Category Archives: Research and reflection

Power in Simplicity: How This Modern Photographer Mastered His Style – Photographs by Charles SheelerReview by Coralie Kraft | LensCulture

A diversion from my current course content but entirely relevant to the development of a personal style.

Charles Sheeler is celebrated in this Lensculture article by Coralie Kraft as a great example of how to make your work recognisable as your own, ‘putting your stamp on it’, developing a personal voice.

https://www.lensculture.com/articles/museum-of-fine-arts-boston-power-in-simplicity-how-this-modern-photographer-mastered-his-style

I can see how his work carries a trademark sense of grand vertical space, mundane industrial scenes looking like prestigious cathedrals, understated yet at the same time imposing.

Kraft cites Annie Leiberwitz and Alec Soth as both having a strong and immediately identifiable style – I’d quickly add Douggie Wallace and Gregory Crewdson to that list as well.

How does my own work measure against this test?  Clearly I’m still developing a personal style as my studies progress, but some themes are already clear:

  • In an era of natural looking desaturated colour being the norm, i often make use of strong colour and high contrast
  • Abstracts and simple form
  • A sense of lonliness in the landscape, desolate places – especially megaliths
  • Our relationship with the land as a vehicle to explore ourselves and our ancestors
  • Paths, routes, entrances.  A sense of travelling
  • Social justice, the haves and have nots of modern society
  • A slightly quirky view on life.
This post is intended primarily as a bookmark to refer back to, in order to see how these themes develop as my studies continue.
 
 

 

Developing a personal voice / Identity and Place / direction after the doldrums

I have been reflecting on this in light of my recent ‘creative block’ (previous post).

I see the land and how our ancestors lived in it as important.  I’m interested in walking, routes, maps and ancient monuments. My spirituality is based around the concept of a Mother Earth.

So this is my ‘place‘, exploring the ‘identities‘ of the natural world and folk that used to inhabit it.

I have long been fascinated by how people understand themselves using landscape, by the topographies of self we carry within us and by the maps we make with which to navigate these interior terrains.” (Macfarlane, 2012).

I feel that this is something I care about, a part of what drives me as a person and therefore I ought to get back to incorporating this into my photography.  It forms the basis of what I might develop to become my personal creative voice.

How do I give the ancestors, the land, the environment a voice in these modern times? What are the commonalities with how we live here today? What are the conflicts and issues?

I feel that I need to start bringing these threads together in my studies – my personal passions, my sense of identity and place.  Still stretch, explore and experiment, open to all the wonderful influences that my OCA studies reveal to me.  But maybe I’ve been trying too hard to go somewhere different than where my passion lies. Hopping about.   I need to be true to myself and use that as the basis for my practice – while still stretching myself as hard as I can with this underpinning it.

 

References

 

Macfarlane, R. (2012) The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.  London, Penguin.

Challenging times again

Ive taken a break for a couple of weeks, being away with my partner and friends in SW England and at a festival.

Before i went i was feeling very flat and demoralised again with my practice.  This is something that hasnt happened before (been taking photographs for 30 odd years) but has happened twice on Identiy and Place.

First of all, lets get this out of the way, it is nothing to do with the quality of the course or my tutor.  My tutor has been fantastic throughout – a great mix of encouragement, support yet prodding and challenging me where I need it.  And I quietly smile to myself when she’s intuitive enough to know which one I need – wise stuff and immensely helpful.

The course content is exactly what I wanted it to be – a challenge in the largely unexplored arena of people photography.  So that is also good.

While on holiday I hardly picked up a camera.  It felt like I needed a break.  I did read – I used the time to really try and get under the skin of the more difficult texts such as Barthes and Sontag. I was asked to take some photographs of my partner and her colleagues at an award ceremony.

A bit messy.  Could have arranged them better.  Shows where my head was at the time.

This lack of motivation created a loss of inertia, a downward spiral, a loss of confidence, apathy and procrastination.

