Monthly Archives: January 2017

Exercise 2.2: Covert

This assignment comes with a ‘health warning’, reminding students that they are responsible for themselves and to think carefully before attempting the exercise.

I certainly felt quite apprehensive about it so decided to take a less stressful approach by photographing a joint NewYear’s Eve and Birthday party.  Having been invited to bring a camera along this removed any safety concerns allowing me to concentrate on the photography.

The approach reminded me of the work of Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans who also operated from a position of trust within their respective social circles.

https://uk.pinterest.com/explore/nan-goldin/

https://uk.pinterest.com/nanciewinifred/wolfgang-tillmans/?q=wolfgang%20tillmans

The unexpected challenge I encountered was that as soon as people saw me raise the camera to my eye, they would pose as though for a selfie making candid shots actually quite hard to obtain, as in these two:

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I countered this by pushing up the ISO to 3,3200 or 6,400 and by using Liveview I could act more stealthily by not raising the camera to my eye.

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While this was satisfactory I wanted to push myself further in this exercise so I decided to attempt it again one week later on a trip to London with a general theme of ‘Going Places’.

Here I was quite fearful of being challenged, maybe aggressively.  I was conscious that people would pick up on it if I looked at all ‘dodgy’, secretive or uneasy with a camera, and so I was ironically creating a self-defeating spiral of worry in my head.

Transit Series:Two of the following images were inspired by Lukas Kuzma’s Transit Series:

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Here I soon learned a few things:

  • Firstly, as long as you are not too overt about it many people in London simply don’t care.  The greatest impediments to getting usable shots was my own hesitation
  • Steichen’s famous advice to Robert Frank – of getting closer to the subject – holds very true
  • The perfect ‘stealth’ camera is actually the mobile phone.  Everybody expects me to be carrying one and so it does not look at all out of place.  Perhaps this is Robert Frank’s ‘black painted Leica’ of our times.  Ali Shms makes this point persuasively through his iPhone street photography:  https://www.instagram.com/ali.shms/

In summary, I only came into conflict with one person all day: myself. Two of my favourite images taken in this session were arguably not the most flattering for the subjects – yawning on the Tube and a lady stood waiting for a train toilet.  Personal morality comes into  play. Was I humiliating or exploiting these people? “What is the photographer entitled to record and under what circumstances?” (Angier, 2015: p89)

I decided that it depended on my motive. As I was not looking to make any gain from bribery, coercion or embarrassment my conscience was clear.  Ultimately I think the test would be whether I would be embarrassed to show the photographs to the subject if they asked.  If I would not be, then it was ok to take it.

But the sense of accomplishment I found with the better images was profound. This feels a bit like an extreme sport – a sense of fear and excitement…and a desire to do it again soon.

Bibliography

Angier, R. (2015) Train your gaze: A practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. 2nd edn. New York: Fairchild Books & Visuals.

Fortune Cookie

Although this does not fit precisely with the course content I wanted to retain these ideas as something that I could potentially develop further in the future.

As it was Chinese New Year we sat down to a meal which included Fortune Cookies.  It occurred to me that the ‘fortune’ contained within could be made the primarily element in a portrait. What does this then infer in the resultant image?

‘You are a person with a good sense of justice’

‘The quieter you are the more you hear’

I would have liked to have made the series a set of three with others but this was not possible.

Monochrome was selected as it more strongly emphasised the writing on the paper by eliminating colour distractions.  Focussing closely ensured that the actual subject was portrayed as secondary to the text.

The overall impression is that the ‘fortune’ plays a significant role in how we believe the subject to be.  For instance, in ‘The quieter you are the more you hear’ we are immediately led to assume that the subject is particularly quiet, or otherwise.  His out of focus smile then suggests the irony of the latter.

Conversely, the stern face of the first image fits well with the text suggesting that the subject has a ‘good sense of justice’

Photography, Post-Truth and ‘alternative facts’

in the wake of Donald Trump’s presss secretary presenting ‘alternative facts’ over how many people attended his inauguration, TIME magazine reflected on the role of photography in this new era.

http://time.com/4650956/photojournalism-post-truth/

It begins with the age-old mantra of ‘the camera never lies’.  Indeed the public at large would seem to have accepted the photographs comparing the number of people stood before the White House as all the evidence required.

But we are living in an era where, in the main, we don’t study photographs any more.  We “Glance, swipe, glance, swipe, often on a tiny smartphone screen” without verifying anything in them as true:

We’re the photos taken at the same point in proceedings?

What effect did the weather have on attendance?

Are they, in fact, photographs of what they are purported to be?

Despite the public being far more savvy nowadays to how cameras do indeed lie (particularly through the use of Photoshop in the fashion and advertising sectors) we still seem to inherently trust a photo more than we do people.  We take selfies as ‘evidence’ of having been there and few of our friends would challenge the authenticity of them.

