Research notes – Gregory Crewdson

I initially came across Gregory Crewdson when flicking through an American photography magazine. One of his famous tableaux images (link) was featured as part of an advertisement from a well-known print manufacturer. I remember looking into him at that time and noticing that, like Jeff Wall, whose pictures I had seen before, Crewdson primarily works with carefully staged scenarios. Unlike Wall’s, Crewdson’s images have a distinct quality that make them immediately obvious as to being staged (see this, for example), but at the same time intriguing enough for one to stop and ask why has this been set up and what is the photographer trying to tell me.

I decided to look at Crewdson images again for this part of the course because for one of the exercises as well as for assignment 2, I was going to rely heavily in props and made up situations, and I wanted to try to understand how these images work at a general level, without any pretensions as to being able to produce anything near that quality, at least for the time being.

The image referenced in the first paragraph is part of Crewdson’s series “Beneath the Roses” and this was my starting point. The book covering this (1) is generously sized but does not do justice to some of the images, which are printed to very large formats (about 1.5 by 2.2 meters). Crewdson’s subjects can sometimes occupy a very small part within the frame, and looking at the original size print would have helped to look at the details of this. Many of the images share common visual elements, and in some cases I found that there were pictures that were too similar and I started to question whether it was necessary to include all these images in the book. I presume not all these pictures are shown together in a show, so it may just be a case of the photographer trying to give us the full set of images produced for the series, like a full body of work, rather than a condensed, curated view.

In “Beneath the Roses”, Crewdson presents us with dark, eerie view of suburban life. The images were mostly taken at night or during the twilights. Artificial light plays and important role in the images, in some cases being the only source of light – some of the images were taken inside a soundstage – but even in the outdoor pictures artificial light is used to emphasise the location of the subject (see this, for example, where the car at the junction is illuminated from the inside). I also like how Crewdson mixes light sources, with many pictures having a mix of both warm and cold light that emphasizes the vivacity of the images. Most of the indoor images are contrasty but have a slight HDR quality to them, probably created by the lighting effects employed during production. This emphasizes the sense of staging that I mentioned in the first paragraph.

Crewdson’s subjects are rarely doing something in the pictures. Most of the time they are static, motionless – standing or sitting – or just walking, seemingly aimlessly. There is almost no interaction between subjects in the frame and this also adds to the oddness of the images. Some of them look like taken from a dream, like the image of a man digging out suitcases and moving boxes in the middle of the forest (link). In others, the action of people make no sense, like in the image of a lady, who has presumably just got off a taxi and is standing in the middle of the road barefoot, pensive, with people remaining in the taxi looking to the front, away from her, oblivious to the fact that she left the taxi door open (link). I looks like rather than showing the decisive moment, Crewdson images are taken moments before or after that, capturing instead an odd moment. All in all, the people in these images look lonely and the overall impression one gets from the images is that of sadness and self-absorption.

________________________

(1) Crewdson, G., 2008. Beneath the Roses. 1st ed. New York: Abrams.

Advertisements

Exhibition notes – Thomas Ruff

The following notes are in connection with the exhibition of Thomas Ruff photographs at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (link). Comments are organized by series.

L’Empereur – 1982

  • This work includes a series of small self portraits done by Ruff while he was studying in Paris.
  • The images include Ruff in various implausible positions around a set of props (two chairs and a lamp). The poses change for every image, but if one looks carefully, there are only two basic settings for the props (see images below): straight and upside down; with Ruff creating variety by just moving his body around them. This is an interesting visual trick, creating the illusion of great variation where actually very little change.
DSCF8316
Thomas Ruff – L’Empereur (1982) – A sample of the “upside down” props setting. Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
DSCF8318
Thomas Ruff – L’Empereur (1982) – A sample of the “straight” props setting. Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