Not good.

So what is going on?  How do I get my mojo back?

I have really dug deep into myself during my time off to try and learn why.

I think one thing is work pressure.  Ultimately photography is foreced to be a hobby to fit in around work.  When work is busy and stressful (and it is just work, not anything that feeds my soul) then my energy for other things is diminished.  But that is just reality. A reality faced by many others on the same path.  But work hasnt been / isnt great.

I’m also suffering from something I call ‘People paralysis’.  I find it harder to motivate myself to take pictures of people…sometimes. I took these photographs of strangers at a festival a week ago.  I think the difference is that they knew they were ‘supposed to be’ photographed at an event.  There was no ‘approaching strangers’ hurdle to ask them involved:

So it isn’t a fear of people per se.  Its a fear of approaching, of supposed to be there in that role of photographer.  I need to work hard to overcoome this but, equally, i need to enjoy my photography again by taking images of things that inspire and interest me.

This fear drives a procrastination which is hard to overcome after a 12 hoour working day and a hot dinner in the evening.

—-

Yesterday a friend asked me to share some photos from the events above.  This I did, to the expected oohs and aaahs on Facebook of those I was there with.  And suddenly Im back.  Motivated, and thinking about Exercise 4.3 again.  But why do we fall into these lulls, waste time and struggle to overcome them?  Especially when it is something we know we fundamentally like to do?

Study Visit – 21 May 2017. Bradford ‘A trio of exhibitions’

1. Britain in focus: A Photographic History

  • Not seen a real daguerrotype before, only in books, so this was fascinating to see.
  • Noted how Cameron would defocus to create a soft effect.
  • Learning that US soldiers would purchase daguerrotypes in junk shops, discard the photo then use the holder to store items made me reflect on how much of our archives are lost.  Cameron is prominent in history as she had good contacts, was wealthy and photographed famous people.  But how many local photographers were doing good work, exploring new boundaries, but we never knew?
  • Parr reminds us to photograph the banal…as that is tomorrow’s curiosity.
  • The soldeirs took a risk – but these are the only records we now have for some aspects of the war (unsanitized by the propaganda machine)
  • Smaller exhibition than expected – is this really a celebration of out best wotk over the years? Or have much of Bradford’s archives now been relocated to london i wonder?

2. Pinhole Camera

  • A beautiful ethereal feel to the images, dreamy, otherworldly. Evokes the work of Francesca Woodman in feel if not in technique.
  • Sarah van Keuren: pinhole cameras need long shutter speeds so they hold a collection of expressions, not just a single frozen moment.  “Seems to get at a certain hidden truth” about the character of the subject.  This is something ive reflected on before, how a portrait, a single moment, can never fully represent a full person as they cannot be ‘all of themselves in 1/125th of a second.
  • I’ve been working more with black and white film cameras lately. Theres s connection, a richness, a less-clinical and more emotional representation that appeals to me. How can i apply pinhole photography to my practice to develop this idea further?

https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/whats-on/poetics-light-pinhole-photography

3. Mother River, Yan Wang Preston

  • An ambitious project, following the Yangtze River for its length of 6,211km and taking 63 photographs with a large format camera exactly 100km apart.
  • As a group we explored whether this was a good strategy or not.  How many exellent photo opportunities were excluded because they were not exactly on a 100km ‘Y Point?  Some images were not particulary interesting.  However i took a different view.  This made it authentic, not artificially enhanced by picking only the good bits.  If three quarters of the images were strong, then I can believe that three quarters of the river is interesting in real life.  I feel I’m being shown the truth.
  • The work reminded me strongly of a similar project i understook last summer, to walk the entire 15mile length of my local River, the Amber.  Instead of taking photos at fixed points however i took them at the interesting bits.  Which i more successful?  It depends on the viewer’s sense of connection with the land i would argue, not just the images themselves.

