Author Archives: Darryl Godfrey

Paris Photo 2016

parisphoto2016

After the terrible events of last year which cancelled Paris Photo and much else, it was a relief to be able to go this year.

The sheer amount of photography available and the variety is breathtaking. I spent two full afternoons over a weekend and feel that I didn’t see everything by a long shot.

 

leiter_snow75970_563cc9939ab7e

Saul Leiter: Snow, 1960.

Plenty of examples from the masters are there. Pretty much everything from Timothy O’Sullivan onwards. I found it wonderful to see photos in the flesh, so to speak, that I’d only ever seen in books or on websites. I even managed to find one of my current favourites by Saul Leiter (see right) at only GBP 27600. I was sorely tempted …

In terms of range, it covers everything from the old masters of photography (want a print of Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare St-Lazare 1932?) to relative newcomers and rising stars such as Eamonn Doyle.

A special treat was an exhibition of Sally Mann’s work by the Karsten Greve galley focusing on her large format landscape photos. While I love her classic photos of her children which evoke the carefree, playful qualities of youth, I find her landscape photos particularly interesting. They are very dark, very dense, and it’s often hard to see any detail at all.

sally-mann-21

Sally Mann

The gallery has treated us to a large collection of these images, printed quite large: approximately 1m on the long edge. I find these images quite haunting and very absorbing. It’s as if the dark values draw me in, wanting to see more and more.

 

 

 

If there’s a downside to the exhibition, it’s the gallery-based format. For example, if you want to see work by a particular artist, you’ll typically find the images scattered across half a dozen galleries. Good exercise, for sure, but a little frustrating. Still, for sheer volume and variety of high quality work, Paris Photo is hard to beat: highly recommended.

 

Assignment 5 – tutor feedback

Following are my notes from the discussion with my tutor, Wendy McMurdo:

  • Good set of images, documenting life on the street – potentially my strongest assignment
  • Only through risk-taking and experimentation can I improve. As a result have to expect some failures and that not everyone will like what I have done.
  • The element of chance in the technique used is a quite different approach for me
  • My description of the method is clear and concise
  • Good to reflect on ideas of confrontation (in street photography) and personal space
  • Don’t be afraid to work in a more abstract way – get close to subjects
  • Consider presentation pairs of images in double-page spreads to invite comparisons
  • Research: need to increase length (min. 500 words) and depth of posts
  • Assessment: best to present example prints as well as online blog. Prints can be presented in a variety of ways, but must be labelled clearly and the whole should be presented in an archival clamshell box.
  • Consider different ways of presenting prints e.g. a concertina layout

Here is a link to the tutor report: Tutor report – assignment 5

Assignment 5 – photography is simple

Brief

Take a series of 10 photographs of any subject of your own choosing. Each photograph must be a unique view of the same subject; in other words, it must contain some ‘new information’ rather than repeat the information of the previous image. Pay attention to the order of the series; if you’re submitting prints, number them on the back. There should be a clear sense of development through the sequence.

In your assignment notes explore why you chose this particular subject by answering the question ‘What is it about?’ Write about 300 words.

What’s it about?

Rue du Marché (Geneva, Switzerland, 2016)

Rue du Marché (Geneva, Switzerland, 2016)

This assignment is about many things, in fact. The obvious answer is that it’s about the Rue du Marché (which I photographed in assignment 3). More than that, it’s about what really makes the street special: the people. The buzz, the diversity, about what makes Geneva special.

This assignment is also about me pushing myself a long way outside of my comfort zone. I don’t “do” street photography. I recognised why, but was determined to push myself. The inspiration came from the assignment 4 feedback given to me by my tutor, Wendy McMurdo. She suggested that I look at the work of Eamonn Doyle. To say I was impressed is a gross understatement. It was one of the driving forces for me visiting Rencontres d’Arles and subsequently writing a blog entry on Eamonn Doyle. More about this in the following section titled “Research”, but it’s enough to say here that I used the assignment to both respond to the street and to tackle my own fears about street photography.

Note: my response to exercise 5.2 can be found here.

Research

My research started with Eamonn Doyle and especially his work titled ON. I love his gritty in-your-face style, and seeing them printed in very large format at Arles really lit the fuse (see my blog post here on his show titled END).