M.N.O.P and W.G.L

  • These two series involve an intervention by Ruff in old photographs of art exhibits held at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York (now the Guggenheim) in the early 1930s and at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in the 1970s.
  • Ruff digitalized and then partially coloured the original black and white images, transforming the experience of the viewer and making the images look contemporary, particularly in the case of the M.N.O.P. series, where the colouration has been quite extensive (the W.G.L. series is more akin to what is described today as “colour popping” in camera club vernacular). In the case of M.N.O.P., particularly, it is interesting how Ruff leaves a small portion of the pictures in black and white (including, for instance, the paintings exhibited). Reflecting upon Barthes’s idea of photography having a “having-been-there” quality to them (see my blog entry on this here), Ruff treatment of these images had a “transposing” effect on my, and somehow placed me close to the rooms and galleries depicted, which at no point appear to have existed as remotely as over 80 years ago. But that proximity, which is given more by the colour added than by the shapes and forms that support them, and which are more likely to be faithful reproductions, is immediately overcome by doubt: does the colourful palette used by Ruff have a historical base? Is there any record describing the tonality of the galleries carpets, for instance? Most likely, no, and it does not seem that Ruff cares much about faithfulness in this respect (see my comment below on W.G.L.). I am left to wonder if that feeling of proximity I had when viewing the M.N.O.P. images would have been any different would have Ruff decided to use a less vibrant palette or more faded colours.
DSCF8321
Thomas Ruff – M.N.O.P – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
DSCF8322
Thomas Ruff – M.N.O.P – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
  • The W.G.L. series demonstrates a bit more clearly the issue with fidelity I mentioned above. The images appear to show a single large gallery from a variety of angles. Only the ceiling and a carpet have been coloured, but the hues used for these are changed / swapped across the series, giving the impression that Ruff had no clear idea (or did not care) about what the original colours were and just used some arbitrary, vivid colours instead, as a way of contrasting quite clearly with the black and white of the art work exhibited.
DSCF8323
Thomas Ruff – W.G.L. – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
DSCF8325
Thomas Ruff – W.G.L. – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

Portraits

  • This includes a series of very large portraits. The images are all frontal and done in a very neutral way, with most subjects being expressionless.
  • The monumental scale of each image forces you to look at the details and imperfections of the subjects’ faces and necks. I am left wondering if an alternative series could be made amplifying the details even more, forcing the viewer to confront the ugly / uncomfortable aspects of the images, without being able to resort to the overall image as a form of escaping.
DSCF8334
Thomas Ruff – Portraits (detail) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

Other portraits

  • Just like the previous series, Ruff here makes very large prints of head and shoulder shots. They are made with special equipment used by the police, which results in a significant loss of fidelity. Upon close inspection, the images appear to be made up of a number of small dots, all together in a harmonious way, similar to the structure of newspaper photographs. In spite of the very large-scale of the images, which seem to invite the spectator to view them from afar, the beauty of them is only apparent on close inspection.
DSCF8361
Thomas Ruff – Other Portraits (detail) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
DSCF8351-2
Thomas Ruff – Other Portraits (detail of grain structure) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

JPEG

  • This is a series of very large prints of overcharged images of natural and man-made disasters, where the pixel structure of the images is visible.
  • I first encountered the JPEG series as a research topic in a previous OCA course (Expressing your Vision – see my original notes in here), but this is the first time I had the chance of seeing the large prints that Joerg Colberg refered to in his review of the book accompanying the series (see here, also commented in original notes linked above). For me, there is a huge difference between seeing these pictures in real life, in their monumental size, as opposed to seeing them online or reading about them in an article. This perhaps reflects the paradox that Ruff was trying to highlight when he did this work, as we are consuming everyday images online and sometimes believe in them blindingly, when the reality may be completely different. The curator notes accompanying the prints included the following:

Ruff selects and enlarges small images of natural and manmade disasters to a monumental scale, drawing attention to their pixelated structure and the way we view and circulate everyday horrors. 

The large images, when seen close, are nothing like the horrors they depict. They are composed of beautiful mosaics, one little colourful square per pixel, but each one of these are perfectly defined. These images, like those in “Other Portraits” (see above) are a contradiction in themselves because event though they are large-scale prints, they are more enjoyable from near, where we can see their structure, as opposed to seeing them from afar, where the pixelation becomes ugly blotches. They are like billboards to be seen up close.

