Category Archives: Part 1

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

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Exercise 1.4 – Archival intervention

For this exercise I chose to explore the collection of family photographs kept by my mother.  The collection is held within various family albums and framed images on display.  As such it is the first time they have been brought together in a cohesive way.

My intention was to create a short chronotype using photographs of my late father.  Inspired by how the Hardman collection highlighted the visual changes seen in the same individual over time, I hoped this would provide insights into the life of my late father that were not immediately apparent from seeing the various images in disparate form.

The photographs were carefully selected to provide a broad spread of my father’s entire life.  He died at the age of 51 and so there are approximately a decade between each image, spanning from him being a young boy, through his teenage years, marriage and into middle age.  The attempt here is to show the key milestones in his life, although naturally old age is missing from the set due to his early death.

Despite the variance in age, location and circumstances, each photograph is clearly linked by my rather wearing the very same smile in each.  Before bringing the set together in this way, this observation that his smile endured unchanged throughout his life might easily have been missed.

I considered the progression from black and white to colour, and whether it would be better to change the latter ones to also be black and white so they all match.  For this particular exercise I decided it was better to keep the photographs to the original, since other aesthetics such as the quality of original camera would never make the individual images look exactly the same anyway.  Some of them carry fond memories for me in this respect, with the penultimate image being taken by me using my first ever camera, a Kodak Instamatic (with rotating flash cubes!).  I note that the last image has faded due to being in a frame in direct sunlight so that my mother can view it every day, a poignant metaphor for the subject matter perhaps.

Shortly after the last image was taken my father became ill and died within a space of three months.  On a personal level, I was struck by how it was possible to see the change in my father between this and the previous images, looking older than his 50 years in the final one.  It is as though the illness was quietly taking its toll already.  Again, this progression might easily have been missed without the broader context of the other photographs.

So far, the chronotype has been reviewed within the context of personal experience, relationships and memory.  In the case of BE. J. Bellocq, his work was not discovered until after his death and the subsequent discovery by Larry Borenstein.  Similarly, very few people saw the contents of the Hardman collection until Liverpool library purchased it in 1976.  How might my chronotype by viewed by an outsider without the external context I possess?

Of course it is difficult to be objective and detached from photographs that carry personal connotations, but there would seem to be two key themes that link the set together.  The first is the aforementioned smile.  I believe this is enough for another viewer to recognise that this is the same individual in each image, thus enabling them to identify with the purpose and main subject of the set.  Secondly, there is a hint of there being a social occation in each one.  Some are more obvious, such as a wedding.  But in the early photograph my father was clearly dressed in his sunday best, complete with bow tie.  Later, he is seen raising a glass in the sun with friends.  The later shot shows him surrounded by empty glasses on the table.  Clearly there is a social occasion going on on but now we can’t see the people he is sharing it with.  The empty glasses denote the celebration time is running out, perhaps.  In the last image my father is seen out walking with a group of friends and my mother.  In order to fit the photograph in the available frame, my mother has cut the other people off (we can just see another foot in the bottom left corner).  Sadly, within a year of this photograph being taken, my father was detached from his rambling society in a more literal sense.

Since this exercise overlapped with my preparation for Assignment 5 of my previous OCA course Context and Narrative, I also chose to incorporate the chronotype for this Exercise within that:

https://wordpress.com/post/ian513626photography1contextandnarrative.wordpress.com/1382

(781 words)

Exercise 1.3 – Portrait typology

For this exercise I was feeling anxious about finding the time to take portraits while being busy in a full time office job.  So I decided to make that the basis of the typology.

I work as a project manager in a team with several others.  In many respects we all do the same thing – plan, manage and deliver IT solutions for a major UK health and beauty chain.  In many ways we are all very different in that some are seasoned pros, others very junior; some very stressed, others waiting for their next project to start in earnest.  Personality and style play a big part in the role, not just following a prescribed process.

Being restricted to people in the same office meant that I had to be more creative with backgrounds to reinforce the character of that particular project manager.  The results are below:

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The Collaborator

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The Cornered

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The |Aspirer

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The Challenger

Typologies

Project 2 of Part 1 provides an insight into typologies through the work of the Bechers, Sander, Mapplethorpe, Arbus and Evans.

I was introduced to the work of Berndt and Hilla Becher earlier in my OCA studies.  They were fastidious in building a large archive of industrial structures from all over Europe and North America from 1959 through the next four decades and included pit heads, water tanks and factories.  Immediately prior to the start of their collaboration (and subsequent marriage) Hilla studied typography at the Düsseldorf Art Academy.  Their work is unified through a consistent approach to framing, camera angle and position which brings the individual photographs together and highlighting the differences and similarities in subject matter.