Via another student, I was switched onto the work of Lukas Kuzma. I find his punchy, high-contrast style very interesting. I was particularly fascinated by a Blurb publication that he made called Continuum. Not only are the photos engaging, but on page 11 he writes about his technique and he states that he photographs mostly without looking through the viewfinder. The light went on for me at this point because the idea of pointing a camera at a stranger in the street is something that I struggle with.

The fabulous work of Alex Webb also formed an influence, especially his series The Suffering of Light (Webb, 2011). The style is quite different from Doyle and Kuzma, but the highly saturated, contrasty and multi-layered photos he produces have real depth and interest. There’s a subtle quirkiness – his photos are often of movement in flux and unusual situations which I find very engaging.

Into this mix came the book Diane Arbus:In the Beginning (Rosenheim, 2016). I wrote a blog article about the book in which we can see her earlier work, but in which it is clear that her clear-eyed style was already fully formed some time before the photos which formed the basis of the famous Aperture book.

Concept Development & Process

The work of Eamonn Doyle formed the key aspiration for this assignment. The method of Lukas Kuzma gave me hope that perhaps I could make a small step towards my aspiration. The work of Alex Webb and Diane Arbus formed more of a background influence – I can best describe it as being alert for more interesting people – the slightly quirky characters that are attention-grabbers. For the rest, it was a desire to continue my progression, established over my last four assignments, of not repeating what I’d done before, but to keep pushing myself out of my comfort zone.

In terms of process, I took the part 5 title literally: Photography is Simple. I wanted to replicate the long-established street aesthetic of using monochrome (a nod to Doyle, Kuzma and Arbus although Doyle and Kuzma also create colour work). I also wanted to set the camera so that all I had to do was look and press the button. I knew in advance that focus would be a challenge, so I decided that hyperfocal focusing was the answer. I used aperture priority, set to f/8, set the small zoom lens to 23mm (to give me a 35mm equivalent on my camera with an APS-C sensor) and focused at the hyperfocal distance (about 3.6m). All I had to do was to be at least 1.8m from my subject and all should be fairly sharp. I also set my camera to produce JPEGs using a B&W film simulation mode, something that Fuji have some experience with! I kept the camera at about waist level for almost all of the shots. It took a little while to get used to this position and the impact on framing, but eventually I settled into a rhythm of working. I found it was a lot of fun working this way – it was about not thinking, just reacting. I felt it was a very liberating way to work – photography truly is simple!

I visited the area on two occasions and took over 550 photos in total. The method might be liberating, but it does result in a lot of strangely framed shots! Again, I’m glad that I’m not using film.

Selects & selection process

The process that I followed this time was to print my “picks” as a contact sheet onto a page of A3 and use that to look at periodically to come to a conclusion about my selects. Primarily I looked for photos that were interesting in some way. Maybe they showed an interesting group of people, an expression or some kind of interaction, rather than just “people in the street”.

Contact Sheets

Following are the contact sheets containing the full set of photos including exposure data and an indication of my selects.

Assessment Criteria

1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills

Materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

The technique I used was more-or-less a given: keep it simple. This allowed me to focus on what was happening around me. The experience was enlightening because it gave me a hint about how much mental processing I’m doing when thinking about photography. I suspect that this isn’t always a good thing because it gets in the way of seeing. The simple point-and-shoot technique was very liberating. Since I could not realistically compose with my camera at waist level, I did a little cropping in post-processing to focus attention where I wanted it. In some cases, I also needed to lighten shadows as the B&W film simulation in-camera could be a little harsh on the contrast. On my second shoot, I used exposure compensation of +2/3 to +1 stop to assist with the shadows.

2. Quality of outcome

Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas.

From a presentation point of view, I believe that the photos form a coherent set with the use of monochrome throughout and landscape 3:2 format. I believe that I achieved what I set out to do: to communicate what the street looks like, to give a feel for the people. I think that there’s enough consistency that this set could also work printed as a grid, in a large format in a similar way to Eamonn Doyle’s works at Rencontres d’Arles.