With so many photographs now circulating I wonder whether the public at large differentiate between ‘adverts’ (judged to be lies) and ‘news’ (assumed as being truth) in an image, but only if it supports their personal viewpoint?  We saw in Context and Narrative just how dangerous this assumption can be.

Exercise – ‘The Real and the Digital’ | Photography 1 – Context & Narrative https://ian513626photography1contextandnarrative.wordpress.com/2016/02/07/exercise-the-real-and-the-digital/comment-page-1/#comment-12


Exercise 2.1: Individual spaces

For this exercise I decided to explore the territorial aspects of the local pub and aim to portray the concept of someone’s favourite place within this micro-environment.

My local pub is full of characters and it has always interested me how people often choose to stit in the same place, even when the pub is nearly empty  We have all been in even more territorial establishments where a local would be affronted if a passing traveller happened to inadvertently sit in their place at the bar.

The subjects were already known to me as acquaintances so it was quite easy to open up a conversation about it.  I explained that I was collecting photographs as part of a university course.  However I used an iPhone rather than a proper camera because I wanted the shoot to be impromptu and quick.  In an environment where people have come out for a quiet pint I reasoned that a large camera might be intimidating.

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Roger and Sue.  Roger moved from Wales to the local area when he met Sue.  He is an avid CAMRA member and quizmaster.  They visit at quiet times armed with a collection of newspapers then proceed to work through them while sampling each of the ciders and beers on offer.  They always head for the large table in the corner so that they can lay out their paraphernalia and puzzle in peace while their dog sleeps peacefully under the table.

Ron

Ron is a jolly practical joker who has lived in the village all his life and knows everybody.  Keith is another local who insists on having his favourite chair and so Ron tries to thwart him for amusement.  This stool affords a clear view of Keith’s chair in the other room.  When poor Keith gets up to go to the bar, Ron will dash through, sit in his chair and await his return with a cheeky smile, refusing to budge.

Roger

Roger (second from the left in hat and red braces) is the owner of the pub.  But his favourite place is not behind the bar as we might expect.  He is a fan of English folk music and spent months organising an ensemble of nine musicians from around the UK to perform a 1977 classic work called The Tale of Ale by the late Willie Rushden.  Knowing in advance that he was planning this show over the Christmas period I asked in if he would mind my taking a photograph.

Following on from Assignment 1, this exercise reaffirmed in my mind that I can come up with ideas for portraits more easily that I am able to execute them.  Time is short due to a busy period in a full time job and Identity & Place is making it clear to me that the logistics around photographing people are more complex than inanimate objects (not because I spend all my time in the pub…).

Regarding the exercise itself, I am intrigued by the idea of favourite places within a small shared environment.  This is an idea I’d like to return to explore further in the future – maybe libraries, cafés.  How many people have a favourite tree they sit under or hilltop to contemplate life?  A familiar armchair can be as precious as a trip to see the Taj Mahal after a busy day…

Key Takeaways from the exercise:

  • Don’t get caught up in the idea that an assignment idea has to be grand and impressive.  The smaller aspects of life can be just as interesting and, arguably, more endearing and personal.
  • Get to know your subjects beforehand then the photography becomes an act of recording what you have in your mind already.  I’m more focused on what I want to achieve.

 

 

Tate Liverpool

In January i visted the Tate Liverpool which was showing Tracey Emin’s bed.  This is something I’ve always wanted so see. As well as being hugely controversial at the time, winning the 1998 turner prize and so becoming a further catalyst for the Stukist protests in response to the earlier work by Damien Hurst, it is a work that fascinated me.  Although not a piece of photographic art I believe there is still much of relevance for the photographer.

Emin assembles each installation herself.  In a literal sense, this comprises an unmade bed and adjacent blue floor mat. The resulting ensemble is untidy in appearance and scattered with personal everyday items such as empty cups, discarded underwear, packaging for cigarettes, pregnancy tests and medicines. As a viewer, the initial response is mild revulsion or an urge to tidy up.  I heard someone in the gallery say ‘Art? If my daughter left her room like this she’d get a clip round the ear!’  If honest, many of us might cast a judgmental opinion on how scruffy some people are.

But then the mind becomes more curious about the possible stories behind the discarded items. They tell us a lot about someone. How they live their life, their issues, social envirnonememt and perhaps mental outlook on life. Are they promiscuous? Depressed? An unwanted pregnancy? Did they leave the bed unexpectedly in a hurry arising from some great personal upheaval?

The detritus is the essential part of the work.  It reveals a lot about us – like a detective going through the waste bin.  Our personal experiences, predudices and opinions fill in the gaps to make a story. Conversely, had this been a normal bed – neatly made with everything tidily away in a drawer – we would have no clues to work from. Who is this person?