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/bernd-becher-and-hilla-becher-718

Initially I struggled to artistic merit in the work, which are essentially record shots, while recognising the monumental effort in their production.  Barthes warns of the dangers of over generalisation and simplification in his essay ‘The Blue Mile.  Not only the ‘bourgeoisie’ fall victim to this human habit.  But collectively they carry a rhythm and pattern when multiple images are displayed together on a single page.  We only notice similaries and differences that we would otherwise have missed because of the cataloging and presentation.  There are many examples of repeating patterns having artistic merit – while falling short of being typologies – e.g. coloured beach huts, receding mountain ranges, perhaps even a row of Cadillacs:

Although the Bechers are seen as early promoters of typologies who went on to promote it to future photographers through their teaching at the Düsseldorf Art College,  August Sander held his ‘People of the 20th Century’ Exhibition much earlier in 1927.  Sander’s work is covered in a previous post and can be found here.

His typology of the German public was highly ambitious in its scope and executed with meticulous attention to individual characteristics.  Kosloff said ‘Sander takes into special account the age of sitters, the effects of their diet on their bodies, the state of their clothes, their mode of display and performance, their quirks, self-ranking and visible economic situation or disabilities.’ (Kosloff, 2007. P.180).  Whatever their status, I note that all of Sander’s subjects appear to exude confidence – as though he has indeed captured the essence of who they believe they really are.  Ironically, although at that moment it is Sander who has the power – directing them to pose at his will – this does not come though in the images.  Like the Becher’s pit heads, they stand as proud and uprising examples within the typology.  Arbus shows similar attention do detail in really getting to know her subjects and ensuring they too appear confident and authentic on the final image – despite, in her case, often coming from the less orthodox fringes of society.

Huebler went a step further and created a typology of the typologist.  In his 1972 work he asked Berndt Becher to match ten portraits of himself taken some months previously to a list of people ‘types’ or states of being.

This typology relies on external context to be able to understand the work. To help with this Huebler mounts all ten images together along with a short note providing the story behind it and the list of the different faces he asked Becher to pull.

In more recent times contemporary practitioners such as JamescMollinson have also turned their attention to the typology.  In Mollinson’s case to include, owls and apes:

http://jamesmollison.com/photography/

I’m learning that typologies have several key ingredients if they are to be successful:

  • Curiosity- the link may be very obvious (Becher, Evans) or more obscure (Huebler). But in either case there has to be a detail, a less obvious or literal aspect to them that invokes the curiosity of the viewer to explore the work.
  • Consistency- certain elements must be uniform.  This serves two purposes.  Firstly it establishes and enforces the rhythm to the set.  Evans has each Dandy in front of a semi-suburban house.  The Bechers Choose overcast days and each subject is taken from a similar aspect and distance to fill the frame.  Secondly it ensures the viewer is not distracted by differences that are not there, thus diluting the strength of the overall typology.

I wanted to reflect on the above in my blog before attempting Exercise 1.3 in order to ensure that I had fully internalised the idea of what a typology is. For portrait typologies this might extend to people that visually seem to have little in common until you learn they have a common role or background.  Knowing this then gives the work an added level of interest.  In an almost reversal of thinking, the viewer is invited to consider why they are all so visually different if they technically have so much in common.  I will return to this theme in Exercise 1.3.

References

Kozloff, M. (2007) The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press.

Mollinson, J (2016) [online] At: http://jamesmollison.com/photography/ (accessed 20/11/16)

Exercise 1.2 – Background as context

August Sander

‘I endeavour to retain all the characteristic features which circumstance, life and times have stamped upon the face.’ (Kozloff, 2007)

This is the first of Sander’s works that I looked at:

One man stands separate to the other two in many respects: Only he has a cigarette, his stick is at a slack angle rather than erect and his hat is angled instead of straight with a wayward lock of hair sticking out from his left side. He stands slightly behind the other two.

Everything about the characters connotes that he is the rebel or outcast in some subtle way if not overtly.

The background is blurred and simple.  The horizon is flat with the exception of a small hill immediately behind our individualist of the trio, mirroring his character.

 

The second selected image is this one of a German soldier taken in 1940 in the early part of WWII:

The soldier carries no expression.  He is square on to the camera in full, neat uniform and helmet.  He is portrayed as an efficient military machine, not influenced by emotion or irrational thought.  He is large in the photographic frame, hinting at his role as a sentry, blocking access to the houses and road behind.