In exercise 5.1, we’re asked to not “evaluate the shots just according to the idea you had when you took the photographs; instead evaluate it by what you discover within the frame”. Several of the photos nicely link to this point in terms of what I didn’t notice at the time such as the expression on the girl’s face and the way she holds her body in 08Oct2016-004 and the child peeking out of the pram in 10Sep2016-154. There’s for certain a strong element of chance, but perhaps it’s also the case that the subconscious picks up on things that simply don’t register in the conscious mind.

3. Demonstration of creativity

Imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice

I believe that I have answered the brief in a creative way, inspired by photographers that I admire. I had to invent my own process for being comfortable at least starting with street photography – something a long way out of my comfort zone. The process was a combination of a technical approach plus pushing myself to get out there and not be so shy. From a personal development point of view, I think the process has been valuable – I have surprised myself my being able to do it in the first place and secondly coming back with (in my opinion) some results of a decent quality.

4. Context

Reflection, research, critical thinking

Of the photographers mentioned in the research section, there’s no question in my mind that Eamonn Doyle had the greatest influence over this work. I had to work out for myself how I might approach the assignment technically to capture some of the feeling of Doyle’s work. The artistic influence of Doyle plus the practical technique of Kuzma allowed me to pull it all together.

References

Geneva, Switzerland. (2016) Google Maps [online] At: http://www.maps.google.com (Accessed 12 September 2016)

Kuzma, Lukas (2015) Continuum. At: http://www.blurb.com/b/6105438-continuum (Accessed 12 September 2016)

Rosenheim, Jeff (2016) Diane Arbus: In the Beginning. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Webb, Alex (2011) The Suffering of Light. London: Thames and Hudson

Stephen Shore: Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979

Stephen Shore: Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 13 August 1979

Stephen Shore: Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 13 August 1979

This post was inspired by an article in the August 2016 edition of the British Journal of Photography which focuses on photography education. One of the articles is about Stephen Shore and his photography programme at Bard College in New York.

The article contains a number of Shore’s photos from 1969 to 2011 but mentions one in particular: Merced River, Yosemite National Park, California, 1979. The article states that the photo is a good example of how Shore’s images “make us look again at sights we usually take for granted … and all with a beautiful light and colour palette”. The article goes on to say that the photo has many visual and intellectual layers of meaning. This point about layers of meaning intrigued me enough to think about to decode these layers.

Layers of Meaning

Ansel Adams: The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942

Ansel Adams: The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942

The most obvious starting point when thinking about meaning for this photo is the surroundings: Yosemite National Park. Made famous and, one could argue, partly created by Ansel Adams. The two are inseparable. The BJP article mentions that the photo “can be read as both an acknowledgement of, and respectful shirt away from, the iconic Ansel Adams landscape photograph, The Tetons and the Snake River, 1942“.

In fact, this particular Adams photo seems like a strange reference point. It’s full of drama, printed in a high contrast way and dodged and burned to focus the viewer’s attention. By contrast, the Shore photo is almost pastoral. Adams made many photos of the Merced River which would have serve as better comparisons, capturing the serenity of the scene.

Ansel Adams: Merced River Cliffs, Autumn, 1939

Ansel Adams: Merced River Cliffs, Autumn, 1939

One such example is Merced River Cliffs, Autumn, 1939, presented in Adams (1983)This photo shows the mastery of light that Adams was famous for. Like Shore’s photo, it is also a peaceful scene.

Another obvious layer of meaning is Shore’s use of colour compared with Adam’s use of monochrome. The article quotes Shore as saying that “everything but art photography was in colour, so it made sense to me that colour was the direction I should go in, even if photographers I admired, such as Paul Strand, claimed that higher emotions cannot be communicated with colour”.

Shore’s use of colour removes the abstraction layer of monochrome and roots us much more in the here and now. Even though the photo was taken in 1979, there is nothing particularly which dates it – we could imagine it has having been taken this morning on a smartphone – it has a feeling of being contemporary.

None of Adams most famous photos feature people, even as nondescript bit-actors. Looking through Szarkowski (2001), I could find only a single photo of a person, taken 1928-29 titled Eagle Dance, San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico. We have better luck in Adams (1983) where there are seven photos of people of the 40 discussed. The landscape for Adams had became a political message to support the preservation of wilderness areas. For this reason he wanted to emphasise the beauty and minimise the human element.