General notes:

  • Had a really good chat with the tutor/leader on the study visit about the use of blogs.  I thought i was expected to fill my blog with reviews as evidence of having read books, etc.  However this is not the case, making the blog too verbose for assessors to review and diverting from its msin purpose of being a place to refect, show learning and to critique.  Ive taken a different approach with this post with this in mind.
  • Other advice was to keep my work personal and interesting.  Dont be scared to take risks, say more about who I am, what I like – and brave enough to say what I don’t.
  • As ever, great company from my fellow students. Discussing and sharing makes the course ‘come alive’ and i always come back more motivated and inspired in my studies.

Art portraiture: a personal epiphany?

Reading Face (Ewing, 2008), I suddenly realised the required difference of approach between art portraiture and commercial portraiture that I am perhaps more familiar with.  Instead of apologetically trying to make photographs that people will like, art photography has a different mindset – that of seeking to peel back the ‘veneer’ of the mask, makeup or fake smile to reveal the ‘real’ person undernearth.

Yes, it is important to establish trust with the subject through openness, integrity and good ethics towards photography.  But also I have a right – a responsibility I might argue – to get the photographs that I want.  It’s ok to experiment, change my mind direct the shoot and try to peer beneath the mask…and capture what I might be privileged to see.  That’s my role as an art student.  Not just to make them want to buy a print for the wall.

Writing it down in a reflective way makes this all so obvious.  But I can see how I’ve been so ingrained (for decades) in thinking that, above all else, I have an over-riding social / professional duty to produce work that the customer likes.  This stifles my creativity.  It feeds my fear of being ok to be  experimental rather than on the safe side.  Seminars are geared towards creating ‘portraits that sell’.

A small thing.  But something that has helped reorient how I approach my work

Ewing goes on to explore this portrait, Anastasia, by Inex van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin which can be found on page 75 and online at:

http://www.artnet.com/artists/vinoodh-matadin/anastasia-collab-w-inez-van-lamsweerde-BcrIDDLb-mMqxT1OpwZBaA2

-inez-van-lamsweerde).jpg

He argues that, at first sight, we are viewing an ‘elegant, refined, Versailles-like decadance, this delicate waif of a woman’.  However, upon closer inspection the mask is not actually a mask at all but black make up.  A mirror rather than a mask?  Is the viewer really looking at a ‘mirror reflecting male lust’ (ibid, p74)?  Clearly this is a carefully constructed portrait image driven by a vision of the photographer to express a personal vision and explore the viewer’s gaze, rather than to produce a portrait that the subject was ‘happy with’.

References

Ewing, W.A. and Herschdorfer, N. (2008) Face: The new photographic portrait. London: Thames & Hudson.

Book Review: The A-Z of Visual Ideas. By Ingledew, J

Although not listed as an official course text book I bought this on a whim and have found it to be a good read.

John Ingledew is a name I recognise from my film-shooting days.

The book itself starts with a handy 16 step guide to approaching any creative brief.  I’ve started applying the methodology to course exercises and planning for Assignment 2.  Ingledew first guides us through how to read and analyse the brief before capturing ideas on paper.  He stresses the need to write this down as ideas will often link and trigger others when on the page where they may not otherwise do.

But the real value of this book is in the main section which is divided up alphabetically.  So under ‘A’ are suggestions about Art, Hands, Happy Accidenrs, under H, Mirrors under M, etc.

I’m finding this good for thinking laterally.  It triggers new thoughts and ideas in areas I’d probably never have considered when I get stuck – a bit like a creative panic button to press in emergencies. For example, looking at ideas around ‘colour’ for portrait backgrounds it links colours to associated objects – Green Rooms, Gold, Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Red Letter Days, and so on.  Just enough to kickstart the creative brain into a new direction.

Bibliography

Ingledew, J. (2011) The a-z of visual ideas: How to solve any creative brief. London: Laurence King Publishing.

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)