sid Grossman

I hadn’t heard of Grossman (active in the US from the 1930s to the 1950s) but I liked much of his work, especially his later period when he got more expressionistic and abstract. There’s an inherent historical interest in a lot of the work, though, and one needs to look past that to get to the ‘so what?’ of his work (he reminded of Vivian Maier in that regard). A handful of his images are exemplary though – in particular I loved ‘Pants Store’.

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Pants Store, Sid Grossman

Ethan Levitas / Gary Winogrand

This paired the contemporary New York street work of Levitas with iconic 1960s images of Winogrand. It’s a bold gambit to invite comparisons with a great like this, and I don’t believe Levitas pulls it off. His work is more contrived, more distant than Winogrand’s. The Levitas work gets displayed here better than Winogrand’s though, which is presented as blown-up contact sheets. The dissonance between the two parts of the show is bewildering. I found myself wondering how and why this pairing came about. Odd.

Peter Mitchell

I was really looking forward to this, but felt oddly let down by the presentation. It’s an exact re-staging of the 1979 show A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, which used as its conceit that aliens had been studying Earth in the same way as we’d been studying Mars. Photos of urban Yorkshire and London scenes are presented in ‘space chart’ frames. My assumption is that Mitchell wanted to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of the scenes being depicted. The problem is that in this re-presentation 37 years later, no such device is needed as the passage of time is enough to make this an ‘alien’ world. The extra-terrestrial conceit just distracts now. A missed opportunity for re-contextualisation I think.

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from A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, Peter Mitchell

Eamonn Doyle

My undoubted highlight of the whole trip. In fact, the one purchase I made out of the Arles trip, aside from the catalogue, was Doyle’s End. The presentation is awe-inspiring. A combination of colour images in grids, wall-sized b/w prints, colour-washed posters, graphic illustrations – it’s a multi-media, multi-format extravaganza.

But none of that would matter if the images didn’t work. Doyle’s trilogy of Dublin works over the last three years (i, ON, End) have brought a poetic, expressionistic form of street photography, and given a sense of place like none I experienced from any other photographer at Arles.

Monsters & Co

The one part of this segment that I really wanted to see was Charles Fréger’s Yokainoshima, but unfortunately it had closed the day before I got to Arles…

Scary Monsters!

This is a compilation of images of monsters of various sorts in cinema. It’s a fairly pedestrian theme for a photography festival in my opinion, and horror/sci-fi aren’t my favourite movie genres, so I didn’t hang around long enough to discern any deeper meaning in this one.

Phenomena

This is a collaboration between three Danish photojournalists – Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen and Tobias Selves Markussen – and looks at the phenomenon of UFO enthusiasts. It’s a surprisingly sympathetic depiction that avoids mockery. It contains lots of individually strong images and also works as a cohesive overall set, despite the shared authorship. It’s a low-key, quite sweet set that is as much about faith as it is about aliens.

Africa Pop

Only two of these three shows were still open by the time I got to Arles.

Swinging Bamako

Part retrospective, part contemporary catchup, this looks at the Mali pop music scene in the 1960s. Much of the interest in the first part is the historic context – all black and white photos from five decades ago are worth a look. I found more to see in Karen Paulina Biswell’s smaller set of contemporary pictures catching up on the band members. This show did also give me the earworm of the trip, the impossibly catchy ‘Rendezvous Chez Fatimata‘!

Tear My Bra

An eclectic celebration of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry. Some of it was visually striking, like the the Godfather pastiche and the recreations of iconic Hollywood scenes. However, these two sections were also the most derivative and timid of the lot, as they leant heavily on the audience’s knowledge of existing Hollywood tropes. Maybe Nollywood hasn’t yet defined itself enough of a distinct identity – that’s what came through in these images anyway.

Platforms of the Visible

An odd title for what the programme describes as a look at “Investigation as a photographic topic and the photographer as a detective combing through photo archives”.

Laia Abril

This project A History of Misogny, Chapter One: On Abortion is a powerful series, and one which I have picked out as one of my highlights, but perhaps oddly not for the photographic content. The subject of abortion and its effects on women who have them, particularly the dangers in the many countries where it is illegal, is not easy to depict photographically without being gruesome. The images here are portraits with testimonies, photos of artefacts such as surgical instruments, biological diagrams. Without the accompanying text they may not mean as much. However, the two exhibits that had the most visceral effect on me weren’t photographs but physical installations: a surgical chair with stirrups, and a pile of wire coat hangers. These two objects spoke more about the experience and dangers of abortion than the images.