By contrast, Shore’s photos frequently contain people – by no means all of the time, but often. This is part of Shore’s desire to show people in the world and how “nature is occupied by humans” (Grieve, 2016).  Badger (2014) comments on the same photo by saying “he has accepted that where nature is, man is also, but that does not prevent him from making his own version of the American Sublime, for if he can find it in a suburban gas station or motel he can surely find it in Yosemite, albeit tinged with gentle irony”.

Shore on Shore

At this point I thought it would be interesting to try and put myself in Shore’s shoes and use his own method to analyse Merced River. In The Nature of Photographs (Shore, 2007), three levels are suggested for thinking about photos (see my blog article on the book here).

Physical Level

The physical level consists of what we’d normally think of as the physical aspect of a photograph such as the paper texture and colour, the chemistry, the border, whether it is monochrome or colour etc., but it also includes the context: the presentation.

From the physical perspective, the photo is in colour and is presented on glossy, high-quality paper in a quality photography journal. The effect is engaging, especially since it is presented at the top of a right-hand page, where the eye naturally falls. The context of a serious journal implies that I should take it seriously as well.

Depictive Level

The depictive level is about the choices that the photographer makes in terms of vantage point, framing, choosing a moment of exposure and a plane of focus (along with depth of field).

The vantage point is moderately high, looking down on a curve of the river and on the mothers and children, one of which is standing in the shallows. The framing places the people just slightly to the right and below the central point. The framing seems to have been chosen to include the water, people, mountains in the background and some of the sky to show the context without any single element dominating – in rough terms, each element of the landscape is balanced with the others in terms of size.

The people are moderately far away. In the half-page magazine print, some detail can be seen, but the people are very small compared with their surroundings. Perhaps Shore was trying to show people as part of the world, but maybe not the most important part. The depth of field is very large with sharp focus throughout. This is a scene as we might see it ourselves.

Finally, from a time perspective, the people are static – frozen by a relatively fast shutter speed. There is no motion blurring, nor any sense of a decisive moment. It’s easy to imagine that within quite a long time period, one photo would look more-or-less like another with no great differences. In short, time is not a strong element in this picture.

Mental Level

On the mental level there is a sensation of changing focus due to the planes within the photo of water, river bank, trees, mountains and finally the blue sky with white clouds. There are layers within the photo which, I suspect, would become more dominant with a larger print. Printed very large, I can imagine that the effect would be breathtaking.

I can imagine Shore feeling this sense of depth and of space when he took the photo and that these were the qualities he wished to communicate.

Conclusions

The combination of the use of colour, including people and a focus on the mundane versus the drama of a classic Adams photo can be seen as a kind of rebellion against the so-called “West Coast School” represented by Adams, Edward Western, Minor White and others. Shore has humanised a landscape which must seem to be overpowering to many visitors. By focusing on children at play, he also reminds us that perhaps we shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously.

References

Adams, Ansel (1983) Examples: The Making of 40 Photographs. New York: Little, Brown and Company

Badger, Gerry (2014) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille Publishing Limited

Grieve, M. (2016) ‘Master & Servant’ In: British Journal of Photography  August 2016 (7850) pp.52-66.

Shore, Stephen (2007) The Nature of Photographs. London: Phaidon

Szarkowski, John (2001 ) Ansel Adams at 100. New York: Little, Brown and Company

 

Patrick Gilliéron Lopreno

patrick-gillieron-lopreno-bio-photoAccording to his website, Patrick Gilliéron Lopreno is a Swiss photographer, born in Geneva and still living and working there. He has worked for various Swiss and foreign newspapers and institutions.

His most recent work, Voyages en Suisse, has been released as a book and is being exhibited at Galerie Focale in Nyon.

Voyages en Suisse is a very personal look at Switzerland. According to the publicity, Lopreno travelled 1000s of kilometres across the country in order to show it in a new light.

img_3296

The show is a curious mix of Swiss countryside, portraits, semi-industrial scenes and houses. The effect is to give an uncompromising insider’s view of what Switzerland is really like – that it’s not all chocolate box scenery. Instead, we have real vignettes from everyday life and what they do show is the diversity which makes the country rich.

