This caught my eye, so saving to my blog for reference.
Kollar’s This Place is an example of work that contains few people but says a lot about how and where they live.
Set in Israel, Images of people-less settlements eerily suggest clean, modern living while at the same time suggest isolation, abandonment and lonliness. There are signs of life everywhere – building, shops, children making ramps out of junk to play on -but noone to be seen. Their abence makes you womder whether an air raid alarm has sounded? People fled in fear? Disputed settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip? The tension in the lives of these people is clear without them being, in the main, visible.
Part 5 develops a theme that I started to explore in Assignment 4, that of the concept of mindfullness in photography:
“Whatever it is, begin to notice how where you are influences you”
“in the moment is where good photographs are often found”.
Harding Pitman clearly identified with what was happening in the would around him, the sprawl of LA Style urban paraphanalia acrcross the world making places less uniquem characterful and more ‘western normalised’ over time. https://www.lensculture.com/articles/robert-harding-pittman-anonymization-the-global-proliferation-of-urban-sprawl
I’m realising that successful photography must be woven into the very life we lead, not just to be a passive, detached activity like Sontag warns of in Plato’s Cave, to “help people to take possession of a space in which they are insecure” (Sontag, 1977. P.9) speaking of tourists that use the camera to pry into the cultures of others while being safely protected from it by the lens they peer through.
Instead, photography with personal meaning is dependent upon living mindfully, fully in the present, so that we are receptive to:
- What is happening around us right now and;
- How we feel about it.
Create a set of still-life pictures showing traces of life without using people.
You could do this with your camera phone to reflect the vernacular and transient nature of these moments or you could choose to use high-quality imagery to give these moments gravitas, like Nigel Shafran. Your technical decisions should back up your ideas, so write a short reflective commentary detailing these decisions and the reasons for them.
My partner recently went away for a weekend course. For this exercise I wanted to reflect the little traces of life that she leaves around the house even when shes not actually there.
My initial approach was to take images of discarded items found in our home such as these hair clips. I liked the incongruity of them being discarded on a chopping board, the contrasting tones and textures.
Although I find these images to be aesthetically quite pleasing, there is no clear rationale for the images to be in monochrome. So I needed another method.
Cyanotype is an old photographic method invented by Herschel and most frequently used to take copies of drawings and diagrams. It has a characteristic cyan blue colour. From this comes the term ‘blueprint’.
Prints are made by placing items directly onto the light sensitive paper on a sunny day for several minutes. Blue areas mark where the paper has been exposed to unobstructed light while the shadow areas come out as white, revealing a ‘trace’ of what was previously left on the paper, like footsteps on the beach. This trace left was a perfect metaphor for what I was seeking to achieve.
Items with a clearly identifiable or interesting silhouette are most successful. The hair clips did not work well due to their curved nature, resulting in most of it being lost and not distinguishable. The following images are cyanotypes of some of the more curious ritual items, masks and pendants left around the house by my partner following her work as a ‘Glastonbury Priestess of Avalon’:
As you’ve seen, there are many examples of photography that avoid the use of the human figure in order to communicate truths and stories about humanity. Do your own research into areas you’ve been inspired by in this project; delve deeper into the areas that interest you. Continue to think about how this might inform your own practice.
As people, we constantly leave imprints on the landscape that betray how we live our lives. These can be very revealing. Forensic scientists analyse this in a quest for evidence and to build a profile of a suspect. Evidence of human activity can therefore say as much about who we are as our facial portrait does. For example: photographs of the mass graves of war victims, the plans and weoponry used can all reveal more about a despot dictator than any portrait ever could.
While photographs of our actions can reveal a lot about us, so can images of items that we own. Klepuszowska highlights the importance of mundane items in the lives of others. Using shallow depth of field and a plain back background, Living Spaces draws attention to these items invoking a sense of isolation for these older people. Is something we regard as unimportant is suddenly portrayed as very important in the lives of others we feel humbled. The viewer develops a sense of connection to their plight through this contrast. For this to work the items must be capable of attracting the empathy of the viewer, not obscure items.
Accomplished portrait photographers frequently talk of connecting to the real person behind the mask of a smile, aiming to reveal something about their personslity. While there are many exellent examples where this is true, any single portrait image can only ever hint at one aspect of character, never revealing the full persona, Alongside detecting character, attitude and demeanor, our actions and possessions say a lot about who we really are.
In On Photography, Sontag points to Irving Penn’s 1975 commissioned portraits of celebrities where he presented images of their cigarette butts. Speaking about another photographer’s work, Szarkowski commends that so much of someone’s personality can “be coaxed from subject matter <that is> profoundly banal” (Sontag, 1979. p137)
Darren Jones’ approach is to make a still life out of the things we take away with us on a trip.
Jones’ work raises questions of what is really important in our lives. Going on a trip is when we have to be ruthless, packing only essentials in order to travel light and adhere to airport baggage limits while still wanting to be comfortable. Here we can see his priorities condensed, distilled and beautifully arranged. If someone asked for a list of our most important items how many of us would say toothpaste?
The items have been arranged like flowers or other delicate, precious items, befitting of their relative importance while staying away from home. It makes for a slightly incongruous arrangement overall.
I’m keen to explore this idea deeper: contents of bags, car gloveboxes, bedside reading choices, crockery, shoes, finger nails and doorways all potentially offer insights into who we really are.
Kertész arguably created one of the photographic world’s most iconic still life images with ‘The Folk’ in 1928.