Stéphanie Solinas

I probably didn’t give this the attention it deserved as the premise didn’t grab my attention. It’s a varied examination of a particular building on the outskirts of Arles, meditating on concepts such as memory, identity, passing time. What I saw of it I found quite clinical and lacking in any emotive connection. But as I say, maybe I didn’t give it a chance (it was one of the shows that I rattled through on day three…)

After War

I missed the Don McCullin show by a day, but having looked through the catalogue it features many of the images I saw at his Photo London show in May, so I’m not too concerned.

Yan Morvan

This is a set of 80 images of battlefields long after the battles. I find this genre of (very late) aftermath photography quite curious: without the context of the historic warfare these are perfectly ‘nice’ landscapes; it is only when one understands what had happened in the years before that they acquire gravitas. The significance from reading the caption triggers a re-evaluation of the image. One finds oneself searching the photo for ‘clues’ as to what happened there, but of course in most of them there are none, so it becomes largely a work of triggered imagination. Part of me finds this genre of photography a kind of manipulative mind trickery…

Nothing But Blue Skies

This, a compilation of media and art responses to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, is a mixed bag for sure, but on balance I felt more of it worked than didn’t. The first part is a recap of how the attacks were reported at the time – a room covered floor-to-ceiling with newspaper front pages, and a smaller room made entirely of old TVs looping through rolling news footage. Both are quite an assault on the eyeballs and the mind. Only after sifting through the imagery does one start to appreciate the nuances of how different nations and outlets reported the events.

The second half is made of artistic responses to the attacks and aftermath. One piece that I found particularly engaging was Just Like the Movies by Michal Kosakowski. It’s a skilfully edited compilation of clips from Hollywood blockbusters that recreate the narrative of the attacks on the twin towers. I got a bit of a Debord/Baudrillard vibe from watching fictional footage standing in for a real event – the sense that despite describing the events as shocking and unprecedented, we had in fact pictured and rehearsed such events already as entertainment. The other takeaway from this is that it has slightly reset my previously dogmatic stance that documentary must show things that really happened – it turns out that you can present a documentary ‘truth’ using only fictional material.

I am Writing to you from a Far Off Country

Yann Gross

This expansive and beautifully presented exhibition, The Jungle Show, takes a trip along the Amazon. Rather than employing a straight documentary photography approach, however, Gross stages scenes that give an impression of the people and the locale. He captures facets of Amazonian lives in an artistic, expressive yet non-condescending way.

PJ Harvey & Seamus Murphy

The Hollow of the Hand is a poetry-photography-video collaboration based on the duo’s travels through Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC (this last seems out of place, but it hangs together better than you might imagine). It’s a looping video installation that alternates between fragments of film footage with slideshows of Murphy’s photos with Harvey reading her poems over the top. The overall result is suitably ambiguous in terms of narrativity yet gets across lingering impressions of the places filmed. Once strange sensation I had watching it was that I found Murphy’s short film clips to be like moving photographs, in terms of composition and aesthetic – I found myself mentally freeze-framing when I saw the ‘decisive moment’ in each clip.

Rereading

Fabulous Failures

The title of this group show is somewhat disingenuous, as few of these are ‘failures’, more deliberate attempts to subvert photographic norms. It’s a very entertaining collection of surreal, playful and downright silly visual experiments. It wasn’t what you’d call profound, but I enjoyed it a lot.

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PutPut

Where the Other Rests

This group show is all about appropriation, as subject I am a little ambivalent about. I get that one can create a ‘dialogue’ with pre-existing imagery and make new pieces of art that carry a different message, but I found a lot of the work on show here to be uninspiring and lacking in originality. As noted elsewhere, I find some appropriation to be too self-referential and insular – photography about photography.

The one piece that I did admire here was Broomberg & Chanarin’s Afterlife, which took an image of a Kurdish firing squad execution and deconstructed it, isolating figures from the background and mounting the photo fragments on multiple glass plates – like a collage where none of the pieces touch. I found this detailed dissection of a photograph brought its meaning closer to the surface, in a strange way.

Bloomberg & Chanarin, 'Afterlife 8', from Where the Other Rests
Bloomberg & Chanarin, ‘Afterlife 8’, from Where the Other Rests

Singular!

Themed archival collections.