112930_2016-09-10

 

 

 

 

 

For me, the real strength of the exhibition lies in the portraits. They are very eye-catching – of interesting-looking people, sometimes in situations which make me want to know more. They don’t look like street shots – I imagine that they were taken with the full knowledge of the subject. This has allowed Lopreno to get close, very well framed photos, but the impressive thing is that he still managed to capture natural-looking (i.e. unposed) images.

 img_3298  img_3299

The whole exhibition is of B&W prints, of different sizes. Some are very grainy suggesting, but not guaranteeing, the use of film. Since Lopreno comes from a photojournalist background, film is probably a safe bet, but it looks as if it has been push-processed quite a lot judging by the degree of grain and heavy contrast. It’s not a common factor across all photos, but very obvious in some of the bigger prints.

 img_3297 img_3301

All in all, this is a small, but worthwhile exhibition. It shows a completely different side of Switzerland to what many people imagine. While the landscape and semi-industrial shots are interesting, the real gems are the portraits – they shine in a whole different way and I could easily imagine an exhibition of just his portrait work.

The exhibition runs until the 30th of October 2016.

 

Part 5 – exercise 5.1

Brief

Use your camera as a measuring device. This doesn’t refer to the distance scale on the focus ring(!). Rather, find a subject that you have an empathy with and take a sequence of shots to ‘explore the distance between you’. Add the sequence to your learning log, indicating which is your ‘select’ – your best shot.

Approach

The starting point for my thinking about this exercise was the quote from Alexia Clorinda in the course notes:

I don’t pretend that I can describe the ‘other’. The camera for me is more a meter that measures the distance between myself and the other. It’s about the encounter between myself and the other; it’s not about the other.

The key word in this quote is “encounter”. The important thing is the interaction between photographer and subject – it’s not just one or the other, it’s both. The depth of the interaction is the real measure of importance.

Looking further into Clorinda’s work, I noticed her series titled Music Visions. The photos in this series are very evocative (her word) of being in a particular place, at a particular time. It seems to me that the encounter is intimate and personal. They are subjects that I can imagine she has empathy with.

The online Oxford English Dictionary gives several meanings of the word empathy, but the common meaning is defined as “the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”. Dictionary.com has a broader definition, moving away from just empathising with a person: “the imaginative ascribing to an object, as natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself”. This last meaning I found interesting and it brought to mind a long-running project of mine …

Lélex Farmhouse

Lélex Farmhouse

There’s an abandoned farmhouse not too far from where I live, just over the French border outside of the village of Lelex. I’ve explored in and around it, making three visits over several years and taking more than 250 photos. The place has an air of melancholy. It speaks to me of lives lived, loneliness, isolation and ultimately, decay. Like many photographers, these places intrigue me. Items of everyday life are still there such as old wine bottles, crockery, even a hand of cards left on the table. The upstairs rooms have old, dusty beds and there’s a half-destroyed sofa. I make up stories about the people who lived there and try to imagine what it must have been like. There’s a strong feeling of being abandoned and even a slightly creepy feeling which I find hard to shake whenever I’m there. Too many B movies, I guess.

I used this exercise as the opportunity to review the photos that I’ve taken in the past with a different eye. I was never happy with my selects before, so it seemed like a good opportunity to re-think.

Photos

 drg-26apr2015-101 drg-26apr2015-090  drg-26apr2015-087
 drg-26apr2015-083  drg-26apr2015-062 drg-26apr2015-061
drg-26apr2015-058 drg-26apr2015-042  drg-26apr2015-024
drg-26apr2015-015  drg-26apr2015-009

These photos are my picks from an outing in 2015 when I wanted to try out a LensBaby. I felt that a distorted look suited the mixed feelings that the place provoked in me. To emphasise the age and neglect, I cropped to square format, converted to B&W and gave all the photos a gentle warm tone.

Review

When you review the set to decide upon a ‘select’, don’t evaluate the shots just according to the idea you had when you took the photographs; instead evaluate it by what you discover within the frame (you’ve already done this in Exercise 1.4). In other words, be open to the unexpected. In conversation with the author, the photographer Alexia Clorinda expressed this idea in the following way:

Look critically at the work you did by including what you didn’t mean to do. Include the mistake, or your unconscious, or whatever you want to call it, and analyse it not from the point of view of your intention, but because it is there.

drg-26apr2015-083

My select is based on the feeling of abandonment. The thick cobwebs on the old chain indicate age, but they also touch on the B-movie creepy feelings I have when I’m there.