Looking at this from a photographic perspective it highlights the masks we wear as people. We always ‘make our bed’ before showing ourselves to anyone – by putting on a smile for the camera. We make ourselves ‘look presentable’ with lipstick and the like.  But those wrinkles we try to hide from the camera reveal our true character. Our story.

When people say ‘that’s a nice picture of me’ do they actually mean ’my mask is in place – I appear happy and slim on this photo, it does not highlight my insecurities?’  The image meets their ideal self image.

I believe Emin was exceptionally brave to create this work.  She was prepared to look openly and frankly at all the issues in her life and, quite literally, lay them out on the bed for everyone to see.  It is a form of self portrait – ‘an unflinchingly personal self portrait’ ( Pennington, 2016).  I feel that I know her (at that point in time) much better for having seen it.

A good photographic portrait shows us the subject’s own unmade bed.  We see the real person, not the veneer.

Typologies and masks – a self portrait.

In the office Secret Santa I received a pack of comedy beer mats, each depicting a different mouth.  The idea is that you can hold one to your face for a comedy effect.

This got me thinking about the many masks we wear as people.

Inspired by the work of Cindy Sherman, Huebler and The Bechers, I decided to produce a self portrait of every different face in the box then collate them into a typology.

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Cindy Sherman

The Invisible Photographer

Photographers often lean on their cameras in one of two ways—as a passport, a means for entering new worlds (both geographic and emotional); but also as a shield, a way to create some distance between themselves and their surroundings“, Alexander Strecker

Alexander Strecker interviewed Gioia de Bruijn for Lensculture.  The interview explores the idea of when a photographer is actively involved in the scene before them, or whether to be detached.

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/gioia-de-bruijn-weekend-warriors-and-beyond

This struck me as very relevant to the upcoming work in Part 1 of I&P.  I’m very conscious – particularly after the first Exercise of photographing strangers – how often I use the camera as a shield.  “The camera definitely creates a barrier – once you are invested in operating the apparatus, you can’t be simultaneously invested in the situation“.  I wanted to explore this further to understand myself better and help overcome my fears.

In interview, De Bruijn takes the view that “standard documentary photography voyeuristic, even de-humanizing, preferring to throw herself fully and completely into situations that attract her interest“.   This is explored further along with looking at how the relationship between the general public and photographer might now be changing in the digital era.

Her latest documentary work, ‘Weekend Warriors’, is shot in the aftermath of various parties she attended in Amsterdam.  She explains, “I wasn’t an outsider looking in—I was part of it, and I think that’s the only way.”.  Likening the alternative to be “watching monkeys at the zoo”, De Bruijn prefers to be on the inside where the action is.  There are strong similarities in the work with that of Nan Goldin here – infiltrating a nightlife sub culture and being trusted enough to see it for all that it is.

I can see how this ‘being on the inside’ is the only really way to have absolute empathy with the situation you are photographing.

This then opens up the question of public attitudes towards the camera in this situation.  Historically the camera has been seen as a passport to gain entry to a situation, but is that now changing?

Everyone now photographs everything.  We Instagram, Facebook and Tweet our meals, movements and private experiences.  Laszlo Moholy-Nagy famously said “The illiterate of the future will be the man who does not understand photography” (Badger, 2014, inside front cover).   Surely this makes it much easier for photographers since everyone expects everyone else to be taking photographs anyway?

De Bruijn asserts that the opposite might in fact be true, saying that “anonymity almost does not exist any more”, so people are becoming more camera shy than ever.  They might end up in a compromising website, a prospective employer seeing a photo of them on social media.  You are tagged on the photo with your name to complete strangers around the world.  I certainly know several people close to me who do not want their photos on any social media.  She finishes this part of the interview with the lament that “But honestly, I think its only going to get harder.  Having a camera in the future may not afford you much additional access at all“.

Her approach to circumventing this is to shoot film with “such old and beaten up cameras that people don’t take me too seriously

This all led me to reflect on when I feel comfortable or otherwise with a camera in public.  I am happy when invited to take photographs or when I am part of a group experiencing something (a pagan festival in Glastonbury, my local pub, a party, a wedding).  But I’m very uncomfortable photographing strangers.  I think this interview goes to the heart of why: In the first set of situations I am supposed to be there with my camera.  For the latter, I am invading their personal lives, using my camera as the entrance ticket to witness it.  I’m not invited in.  Of course there’s a raised expectation then – your event photos are expected to be good because you are using a ‘proper camera’.  I guess I got used to that from my former life so view it as a lesser pressure than invading someone else’s social space.