The background here is still clearly discernible due to a moderate aperture being chosen.  It is as though Sander believes it to be an important part of the image.  The land we are stood on, as the viewer, ends perfectly in line with the soldier’s shoulders.  This hints at a body being here, militarily blocking access to outsiders while his head is with the houses.  Does he secretly long to be indoors with the residents while fulfilling his duty to stand guard?  Does he secretly harbour sympathies with the normal people affected by war? 
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Exercise 1.1: Historic Portrait

Franz Liszt by Nadar (1886)

Gaspard Félix Tournachon (Nadar, b. 1820 – d. 1910) took this portrait of Liszt just a few months before his death later that year, so it may well be the last one ever taken of him.

I chose to research this particular image for several reasons.  Firstly, I find the image captivating and wanted to explore the reasons why this might be so.  Nadar was arguably the most renowned portrait photographer of his time, although I knew little about his work, so this was a good opportunity to do so.  I was also interested in the idea of it being a portrait of a composer: would any personal characteristics traverse the different mediums of music and image?

Technically, the image is taken from a public domain copyright-free site to enable me to safely reproduce it in my blog and appears to have been restored in some ways, notably to have a very high level of sharpening applied and tonal adjustments.  But it retains the characteristics of the original from cross-referencing to other web sites.  I was unable to find this particular image in a book, unfortunately.

Liszt is placed at 45 degrees to the camera looking almost straight towards it.  The camera appears to have been placed at head height, making him appear equal to the viewer.  He is lit on his left side, furthest from the camera, with relatively hard light which brings out the texture of his hair, clothes and skin blemishes.  Reflected light fills the shadows on the right side.  The depth of field is curious, being very shallow behind, with his left eye and hair being slightly soft, yet extending forwards such that all of the front of his clothing remains sharp.

The portrait reveals a slightly quizzical, quirky and mischievous look combined with a distinct melancholy in his eyes.  He appears kind.  I have only seen this particular combination in one other person, Gene Wilder, as can be observed in the example below (although my partner disagrees with the semblance):

Gene Wilder

Liszt’s piano music in particular seems to reveal a quirky energy – ever changing tempo, volume and style throughout a piece, punctuated with trills, arpeggios and other forms.  It never stays still, rarely settling into a steady rhythm rather like a fly in a room.  The portrait seems to capture this aspect of Liszt, his mouth and eyes still carrying a twinkle, despite revealing older age in his physical form.  

Equally, his music will then shift to a minor key and bring in rolling waves of sadness.  Nadar has captured this beautifully in Liszt’s eyes.  I more I look at the image i wonder whether Liszt himself knew that he was nearing the end of his life, having died just four months afterwards.

The camera angle makes Liszt appear approachable yet was taken when his status in the world of music was well established as “one of the most prominent representatives of the New German School” (Wikipedia, 2016).  We do not look down on him as an old man past his prime.  Nor is he presented as an aloof ‘celebrity’ composer by adopting a low camera angle.  He is viewed by Nadar as an equal – an equal just with a particular musical talent that still glints in his eyes.

Studying this photograph made the music of Liszt come alive in a way that photographs of other famous composers never have for me.  It is as though Nadar (himself a artist of various talents in addition to photography) recognised this essence and was able to tease it out in front of the camera, “the way they bring out the sitters’ intellect and charisma, not to mention humor (sic)…made Nadar famous.  These were portraits of artists by an artist” (Stepan, 2011)

Looking wider now at the work of Nadar, he made the transition to portrait photographer from caracature artist in the mid 19th century.  Until this point photography had largely been seen as separate to art on the basis that photographs were ‘untrue to the complexities of human perception’ in the eyes of artists like Delacroix (Marien, 2014).  Nadar exploited the desire of the middle classes to be seen as creative, leveraging his quick eye as a characaturist to capture them as cultural figures.  Fellow photographer Gustavo Le Grey declared him to be ‘sensitive to the nuances of personal character’ in addition to technically competent with a camera (ibid, p85).  In this way, coupled with his persona within artistic circles of the day, Nadar can probably be thanked to moving perception of photography closer to an art form and away from purely a technical recording mechanism.

 

References:

Stepan, P. (2001) “50 Photographers you should know”, Hamburg, Prestel Verlag

Franz Liszt (2016) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Liszt (Accessed: 15 November 2016)

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A cultural history. 4th edn. London, United Kingdom: Laurence King Publishing.