On examining this photo for this exercise, I noticed something that I didn’t see at the time: that the cobwebs almost look like hands reaching for the chains.

I must give up late night horror movies …

Rencontré à Arles: Nothing but Blue Skies

Reeve Schumacher, #1, série Nothing but Blue Skies, 2016.

Reeve Schumacher, #1, from the series Nothing but Blue Skies, 2016.

Nothing but Blue Skies is a multi-media exhibition at the Chapelle Saint-Laurent le Capitole in Arles curated by Mélanie Bellue et Sam Stourdzé. The show looks back at the media’s portrayal of the tragic events of the morning Sept 11th 2001 in New York city. The title come from the intensely blue sky on the day which formed a common backdrop to the mass of imagery produced and disseminated.

Over 20 artists have contributed photos, video and installations in order to question “the visual representations of the tragedy over a nearly 15-year period”.

The result is quite overwhelming. The show entrance contains large format photos of the impacts showing flames and smoke – the news photos that we’re familiar with. In the next room there is a hand-held silent video which just lingers on the burning building like a curious type of voyeurism. There’s a separate room which contains dozens of TV screens, each showing different TV broadcasts from the time in multiple languages – a true cacophony.

Thomas Ruff: jpeg ny02

Thomas Ruff: jpeg ny02

For me, perhaps the most memorable photo was one of Thomas Ruff’s JPEGs series titled jpeg ny02. The slightly unreal nature of the pixelated blocks matched the surreal nature of the event – almost as if, even 15 years after, the event is so hard to take in that it’s easier to work with an abstract view.

Not an easy exhibition, but certainly one that stirs the emotions and brings back the incredulity of that day.

Rencontré à Arles: Piero Martinello

piero-martinelloPiero Martinello has a show at Arles called Radicalia. The Rencontres d’Arles website describes the show like this: “Piero Martinello travelled around Italy in search of women and men who—each in their own way and for different reasons—have embraced radical choices and lifestyles. Fools, ravers, criminals, devouts and cloistered nuns: Martinello’s subjects come to life in a series of portraits in which the photographic medium appears at times in its pure form, at others grafted in items of vernacular iconography (passport pictures, holy pictures, mug shots)”.

Piero Martinello: Radicalia

The prints are sometimes large – a metre or more high, sometimes very small – literally they are passport photos. In some cases (such as on right), the prints are very dark – obviously taken at night, but with tonal variance in mainly in the darker areas making them very sombre and moody.

Each one is fascinating. These are clearly not everyday people, and Martinello has preserved their individuality.

 

Piero Martinello: Radicalia

Piero Martinello: Radicalia

Also included in the exhibition is what might be called abbreviated family trees (see example on left). These are sections of family trees, typically containing only men, of southern Italian crime families. Beside each name is a label such as “killed” or “arrested”. Very occasionally, it seems that one of them might have died of natural causes, but they are the minority.

 

A peculiarity of the show which only appears with observation is that no photo is framed in the same way as another. There are different sizes, shapes, colours and materials used in the frames, giving almost a random effect.

Piero Martinello: Radicalia

Piero Martinello: Radicalia

It has to be said that this show contains a strange collection of people, but somehow it seems to work. The key theme which pulls it all together is that (as the website states) all of the people have, in their own way, adopted a radical lifestyle and it is this differentness which gives cohesion to something which otherwise might not work.

EYV: Reflections on the journey

During the feedback session for assignment 4, my tutor (Wendy McMurdo) suggested that I take a moment to reflect on my journey through Expressing your Vision.

Journey

Initial thoughts: I’ve come a long way from my starting point. I’ve experimented and pushed myself well past my comfort zone. More importantly, a door has opened to new possibilities.

Concretely, what has this journey looked like? Before starting the course, I realised that I was in a rut. I’d had some success and sold a bunch of photos, but creatively I was stuck. I thought about doing workshops, reading more books (I’d already read a lot, maybe too many) and one day I saw an advertisement for the OCA on the back of a magazine. I’d seen the ad before and I don’t know why I particularly paid attention this time. There’s a time and a place for everything, I guess. Anyway, the description of the course captured my imagination. I knew it would be a stretch for me, having come from an engineering/IT background but something clicked: this is what I needed.