I also reflected on De Bruijn’s use of an ‘old beat up camera’.  I came to digital very late in the day, only stopping my work as a wedding photographer when film became obsolete and the appetite in the wedding market was to join a never-ending treadmill of the most mega-pixels and fastest delivery of .jpgs on a memory stick possible.  Disillusioned, I turned to landscapes reluctantly moving to digital only a few years ago.  Since then I can see how I’ve inadvertently got sucked onto the same treadmill.  A 36 megapixel full frame body is great since in my mind it is a ‘proper’ camera without any crop factor issues and I notice that I’ve finally stopped saying ‘its not as good as Velvia 50 used to be on the Bronny’!  But I’ve only had this body for a few months. Virtually all of my work that has been sold, appreciated and hung in an exhibition was taken on a body with only half of that resolution.  Nobody complains about the quality of them.  As a Pentax user I am only too aware of the danger of ego-driven challenges from the ‘What? You don’t use Canon or Nikon!’ hobbyists.  I note that I often respond by admitting that I used to use Canon when a pro but I find Pentax is better for me – I’ve never looked back.  This is all true, but hints at a need to justify why I went a different way to the herd.  Ego.

I noted that De Bruijn describes herself as uncomfortable with groups of people, preferring the company of individuals.  I can again very much identify with this.  Here she picks up the camera  as a shield rather than a passport “in order to diffuse the anxiety for myself and my brain”.  We are probably all the same inside – the differentiator is probably nothing more than some of us, like De Bruijn, pick up the camera anyway, walk into the room and just do it.

Perhaps it is time to be the guy with a old camera and see if I get invited to more the parties – the invitation, of course, has always been there for me.  It is just that my own negative self-talk may decline it on my behalf.

References:

Badger, G. (2014) The genius of photography. London, United Kingdom: Quadrille Publishing.

de Bruijn, G. and LensCulture (2006) Weekend warriors and beyond – interview with Gioia de Bruijn. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/gioia-de-bruijn-weekend-warriors-and-beyond (Accessed: 8 January 2017).

What is a portrait? & Feeling Stuck!

Although not an academic or art photography journal, the Dec16-Jan 17 issue of Professional Imagemaker magazine contains an article by Rick Friedman that I found inspiring.

I was keen to take some wider influences as I was having difficulty making progress on I&P exercises in Part 1.  This came as a shock after Content and Narrative, where creative ideas and opportunities seemed to come freely.  But now – with people rather than objects the objective of my lens – there seems to be so many practical issues getting in the way of progress.

Perhaps it is the time of year – I leave for work in an office in the dark and leave work in the dark.  Work itself is very demanding at present so I often return home quite late in the evening.  Having to drive means that public transport holds no opportunities and childcare at the weekend limits opportunity.  These very practical constraints make it a challenge to find several people and logistically photograph them in the same place, or find diary time to take people to a background setting of their choice.

I wanted to look at what other people were doing for ideas to get me going.

Rick is a photojournalist based in Boston, USA but has travelled the world photographing famous people.  When asked at the start of the interview “what is a portrait?” he answers “a single frame that tells a story“(Friedman, 2016).  He generally photographs his subjects in their own environment, which immediately struck a chord with the I&P Part 1 exercises.

He goes on to explain how preparation is the key.  As well as learning about your subject, their likes, dislikes, successes and what they do, he also says it is important to “know what your story is“(Friedman, 2016).  This means that you have a clear idea in mind before you start so are not faffing in front of the subject.  It shows direction and confidence which will lead the subject to relax in your presence, confident that they are safe in your hands.

http://www.rickfriedman.com

This approach really comes through in his images, such as those of US politicians.  Hillary Clinton, taken in recent weeks has an air of annoyance and discomfort about her from the glare of the camera lights, a fitting metaphor for the pressure she was under in public for the last few weeks of the USA election.  Trump on the other hand has momentum and a swagger about him:

http://www.rickfriedman.com/politics/2016/1/11/u2wdbti6zencae9jhi8vnb5y1toe1t

Obama is more easy going, a ‘man of the people’, serving in the local bar:

http://www.rickfriedman.com/politics/

I found this a useful kickstart for the exercises.  To this end I started to plan out the exercises as I would approach an Assignment: listing ideas in a notebook, assessing viability and refining it over a period of days.  I have friends who are gardeners, shamanic practitioners, druids and all sorts of backgrounds.

I started to explore the idea of ‘working with that I have’ too.  My sons and partner are notoriously camera shy, although I did manage to press them into a portrait for their mum as a Christmas gift:

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Perhaps I should start to use them more in my course exercises.  Logistics remains an issue in this period of winter dark nights.  Perhaps I can use more portable lighting in peoples’ homes.  But I feel like I’m back on track again.

Final word from Rick: “There’s no right or wrong way to make a photograph, as long as you get the image you set out to achieve” (Friedman, 2016).

References

Friedman, R (2016) ‘What is a portrait?’In Professional Imagemaker (88) pp.56-64.