Sincerely Queer

A look at the hitherto hidden world of 19th and early 20th century LGBTQI amateur photography. Gender fluidity and cross-dressing in particular has an enormously rich visual history, but for various reasons the images have been kept private. Sébastien Lifshitz has collected and curated a wide-ranging and fascinating alternative history, proving that the accepted version of society’s history always leaves things out.

Lady Liberty

An interesting enough visual summary of the construction of the Statue of Liberty. Not sure there’s enough there to justify it being part of a major photographic festival though.

Hara Kiri Photo

The visual archives of the satirical French magazine (kind of Charlie Hebdo forerunner?). What you could get away with showing on newsstands in France in the 1960s and 1970s is mind-boggling. Out of the context of the time these images just look variously surreal, profane, pornographic and grotesque. A prurient curiosity.

Outside the Frame

The Cardboard Museum

A self-consciously wacky funhouse-style installation with various rooms containing surreal images and objects in. Like a class of sixth-form art students had been let loose. It would have been a nice lightweight palate-cleanser if I’d visited it halfway through the more serious works in the Parc des Ateliers, but as it happened it was the first thing I saw, and I was simply bemused. It did include the pic below though, that made me laugh.

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from The Cardboard Museum

Emergences

This section picks out emerging talents.

An Unusual Attention

The work of three graduates from ENSP (the Arles photography school). Guillaume Delleuse was the only one to make an impression. His gritty, sexually-charged black and white urban photography reminded me of Anders Petersen and Jacob Aue Sobol. Clémentine Roche’s repetitive (found?) street scenes and Vincent Marcq’s deconstructed house didn’t do much for me.

Associated Programme

Systematically Open?

Subtitled New Forms for Contemporary Image Production, this was put together by the LUMA Foundation in Arles. It featured four exhibitions, only one of which was particularly good in my opinion.

Curated by Walead Beshty, Picture Industry is described as “an array of images whose formats reveal the complex and evolving relationship between the photographic medium and its many modes of distribution“. The bare thread that connects these eclectic images is that they were originally presented in different visual formats. So we get prints, slideshows, video installations, 70s porn mag spreads etc. I presume the point is to highlight how images are (at least in part) interpreted based on the distribution channel and/or physicality.

Elad Lassry apparently wants to investigate “what kinds of engagement are possible with pictures“. For reasons best known to himself, he felt the best way to do this was to display large, colourful pictures of dental procedures. Gruesome and fairly pointless.

Collier Schorr curated a collaboration with his near-namesake Anne Collier, but unfortunately I found little of interest in the collection of nudes, self portraits and porn pastiches. Supposedly about “exposed subjects [who] are frequently framed by the formats of the medium itself“, it came across as very self-indulgent.

Photographer and activist Zanele Muholi provided the one highlight of this section. Her ongoing series Somnyama Ngonyama is a set of stark, dark self-portraits in various states of costume and make-up, often based around her hair – a key cultural signifier for African women. Each portrait is visually dominated by the strong contrast between the darkness of her skin and the whiteness of her eyes. Her gaze into the lens is penetrating. Striking is an understatement.

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from Somnyama Ngonyama, Zanele Muholi

That’s me done!

Exhibition: Jacques Henri Lartigue

Jacques Henri Lartigue: A Floating World

At the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice, France, from 17th June to 25th September 2016.

I wasn’t particularly familiar with his work before this, and at first assumed that Lartigue (1894-1986) merited the exhibition here mainly because he was a local lad (he lived in and around Nice for most of his adult life). The content was seemingly quite lightweight: mainly upper class French folks at leisure in the first half of the 20th century.

However, the premise of the show, once I understood it, piqued my interest. The exhibition leaflet explains it as follows (my emphasis): “The exhibition brings together around 200 photographs on the theme of fleeting moments, the brevity of joy and the fragility of life itself (Florian Rodari, 2016).

Maybe this is a stereotypically philosophical French way of looking at a set of photographs! Even so, it made me look at the photos again, and see something a little deeper and more affecting in the images.

Lartigue was known as a painter for most of his career, though had been taking photograph since childhood. He was not recognised by the outside world for his photography until his late sixties. This means that, like Saul Leiter or maybe Vivian Maier, his work stayed true to himself without the unnecessary influence of peers, critics, buyers or gallery owners. He shot what he wanted to, and retrospectively much of it was accepted into the canon of photographic art.