My first EYV assignment submission was a learning exercise. I’d had a good idea initially, but was pressed for time and chickened out. I submitted something that was “ok”, but not inspiring. Wendy was very kind. Following is one of the first things she said about my Square Mile submission:

Your first assignment photos are fine but looked like they would be more at home in a travel blog. They don’t really give a sense of place.

Far from being disheartened, it gave me the inspiration I needed to completely re-shoot the assignment using as a starting point a suggestion to look at Raymond Depardon’s War Monuments project. This was the spark I needed to come up with a completely different approach.

What did I learn from this?  I must have the confidence to experiment more and not be afraid to make mistakes.

Assignment 2 was an improvement, although Wendy suggested that I try an alternative edit, which I did and I think the results are indeed better. Assignments 3 and 4 were where I think that I started to spread my wings. Still pretty shaky, but now I’m starting to see my own patterns: my own way of working and I’m much happier to experiment and change my mind.

Assignment 5 was a complete departure from my comfort zone: I chose street photography. The reasons are in my assignment notes, but suffice to say that I wanted to continue to push myself and getting out there among people like that was a whole different approach for me.

Conclusions

I’ve come a long, long way since I started this subject. If I had to summarise the journey, I would say that it has been truly an individual development process, which I guess is the point of the subject. I am now much more confident about experimenting and taking risks. I have a better understanding of how I need to work (get out there, try something, adjust, repeat). I’ve understood that assignments at OCA are not cast in stone – I have the option to adjust based on my tutor’s feedback. In short, I’ve enjoyed the subject immensely and am looking forward to continuing the journey with Context & Narrative.

Deadpan

celine-van-balen-muazez

Celine van Balen: Muazez, 1998

This is a short review of the chapter titled Deadpan in The Photograph as Contemporary Art, by Charlotte Cotton.

Although I was conscious of the “deadpan aesthetic” (as Cotton puts it), I was under the impression that it applied to portraiture – hence the term “deadpan expression”. From reading this chapter and some other references, it became clear to me that the deadpan approach applies much more widely than photos of people.

Deadpan Aesthetic

The chapter opens with the above photo by Celine van Balen. Van Balen took portraits of residents in temporary accommodation in Amsterdam which included head and shoulders portraits of Muslim girls. Cotten states that “her choice of the stark, deadpan aesthetic to represent the girl emphasises the self-possession with which they confront the camera and their presence in contemporary society”. I found the choice of phrase “self-possession” to be intriguing and came to wonder what that might really mean, given the subject and the limits placed on females within Muslim society. I also came to wonder about whether such photos were difficult to take, even back then in a pre-2001 world.

Cotton describes the deadpan aesthetic as “a way of seeing beyond the limitations of individual perspective, a way of mapping the extent of the forces, invisible from a single human standpoint, that govern the man-made and natural world”. Well then, it’s now quite clear, isn’t it?

Picking through the dense academic language, looking for clues of everyday meaning and application, I come to the conclusion that what Cotton really means is that the deadpan is a neutral, uninvolved (cold?) view.

Cotton points out that although the deadpan aesthetic became popular in the 1990s, the front-ranking practitioners were working in this way for a considerable time before. She makes the connection with the “Düsseldorf school” – the photographers taught and guided by Bernd Becher at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. Many of the photographers who were influential in shaping deadpan photographers were students of Bernt Becher such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.

Beyond Portraiture

Chicago, Board of Trade II 1999 Andreas Gursky born 1955 Presented by the artist 2000 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P20191

Andreas Gursky: Chicago, Board of Trade II, 1999

Cotten spends little time on portraiture before moving onto other photographic subjects introducing Andreas Gursky as the “figurehead of contemporary deadpan photography”. She states that “his works make for very imposing objects, pictures to stop you in your tracks, and he has become synonymous with work on this scale”.

Having never seen a “Gursky”in the flesh, I can only imagine what it must be like to see a photo 2m high and 5m high. The effect must be quite dominating in the same way as a Rothko painting. The size, vibrant colour and level of detail must be breathtaking.