DSCF8344
Thomas Ruff – JPEG (detail) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
DSCF8347
Thomas Ruff – JPEG (detail) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

Nudes

  • This is a series of large-scale prints made from images taken from pornographic sites. The technique used by Ruff to transform the images is not clear, but unlike “JPEG” and “Other Portraits”, the images in this series are fuzzy when seen either close up or from afar. The pixel structure is too fine and disturbing, while the images contain large swathes of highlights which are unpleasant to watch for long. I wonder if this is a reflection of how uncomfortable Ruff feels towards the subject or maybe he just wants us to feel uncomfortable about it.
  • Something else that I noted at the show is that there is essentially no nudity as such in the images shown, which mostly include dressed models and others with their genitals obscured by the post processing treatment used by Ruff. This in itself is interesting in consideration of the titled used, but I believe that this is the result of the curation process for this exhibition, as looking at other images of the series online there are many examples of very explicitly imagery. I wonder, given my previous experience with JPEG (in the online images ended up being very different from seeing them in full size prints) if my perception of the other, more explicit images from this series available online will match the feeling that I had when seeing the large prints exhibited in the show: that somehow Ruff treatment of these images amounts to a kind of subtle, perhaps unconscious, form of censorship.
DSCF8364
Thomas Ruff – Nudes – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery
DSCF8366
Thomas Ruff – Nudes – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

Substrate

  • For this series Ruff takes images from adult-oriented Japanese manga and anime and distorts them extremely, until they become highly stylized abstracts which are dominated by colour, in itself presented as very vivid blotches.
  • Just like in the case of Nudes, I can help but feel, given the original subject matter of these images (which we do not get to see, but can only imagine) that Ruff is attempting to sanitize our view of the world, taking something potentially embarrassing (japanese adult mangas can be quite explicit) and somewhat transform it into something innocuous, safe and beautiful. Perhaps this time around the end result is so distinguishable from its origin that Ruff’s intention was to instill the opposite sensation of Nudes or Jpeg, where beauty could be found from something horrific or embarrassing, and instead is trying to make us doubt if something that is as seemingly innocent as the blotches in Substrate can have in reality more sinister origins.
DSCF8363
Thomas Ruff – Substrate (details) – Photograph of the original taken with permission from the Whitechapel Gallery

 

Research notes – Sophie Calle

The following comments are made in connection with Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, which she initially presented in the French pavilion of the 2007 Venice Biennale, but has since been exhibited throughout the world and published as a book. Some installation images from the series can be seen here (1)

I had the opportunity to see this work in Barcelona in 2015 as part of a restrospective exhibition organised by La Virreina Image Center (link). The work derives from a personal experience of the artist: a break up letter that she received from a boyfriend which ended in the phrase “take care of yourself” (hence the title). Calle was startled by the contents of the letter, and pehaps by the unexpected way of the break-up, and decided to send copies of it to various other women of various professions and ages, for their own analisys. The work exhibited primarily includes the analysis of the letter received back from each of the collaborating women, together with allegoric pictures and videos, most of which I presume were taken by Calle herself.

Like many other series by Calle, Take Care of Yourself draws heavily on the artist personal experiences. She does not seem to care much about the consequences of this exposure, which in some cases could be considered as a little bit vouyeuristic, a bit too intrusive. In this case, however, the short end of the stick seems to have gone to the boyfriend who wrote the break-up letter, who in many cases is disparraged or heavily critizised by the various collaborators whom Calle sent the letter to.

I remember, when I first came across this work, having the distinc sensation of doubting whether the actual letter was real or made up. Exposure to other works by Calle after that have also left me with the same doubts. Some of her work seems just too personal, and her commentary and imaginery are sometimes too disjointed to be certain that all we are seeing is actually as is, but in the end, whether all of it is real or just a representation of something that may have happened to her, it is clear that she uses her work, including that in the series Take Care of Yourself, as a way of dealing with difficult issues in her life, and this may be a valid mechanism to cope with this. Because this mechanism is effective for her to “externalise” the difficulties, it may be possible that I may have misinterpreted the easiness with which she talks about certain topics, like the death of her parents, for coldness or detachment.

The other thing that struck me about this work is the relationship between the images and the text. The relationship in this case, which is clearly in the realm of relay, seems to be lopsided towards the text and the images only seem there to reinforce the text and sometimes they are just there to provide a facsimile of the text itself, so as to show, for instance the handwritten comments made by the collaborator. I had a similar reaction when I visited the Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Price 2017 exhibit, at the Photographer’s Gallery in London earlier this year, which featured some of her work – link.