Given the course module I’m on right now, I was particularly interested in his portraiture. There’s an overriding sense of playfulness and curiosity in Lartigue’s work, and this often comes through in his portraits. He mostly shot the upper class at play, and so there’s a real sense of capturing carefree moments of fun and happiness. Most of his portraits are of women, mainly friends and family. This familiarity comes through in the informality – in some cases intimacy – of his images.

Marie Belewsky, Cap d'Antibes, May 1941 by Jacques Henri Lartigue
Marie Belewsky, Cap d’Antibes, May 1941 by Jacques Henri Lartigue

There’s one image in particular, above, that stayed with me. The sea, the swimsuit and the wet hair all denote summery leisure but it’s the mask that makes it. It draws attention to the eyes in a direct and unsubtle way, but once you look inside the mask you see that she’s not addressing the camera (/viewer) but looking off to the side to something out of shot. This use of eye-line to drive the viewer out of the frame has the effect of making you imagine what has distracted her, what other fun is being had just out of frame that is more interesting to the subject than looking at the photographer. The composition is exquisitely simple too, with the very slightly askew horizon conjuring up high jinx and the slender triangle of hillside pointing in the same direction of her off-camera gaze. With a portrait like this one can imagine life happening beyond the frame, and that is for me a mark of a great photo. It exudes interest, it’s more than the sum of its parts, it gives the viewer something to contribute to the resolving of the image. I love it.

What have I learned from looking at Lartigue’s work? To be honest, not a massive amount new that I hadn’t learned from other practitioners of the same era. He certainly had an eye for capturing fleeting moments of joy but I wouldn’t put him in the category of the ‘old masters’. He produced a handful of excellent portraits though, including the Marie Belewsky one above that has instantly jumped into my all-time favourite portrait list.

Assignment 3: research

This is the third post I’ve done recently looking at specific portrait photographers who might be useful to my studies, with the other two linked below for reference:

This post is about photographers that I’ve looked at specifically for Assignment 3. Most were recommended by my tutor Helen and at the end I’ve added someone that I had in mind all the way through based on my memory of seeing his work a couple of years ago.

Rineke Dijkstra

hilton-head-island-s-c-usa-june-24-1992-webWhilst the name was new to me, I recognised some of her work once I started researching her, particularly the new mothers in hospital and the young bathers. The Tate website puts it best when it describes her as “capturing her subjects in moments that are both self-conscious and unwittingly revealing“.

Lots of her work is outdoors, which ties in with my assignment. Despite the outside settings, the portraits are very formally set up, lit, posed and shot. It’s as though she builds an invisible studio around her subjects. Influences from art history are evident in much of her work., such as this portrait that brings to mind Botticelli’s Venus.

I find more to admire than to like in Dijkstra’s work. It’s technically excellent, and the vulnerability that she manages to capture in the subjects is notable – but something about the repetition of the deadpan, formal poses leaves me slightly cold. The subjects often look so ill-at-ease that it makes for uncomfortable viewing – it feels almost exploitative. Interesting from a study point of view, but it’s not a style that I’d like to emulate.

Alec Soth (Broken Manual)

This was Soth’s ‘running away from it all’ project looking at modern American hermits. Of the Soth projects that I saw as part of the Gathering Leaves show in 2015 I think Broken Manual was the one that made least impression on me, so it’s interesting to revisit it from a portraiture context.

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S., Alabama from Broken Manual by Alec Soth

Almost all of Soth’s hermit portraits present their subject in the context of the landscape. The above image in particular, presented as an example by my tutor, is a key influence on my assignment plans in terms of presenting my subjects as small elements in a broader environment, albeit for different reasons than Soth. My interpretation of Soth’s decision to place the subject small in the frame is to emphasise their isolation. Visually I find this one in particular interesting because of the echo of the man’s tall, skinny frame with the high, spindly trees behind. He’s isolated as a human, yet (visually) blends in with the neighbouring woodland.

As an aside, I heard Soth talking about the project at Photo London a couple of months ago, and while he didn’t say as much, it struck me that the title might be a subtle play on words, as one can find the phrase Broken Man in Broken Manual. Soth has previously written on the importance of titles and how much thought he has put into them.

John Angerson

Although a lot of his work is commercial and/or studio-based celebrity portraits (and sometimes understandably unremarkable), some of his environmental portraits are much more interesting.