Here an everyday eating utensil has been seen in a clean, minimalist way that highlights the pleasing form of the folk while in no way attempting to make an abstract form of it. It is, simply, what it is – readily identifiable as a folk resting against the side of a bowl. I note that the apparent simplicity of the image belies the effort that went into setting it up, painstakingly arranged so that no shadows overlap confusingly. Both item and shadow are independendly distiguishable as folk and bowl.
There’s a quiet sadness, in this as well as other work by Kertész, which fascinates me: the bowl is apparently empty; a dark shadow features prominently; there’s no evidence of a dinner guest at the table. I read from the Phaidon website that Kertész was a ‘deeply reserved‘ man who ‘often spoke of the lack of close contact with other artists‘. He had fled twice – from his home in Hungary and then from Paris in the war – so perhaps there was a sense of never being settled in a place called home, entirely at ease. Is his personal sense of loneliness what we can really see in this image?
Canadian photographer Letinsky’s still lifes resemble the aftermath of a restaurant table, fruit peelings and dirty crockery arranged in an apparently haphazard but actually carefully placed layout.
Why would Letinsky apply all the meticulous control over lighting, perspective and placement as for any normal still life in order to recreate a ‘pile of washing up’?
It could be as simple as Keith Arnatt’s Rubbish Tip, or Tillmans’ exploration of the aesthetic beauty in discarded items. But that would not be consistent with her careful placement of items with all the attention to detail of a normal still life study.
I find that I admire her work a lot, noting how it is “a vehicle to explore the tension between the small and minute and larger social structures“.
Although carefully placed and so storytelling rather than historical in nature, I feel like a historian gazing over a map of a battlefield when I view it. Where was the power around the dinner table? Did the meal end amicably or with someone getting up to leave? Were passions high or convivial? A landmark birthday or celebration? The detritus on the table resembles the fallen soldiers on the battlefield, the dirty plates their bombed-out garrisons and hides. I often perceive elements of our human condition and relationships in her images, all backed by crisp white linen.
Letinsky talks about how “photography conflicts with and constrains our sense of our environment by reinforcing certain ideas we have about perception.” I’m not confident that I fully understand her point here, but it could be a reference to how we take and consume photographs, reinforcing these perceptions unconsciously as we go in order to make thing fit our model of the world. The plain white tablecloths may well invite us to view the images – and the human behaviours they represent – with a fresh backdrop, not influenced by our prejudices and past experiences.
Read Chapter 4 ‘Something and Nothing’ in Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson. You will find this on the student website named PH4IAP_Something and Nothing.
To what extent do you think the strategy of using objects or environments as metaphor is a useful tool in photography?
When might it fall down?
Write some reflective notes on these points in your learning log.
This strategy provides the photographer with virtually endless scope to use everyday items from the world around us and make them represent something else that is perhaps less readily available or harder to photograph (either in a person or elsewhere). So the first thing to say is that this type of metaphor has very practical use where photographing the ‘real thing’ would be difficult or dangerous. Of course this comes with a warning that it can be used lazily where better results could be had by seeking out the subject.
Because the subject matter is often banal, Cotton warns against making the assumption that the subject matter is what would otherwise be ‘without visual symbolism. In truth, there is no such thing as an unphotographed or unphotographable subject‘. The job of the viewer is to seek to find out what meaning the phorographer identified in it, knowing that there must be one.
As with Orozco’s ‘Breath on a piano’, mundane objects in combination allow us to see things in a new and perhaps subversive way – Just who was it that dare breathe on the prefectly polished piano? Who used scrap car doors in a doorway (Wentworth, 1999) and who balanced a courgette and carrot on a cheese grater (Fischili and Weiss)? This quirk is what piques the interest for me, stops me and motivates me to explore the image in more detail (Barthes’ concept of Punctum raises this phenomena in Camera Lucida). We know that any photograph is a moment in time that actually existed once (maybe constructed sculpture from the parallel art movement in the 1960’s exploring minimalism), but it wouldn’t normally look like that.
I can see how this is a tremendous tool for drawing the viewer’s attention to an attribute that the phorographer seeks to highlight. It is as though the photographer presents a riddle to be solved, ‘drawing on our natural inquisitiveness‘ (Cotton), the reward being to gain an insight into the subject. A ‘portrait’ of someone characterised by a love of food and a very large, pointy nose might unkindly have a wedge of cheese in the image instead, as a crude example.
The risk is thst cetrain aspects are accentuated by this strategy at the expense of others giving an incomplete view of the subject, or misunderstood (the puzzle too cryptic) and getting it entirely wrong. This feels more serious when we are talking about people – at least with a straightforward portrait the viewer can rely on his own senses, not just curious items thst the photographer substitutes for the original. Rather than a complex and intriguing image it may descend into stereotype and crude characature.
But for me thats the whole point. Sculpture is never the original, it is an interpretation. So is painting. Minimalism is accepted as an artistic style across mediums. Why should photography be any different, shackled in creativity by its ability to faithfully reproduce? The responsibility of the photographer therefore is to remain alert to this risk of over-simplification for an image to be persuasive and rich in meaning.
However, James Melling challenges even this with his exploration of lighting a single subject. At first sight his work resembles an early Cokin Filter catalogue, with images of the same glass house through various coloured filters and graduated filters, solarisation and other vivid colour techniques. What might be dismissed as crude and amateurish is visually engaging and exploratory, showing diversity while only changing the light that falls upon a fixed subject.