__________________

(1) Sophie Calle – Take Care of Yourself | EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art. 2017. Sophie Calle – Take Care of Yourself | EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.emma.museum/en/n%C3%A4yttelyt/sophie-calle-%E2%80%93-take-care-yourself. [Accessed 29 October 2017].

Exhibition notes – Benedict Drew at the Whitechapel Gallery

The following notes are written after visiting the exhibition by Benedict Drew entitled The Trickle-Down Syndrome, staged at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London. The show comprises various installations spread across 5 separate spaces and according to the exhibition notes, these continue “…the artist’s exploration into materiality, where the physical and digital meet” (1).

img_5699
Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The first installation, welcoming the visitor into the first gallery, comprises a single flat screen TV set fixed to the wall. From the back of this screen emerge a series of hand painted thick lines, like a web, going in all directions: the floor, the ceiling and the adjacent walls. The lines immediately and effectively draw the attention of the viewer into the TV set, which contains a continuation of these lines, leading to a throbbing undefined item, resembling nothing I am familiar with. Sounds come out of the TV set, complementing the lines in grabbing my attention. I am somewhat looking at this strange shape, in the middle of the screen, for a good minute or so, like hypnotised, without really understanding much about what is going on. And then it came to me that this may be the entire point of this installation, to highlight how easily we are grabbed by the senses into a situation, object or person, almost unconsciously and without rationalizing why we are doing it or whether it does make sense to do this. I can relate that to many things I do in life these days, including taking pictures of objects that grab my attention but then mean nothing much.

dscf3111
Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

On the corner of one of the rooms, the artist has placed piles of newspapers, some of them neatly folded and arranged one on top of the other, but other scattered around the place, either crumbled or simply displaced from the neat pile. People is invited to pick up a copy of the newspaper, and inevitably they all pick one from the neat pile. In the process, they may create a further mess, by displacing other copies. Eventually, if the exhibits goes for sufficiently long, I expect the neat pile to disappear and people will then have to grab a crumbled one, if they really wanted it, or just leave it there and pass. I, like many others, was attracted to the opportunity of grabbing a new copy of the newspaper, as a memento of the exhibit, but my reaction would have been different if there were only crumbled or used ones left. We are attracted to what is new and shiny, but sometimes pass on or deliberately avoid the unattractive aspects of life. Maybe there is merit in looking for those, and documenting them, even if only to be reminded that they also shape what we are.

dscf3112-3
Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

Inside a very small room there is an audiovisual installation comprising three TV sets and a pair of speakers. The room is not bigger than about 30 ~ 40 square feet and comprises three walls and an opening covered with a plastic strip curtain rather than a door. There are no windows. A TV set is placed against each of the walls, with the pair of speakers being arranged on each side of the TV set opposite the room entrance. In the main set, we have two hands, with palms up, on which some sort of computer-generated animation has been placed. The cartoon comprises two rods placed on top of rectangular sheets about the size of the palms. The rods move together with the hands, while sounds come out blasting from the speakers. I spend a good time looking at this and nothing particularly came to my mind, other than to make the connection with the point made by Paul Seawright, in a video referenced in the course guide (link)(2), about the fine balance in art between giving too much meaning away to the viewer and being obscure. After looking at Drew installation it occurred to me that for some artist being deliberately obscure may be a valid strategy, particularly if the point that he or she may be trying to convey is the confusion created by the rapidly changing paradigms of human interaction in our age, which I believe is part of what Drew’s work is about. In the presentation to the exhibit, the Artist provided the following statement

The work contains a sense of the handmade, idiosyncratic, provisional and fantastical. I am interested in the feeling of submersion in social and environmental despair, being overwhelmed by images, confused by the shifting status of objects, disoriented by layers of history, trying to generate a state of being where you can escape, and seeing escape as a potent form of resistance, ecstatic protest.

Benedict Drew

If the point of this installation were that there could be so many different interpretations, all of them divergent but equally valid, would that be a valid point? Could the point of art be to obfuscate? These are the ideas that cross my mind when looking at this particular piece.

DSCF3114
Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The final part of the exhibition has what I consider to be giant milk jugs, beautifully decorated on the inside and all of them adapted to work as lamps. The rooms where these are is large and dark and the jugs, which was on the floor as well as hanging from the ceiling, project something that resemble speaking bubbles, like the ones found in comics, but inside these bubbles we see no words, but the shadows of giant cutlery, also hanging from the ceiling.