Like Soth in his Broken Manual work, Angerson is good at placing the person in the environment to make the connection between the two. So again, this is providing some inspiration for my own attempts.

Sarah Carp

Probably the artist I’ve been most impressed by in this batch of research. Her projects, which tend to combine portraiture with landscapes, are all incredibly beautiful but with an edge of mystery and melancholy that really drew me in.

As noted elsewhere, I’m fascinated by portraits that exclude or obscure the face, and Carp employs this approach a lot. Through the combination of excluding the face and placing the subject in a particular environment, it emphasises the connection between the person and the place. It also makes the subject seem more contemplative, as though they are looking off into the distance, in the same direction as the viewer, yet not addressing them – almost ignoring them. And this draws me in even more.

I had in mind early on that I wanted one photo in each of the portrait sets for the assignment to have the face obscured, so it was really encouraging and interesting to see that others have employed this technique successfully. I confess I only really had a proper look at Carp’s work after I’d already started shooting for the assignment so her work has become kind of a retrospective, reinforcing inspiration rather than a direct one.

Laura Pannack

from Glass by Laura Pannack
from Glass by Laura Pannack

From her website: “Her art focuses on social documentary and portraiture, and seeks to explore the complex relationship between subject and photographer.

This subject-photographer relationship comes through particularly strongly in her series Glass, which is more staged and conceptual than much of her subsequent work. In this she placed a sheet of glass between her and her subjects and asked them to close their eyes, and the effect of this is to exaggerate the existing unease that many people have when having their portrait taken.

Most of her work is less tightly constructed and more organic. Like the others mentioned in this post, she excels at depicting people in a particular ‘real’ environment, and many of her portraits have an unforced, informal quality to the posing that makes them lean towards documentary in style. Others do look more deliberately posed and are more visually striking for it.

Whether informally captured or specifically directed, her use of unusual poses is what jumps out at me in the photos of hers that I am drawn to. There’s so much more to do with portraiture than capture shots of people standing up straight…

Brian Griffin

One aspect of my assignment that might not be immediately obvious is that I am aiming to capture portraits of what is, in a sense, a set of ‘workmates’ – albeit they are engaged in voluntary rather than paid work. For this reason, one source of inspiration was the business portrait work of Brian Griffin.

A couple of years ago I bought a box of pamphlets from the inaugural Foto/Industria biennale in Bologna, a set of exhibitions celebrating the often-overlooked genre of business/industrial photography. Griffin’s exhibition/pamphlet was entitled Annual Report 1974-2013, and collected some of his commission work for businesses.

These images and others by Griffin stuck in my mind, and taught me that there are so many variants on portrait posing that can be employed – to add more visual interest and/or to communicate something particular about the sitter. The Johnnie Turpin one in particular is striking: the use of the deep black shade creates an odd shape yet it is immediately recognisable as a sitting position – giving the impression that this man is confident and relaxed. The expression, looking over his own perched foot and disguising his mouth (that other indicator of mood, after the eyes) makes him appear very superior and aloof. It’s a great image, but I wouldn’t want him as my boss…

Sources

Rineke Dijkstra https://theliteratelens.com/2012/09/14/rineke-dijkstra-and-the-solemn-portrait/ (accessed 06/07/2016)

Broken Manual http://alecsoth.com/photography/?page_id=213 (accessed 06/07/2016)

https://alecsothblog.wordpress.com/2006/09/13/90/ (accessed 14/10/2015)

John Angerson http://www.johnangerson.com (accessed 06/07/2016)

Sarah Carp http://www.sarahcarp.com (accessed 11/07/2016)

Laura Pannack http://laurapannack.com (accessed 11/07/2016)

Brian Griffin http://www.fotoindustria.it/en/archive/brian-griffin/ (accessed 11/07/2016)

Griffin, B. (2013) Annual Report 1974-2013 [part of Foto/Industria box set]. Bologna: Contrasto

Research point: Contemporary awareness 3

As directed, I have looked at a range of contemporary portrait photographers that produce work to which I have some reaction (positive or otherwise). I’ve selected a few from the list suggested in the course notes and added a couple others I’ve found over my studies.

Note that I have recently looked at a number of contemporary portraitists (Charles Fréger, Julian Germain, Christoph Soeder, Sissel Thastum and Alec Soth) that my tutor suggested at the start of this section. I won’t repeat these here but will select others to discuss.

