Category Archives: Book Reviews

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)

Train your gaze – Angier

I decided to start my studies for I&P by reading this book which is listed on the course reading list.  Portraiture is not an area my photography has previously focussed heavily on and I thought this would be a good way to attune my thinking.

Chapter 1 begins with some high level insights into the depth and richness within a good portrait. Angier uses ‘The Kiss of Peace’ by Cameron to illustrate how the simple act of choosing where the main subject casts her gaze creates a level of meaning in the image that would otherwise not be present.  Similarly with Film Still #3 by Sherman, the careful use of depth of field on washing up liquid and a pan handle, the placement of the subject’s body and off camera gaze, all build a suggestion of male dominance in a domestic environment.

Having shown the way with the subtle devices open to the portrait photographer she then goes on to explore these areas in greater depth.

Chapter 2 explores the role of the face in portraiture, both when included and excluded from the shot.  Beginning with a reflection on the difficulty early photographers had in portraying the ‘inner’ rather than façade of persona due to inordinately long exposure times, Angier highlights the importance of other signifiers other than the face itself.  For example, Lee Friedlander’s shadow self portraits on another person have a sinister element to them.  Bacigaluppo explores the portrait left behind when the face is cut from the photograph to make an ID card or passport.  The chapter culminates with a study of one of Francesca Woodman’s most famous images, the charcoal I print of self on a wooden floor.  This black outline, resembling a crime scene perhaps, resembles a ‘trace of something that has been left behind’ and contrasts with her pale, naked and present self placed on a chair overlooking it.  Her face is again out of shot.  Angier quotes Sundell in saying that the image carries a very high level of artistic maturity for someone so young, capturing the essence of ‘that struggle to reduce a physical body to a photographic image’…’in such an incredibly eloquent way with so many problems of female identity’ (Sundell in Angier, 2015. p35).

Chapter 3 explores the decisions around framing the image, the decision as to what is included and what is not and asking us:

‘What is the nature of the frame? Consider it as a container. As such, it can be

an energy field, alive and swarming, perhaps near to bursting, with information.

Or it can be a tighdy closed box, a hermetically sealed vessel for an immobilized

specimen, something for you to examine later at your leisure. These are two extremes,

neither having more intrinsic merit than the other. The two cases represent different

sensibilities, different ways of perceiving and organizing the world.’ (Angier, 2015)

Camera design has, on the whole, perpetuated a lazy convention that the most important subject matter is sharply focussed and placed in the centre of the frame.

 

References

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