DSCF3117
Benedict Drew – The Trickle Down effect. Still of installation taken with the permission of the Gallery

The installation includes familiar items (the jugs) in an unfamiliar setting creating forms (ie the bubbles), which are also familiar, but are filed with incongruous objects (the cutlery), which are somewhat related to the original idea (ie the milk jugs, like during tea time). This seems to me like a metaphor of our way of thinking and the strange connections that happen in our head and in our interactions with the digital world, when searching for something leads to something else slightly connected and we may end up in a completely different place from where we started.

_________________

(1) Whitechapel Gallery. 2017. Benedict Drew – Whitechapel Gallery . [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/benedict-drew/. [Accessed 07 August 2017].

(2) Vimeo. 2017. Catalyst: Paul Seawright on Vimeo. [ONLINE] Available at: http://vimeo.com/76940827. [Accessed 10 July 2017].

Research notes – Joel Meyerowitz

The following notes come from seeing some of Joel Meyerowitz books and catalogues, in particular, “Cape light” (1) and “The Arch” (2), as well as looking at various websites showing his black and white / colour street photography work (3)(4).

Looking at his street work from the 60s and the 70s, both black and white and colour pictures follow more or less the same formula: Meyerowitz is looking for some element of juxtaposition or incongruity in order to make the image attractive to the viewer. There are various examples of this, such as his picture of a cinema ticket clerk in which the face is obscured by the booth’s speak through grill (“New York City, Times Square 1963” – link) or his photograph of a New York’s 5th Avenue with a leaping stuffed tiger (“Tiger, 5th Avenue, 1975” – link). There is also an element of surrealism in some of his work, with my favourite example of this being “Pool in Southwest, 1971” (link), where Meyerowitz takes advantage of the similarity of the pool lines and the design of a translucent parasol in front of it to create an eerie effect of continuity. This is a picture that probably relies on uniformity of tonality and shapes to convey its optical effect and is not likely to have worked as a colour picture. Meyerowitz images from this era reflect the peculiarities of urban life, with its crowds and singularities. But does it show something else beyond that? Could it be interpreted in any other way than as a collection of vignettes, some more peculiar than others from their point of view, but none standing out or revealing something about the subject or the photographer? I am somewhat unconvinced about the transcendence of this work.

In “Cape light” Meyerowitz starts to move away from the crowds and starts a journey towards a more intimate, personal form of photography. The pictures here also start to have a sense of space, in some cases negative space (such as in “Duno Grass House, Truro Massachusetts” – link), but in many other, a separation between the elements that harmoniously inhabit his canvas, creating very pleasantly composed images (such as in the gas station shot in Provincetown 1976 – link) which in some cases are either mysterious (such as in “Red Interior, Provincetown” – link) and in most other cases melancholic (such as in his swimming pool shot under a stormy, brooding sky, also taken in Provincetown 1976 – link). The pictures with people in this series are a mixture of insider-outsider shots, with some of his beach shots being very similar to those taken in the streets of New York years before, having the effect of being just a slice of life without any particular connotations (such as in “Ballston Beach, Truro” – link), with others being more intimate (such as in “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet” – link, or “Vivian” – link mature content). These images mainly evoke a life which is lived at a different pace from his early city street shots, and this is not only conveyed by the contents of the pictures but also how they are arranged within the frame. The aesthetic values of the image become more prominent in this series, but Meyerowitz remains true to his earlier form and continues to look for incongruous or stand-out elements to draw the viewer into the frame (see for instance the open, seemingly abandoned car in “Red Interior, Provincetown” – link, or the girl walking towards the camera while almost everybody else is chatting away in “Cocktail Party, Wellfleet” – link, or the large red car in front of the beach cabin in “Truro, 1976” – link).

The series of images of Saint Louis’s Gateway Arch in “The Arch” seems initially like a continuation of the “Cape light” approach. Meyerowitz is mesmerised by the transcendence of the arch, at some point in the introduction of the book mentioning that

“There were days when, standing beneath it, I felt I kind of knew the power of the pyramids. It was restorative, contemplative. It was more than a technological marvel or a symbol. It was pure form, the beauty of mathematics, a drawing on the heavens, perfect pitch. I came to be in awe of it.”(5).