Ed Burtynsky: Oil Fields #13, Taft, California, 2002

Ed Burtynsky: Oil Fields #13, Taft, California, 2002

Cotton cites the oil fields work of Ed Burtynsky as providing a “neutral photographic stance” and as “objective evidence of the consequences of everyday life”. She argues that, even though some people might see such  photos as evidence of man’s intrusion on the landscape and exploitation of natural resources, “it appears as if this information is given impartially”.

I think the word “appears” is important here. It’s hard for me to imagine someone taking a photo of what, for most people, is quite ugly with any degree of impartiality. Can the photographer ever be removed from the photograph? I personally doubt it. Someone has to stand somewhere and push the button, to paraphrase David Hurn and Bill Jay (2001) – even surveillance cameras are setup by people initially.

Beauty vs. Deadpan

Alexander (2014) discusses the use of “deadpan” in landscape by mentioning how many of the photos in the New Topographics exhibition in 1975 were taken on days when the sunlight was diffused: “for some of these practitioners, this was an attempt to strip the images of emotion or artistic expression reducing them to a deadpan factual state”. Later, Alexander quotes William Jenkins, the curator of a show by Edward Ruscha (Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations) as stating that the pictures had the effect of “eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion”.

Robert Adams: from The New West

Robert Adams: from The New West

Surely Robert Adams (1996) would disagree. In the title chapter of his book, Beauty in Photography (see blog item here), he makes it quite clear that, for him, the proper goal of art is beauty and he states that “its very centrality accounts, in fact, for my decision to photograph” (p24). And yet one could argue that much of Adam’s work fits very nicely into the deadpan aesthetic. Adams argues that the beauty he talking about is specifically the beauty of form. For him, form provides the antidote against the feeling that everything is chaotic and suggests that there may be meaning in life. So, form is beauty, beauty is form, but deadpan is also about form …

Boo Moon: Untitled (East China Sea), 1996

Boo Moon: Untitled (East China Sea), 1996

Does deadpan really preclude beauty, as Jenkins suggests? Plainly not, as many of the photos in the chapter (such as this one by Boo Moon) are beautiful, by any standard.

So let’s set aside the beauty aspect and work with the aesthetic as “eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion”, which seems to work well enough with Cotton’s definition. It is about a neutral view, devoid of emotion and opinion. Does this really exist? At what point does the photographer become an automaton?

Size is Important

A point which Cotton touches on (initially with the work of Gursky), but doesn’t really develop, is about the “monumental scale and breathtaking visual clarity that predominate when one experiences the photographic print”. She makes it clear that the sheer physical size of the prints is a common factor, at least with some of the earliest practitioners of the deadpan.

So, is it necessary that photos made according to this aesthetic be large? If so, what does that really say about the deadpan aesthetic? Can the aesthetic work without size, or is size absolutely essential? There’s much food for thought here.

Conclusion

Thomas Ruff: Portrait (A. Volkmann), 1998

Thomas Ruff: Portrait (A. Volkmann), 1998

The chapter was quite unsatisfying for me. Personally, I feel that the deadpan aesthetic is on safest ground when applied to portraits. Good examples include the opening photo by Celine van Balen and those that Thomas Ruff began producing in the 1970s. We all know a deadpan expression when we see one.

Cotton points out that “Ruff’s objectively styled pictures dramatically curtail out expectations that we can know anything essential about a person through their photographic image”. So we have the somewhat interesting situation of a photo which doesn’t tell us much, doesn’t say much. What are we left with, then? That doesn’t seem like a good situation to be in, but then again, I’m not famous like Ruff or Gursky.

When we try to apply the same label to non-portraits, I think we are on very shaky and subjective ground because plainly one person’s deadpan is another person’s beauty. Where one  person sees a banal housing estate, another see the beauty of architecture and the potential for new homes and happy families.

Finally, I seriously question whether it is possible for a photographer’s “emotion and opinion” can ever be separated from their work. And if so, is that a good thing? If art is devoid of emotion, surely something has gone badly wrong?

References

Adams, Robert (1996) Beauty in Photography. New York: Aperture

Cotton, Charlotte (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. 3rd ed. London: Thames and Hudson

Hurn, D. & Jay, B. (2001) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide (3rd edition). Washington: LensWork

Alexander, Jesse (2014) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 29.09.15)