One more note before I start: I’ve looked at all of the photographers suggested but chose not to cover most of the ones who specialise in portraits of celebrities (using that terms in its widest else, meaning anyone that is known to the public). The reason for this is, and I have banged on about this in the past I admit, I find portraits of ‘known’ subjects to be inherently less interesting than images of strangers. Looking at an image of a known subject is an exercise in reassurance, of recognition – and I don’t personally find that very engaging. Of far more interest is a good portrait of an unfamiliar subject: to me the ‘magic’ of a really effective portrait is the illusion that the viewer can know something of the subject, even when they manifestly do not.

The exceptions to this are the photographers who find ways of shooting known subjects in particularly visually interesting ways. I will start with one of these.

Joe McGorty

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Vincent Cassel by Joe McGorty

Of all the ‘celebrity’ photographers in the list, McGorty at least makes an effort to vary his staging and composition to bring out something of the personality of the sitter. He moves between B&W and colour, between simple head-on poses and more candid moments without eye contact, between simple headshot and more sophisticated environmental portraits.

His shot of Vincent Cassel is a example of a good McGorty portrait. It places him in a glamorous French Riviera context, surrounded by people but the focus is entirely on Cassel; the black suit not only signifies effortless continental style but visually makes for superb figure/ground contrast; the casual stroll and glance to the side oozes cool; everything in the frame draws you to Cassel’s face.

Paul Floyd Blake

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from Doctor Who & Me by Paul Floyd Blake

Though not all of his work is portraiture, it does feature strongly in his portfolio. There’s an underlying sense of gentle melancholy to much of his work; to use his own words, his images come about “through my melancholic observations”.

Of particular interest to me for my current assignment, he eschews studio portraiture and works in the environments of his subjects. The connection between the location and the sitter comes through as an important aspect of his best portraits.

This portrait of a Doctor Who fan works exceptionally well for me, not for the more obvious element of the mask but for the more subtle signifier of the narrowness of the room.

He works very much in a realist, unfussy documentary photography style. The risk with this is that some of his portraits are so subtle, so nuanced that at first sight they are unremarkable.

Ali Lomas

I found Lomas’ personal story to be more interesting than her photography (partly because I couldn’t find much of it; she’s wiped her portfolio site). After successfully shooting portraits, including being the youngest person to exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery, she gave it all up to become an A&E nurse. She had been shooting nurse portraits and decided “I wanted to become my subject”. That’s subject empathy to an extreme degree.

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from To Feel Beautiful by Ali Lomas

I did find some of her early work, To Feel Beautiful (2010), for which she won The Godfrey Argent Award. I found them interesting to look at and thought-provoking in the way they subverted the normal ‘happy’ presentation of young women in the media – but for me they are constructed scenes much more than they are portraits (despite being part of that year’s Taylor Wessing prize). A good portrait tells you something about the subject; these tell you something about a fictional character/amalgam created for the photo.

Jeffrey Stockbridge

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from Kensington Blues by Jeffrey Stockbridge

My first impression was of an Alec Soth type, affirmed by my reading that he uses a 4×5 camera for ‘slow photography’.

Like Soth he works in the space between art, portraiture, landscape and documentary photography, though his milieu is more gritty and urban.

His portrait work is part of larger social issue projects, such as Kensington Blues about Philadelphia drug addicts. He gets to know his subjects, gathering written and audio testimonies along with the photos.

One does get a  sense of individual personalities behind the stereotypes, helped by his eye for posing his subjects in striking compositions.

Largely I wasn’t that enamoured with the list provided in the course notes, as I found little by way of originality and an over-emphasis on known subjects.

My own research has uncovered a couple of portraitists that are producing more interesting work.

Jack Davison

Despite being annoyingly young ;-) Davison has impressed me in his brief career so far. He has a playful, experimental approach to portraiture that finds seemingly infinite ways of representing individuals and makes one wonder why so much portraiture is so similar.

He obscures the face partially or wholly in a variety of different ways, and as noted elsewhere that’s one of the aspects of portraiture that I find most intriguing. In the example above there are a number of visual elements that make it a striking image: the vantage point, looking down onto the face; the close crop; the closed eyes – but most of all the shadow pattern on the face: it places the subject in 3D space, with something between her and the light source. Does it tell you anything about the sitter? I think it does, or at least it implies something, gives the illusion of telling you something; it ‘tells’ me that she is a dreamer, a free thinker.

This experimental approach (however it manifests itself) makes the images worth a second look, it draws you into an photo because it both does and doesn’t resemble a portrait. In a 2015 BJP interview he talked about spontaneity being a big part of his work, and (rather oddly, or sweetly I thought) said that he hadn’t noticed his own preference for obscuring the face (BJP, December 2015). Maybe it’s all very subconscious…

Richard Learoyd

Learyod’s distinctive approach is to use a room-sized camera obscura to create his pictures, which are mostly portraits and often of a recurring set of sitters. I’m not normally a fan of photography where the technical method is the point of interest as most of it is simply gimmickry without any real depth in the final results – but Learoyd is absolutely the exception to this.

Agnes with Eyes Closed (detail) © Richard Learoyd
Agnes with Eyes Closed (detail) © Richard Learoyd

I’ve seen Learoyd’s Dark Mirror exhibition at the V&A and there’s two aspects that really struck me: first, the portraits are the most unnervingly realistic I had never seen – you almost expect the subject to turn around and address you. This in itself makes the viewer believe (more than with a regular portrait) that you are in the presence of a true individual with their own life, quirks, character traits. And secondly, each photograph is a unique positive, and there are no negatives and so no ability to truly reproduce. Whilst normal for painting, this is highly unusual for a photograph, and in a strange way made me appreciate the images more than I normally would. The uniqueness of the image matches the uniqueness of the individual – the two concepts work hand-in-hand for me.

Sources

Joe McGorty http://joemcgorty.com/filter/5 (accessed 04/07/2016)

Paul Floyd Blake http://www.paulfloydblake.co.uk (accessed 04/07/2016)

Ali Lomas http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/ali-lomas/nursing_b_9304496.html (accessed 04/07/2016)

Jeffrey Stockbridge http://www.jeffreystockbridge.com (accessed 04/07/2016)

Jack Davison http://www.jackdavison.co.uk (accessed 06/07/2016)

Seymour, T. (2015) ‘Altered Images’ in: British Journal of Photography December 2015 (iPad edition) p27

Richard Learoyd https://fraenkelgallery.com/artists/richard-learoyd (accessed 06/07/2016)

Exercise: Nan Goldin

Brief

Analyse Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC by Nan Goldin.

P78046_9.jpg
Misty and Jimmy Paulette in a Taxi, NYC, 1991 © Nan Goldin

Response

A side-ramble first…

My first thought was that unlike the course author I wouldn’t have naturally included Goldin in a section on portraiture, but I try to be open-minded so I got out the copy of The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) that I’d bought a few months ago. I confess that up until now I hadn’t quite seen it as the work of genius that many claim it to be.

It’s funny how revisiting something with a different point of view in mind can transform your opinion of it. Until now I’d mentally filed Goldin away under ‘gritty personal documentary’, but today, revisiting the book I see that it’s essentially a series of highly intimate portraits.

Goldin took pictures of her ‘tribe’, her “recreated family, without the traditional roles” (Goldin 1986), and while they weren’t portraits in the traditional posed sense, they were extraordinarily vivid candid portraits, of people that she knew very well and one presumes she could discern when to press the shutter to capture a good representation of them.

I’ve gone on about this before, but the most fascinating area of portraiture for me is pictures of people that I don’t know, have no preconceptions about and only have the photograph to work with. It’s a true skill to imbue a photograph with enough ‘information’ to fool the viewer into believing they know more about the subject than they do. Why should one care about a subject that one doesn’t know? A good ‘unfamiliar’ portrait creates an illusion of knowing. This isn’t the case for all of Goldin’s portraits, for sure, but there are a handful of her recurrent subjects that really come through to the viewer.

To the image in question: though later than The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, it continues the same personal visual diary style.

  • Face: Misty: defiant, challenging, returns the camera’s gaze; Jimmy: more hesitant but still very direct; both heavily made-up (notions of identity, masks etc…)
  • Pose/gesture: again, defiant
  • Clothes: edgy, transgressive, a major part of their external personae as drag queens; Jimmy’s bra falling down in a parody of feminine sexuality
  • Props: none
  • Lighting: looks like flash: quite harsh, exposes details of their skin, revealing flaws
  • Background: heads framed by the taxi window and with the view outside it places them in New York city; they’re on their way out, there’s a sense of anticipation
  • Meaning: ‘we’re hitting the town, don’t mess with us tonight’

Sources

Goldin, N. (2014) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. United States: Aperture.