The resulting set is an urban exploration of Saint Louis with the Gateway Arch as the backdrop, in some cases almost imperceptible (as in his “brains 25c” shot – link), in others quite prominent (as in his yellow road markings shot – link), but always in a style which is more contemplative, more attuned to “aftermath” photography than his street photographs of the 1960s and early 1970s in New York, and increasingly conscious of its aesthetic values. Most of the images here are almost devoid of any human presence. Meyerowitz perhaps achieved that by taking his images early in the morning or late in the evening, when there would be fewer people on the streets, but may have also done it by deliberately using a long shutter speed (or perhaps the combination of both). After all, most of what we get in the frames are still objects: buildings, roads, parked vehicles, shop windows. Almost nothing is moving here. In the few shots in which people are shown, they are dwarfed by the scale of the arch and other structures depicted (such as this picture of Busch Memorial Stadium – link), immobilized not by the action of the shutter but by their insignificance. Meyerowitz obsession with the arch seem to have taken him as far as possible from the crowded, somehow chaotic world of his early street photography work to one in which space and structure are paramount and the only hint of humanity is in the creation of the space, but not in its inhabitation. Perhaps this is all right in the end. After all, it was a series commissioned by the Saint Louis Art Museum to document the city and this is what we get, a document of the city and its most famous man-made structures. But there are no hints about how St Louisans live or whether they are any different in their life habits from New Yorkers. In focusing too much on the arch, Meyerowitz seems to have compiled a series which is too one-sided and lacks the personal, slightly warmer approach of his “Cape light” and early street work.

________________

(1) Meyerowitz, J., MacDonald, B. and Ackley, C. (1981). Cape light. Boston, Mass: Museum of Fine Arts [u.a.].

(2) Meyerowitz, J. and Bower, V. (1988). The Arch. Boston: Little, Brown.

(3) Chasing Light. 2017. Joel Meyerowitz | Black & White Work – Chasing Light. [ONLINE] Available at: http://blog.ricecracker.net/2013/04/06/joel-meyerowitz-black-white-work/. [Accessed 16 July 2017]

(4) in-public.com. 2017. Joel Meyerowitz | in-public.com. [ONLINE] Available at: http://in-public.com/masters/joel-meyerowitz/. [Accessed 16 July 2017].

(5) Quoted from the article “Saint Louis and the Arch”, by Joel Meyerowitz, in Meyerowitz, J. and Bower, V., op cit. 

Research notes – Martin Parr

The following observations are made after going through Martin Parr’s book “The Non-Conformists” (1), containing some of his early work black and white photographs. I had previously reviewed Martin Parr’s later colour work in a previous OCA course (Expressing Your Vision) and my observation from that were recorded in my learning log, the relevant entry which can be found here.

The book contains a series of photographs documenting life in Yorkshire market towns, Hebden Bridge / Calderdale and surrounding areas.  The photographs cover various aspects of life in the towns, from work (there are pictures about mines, mineral water works, textile plants, and farms), to culture (including pictures about the local cinema and street parties) and religion (with an extensive coverage of church activities and congregation gatherings). The pictures feel close and there is a clear connection between the photographer and his subjects (in the Wikipedia entry for Hebden Bridge – link, it is claimed that Martin Parr lived in the town for five years, which would explain his familiarity with the place and his inhabitants). This is felt not only through his respectful treatment of the subjects (while still somehow retaining an element of candidness in many of the frames), but also by his identification of the subjects by name in the relevant captions (other than for crowd shots). There is a clear contrast between these photographs, which feel to a certain extent as warm and personal, and some of Parr later work such as the series “The Last Resort” and “Life is a beach” where the point of view is definitely that of an outsider and some of the images feel, to an extent, as slightly voyeuristic (see for example here and here for some examples of that).

It does help, if inded that was the case for Martin Parr in this series, to live in the area to be able to know what to look for in terms of action and people, but it often takes an outsider to be able to spot the oddities of common life and in this series, Martin Parr (who is not originally from Yorkshire but was rather born in the South East of England) reflects some of this outsiderness when he captures moments that may seem unusual to those unfamiliar with life in small towns. His picture (2)(link) of a row of men, perfectly aligned and standing side by side on a grassy slope is hard to decypher until we read from the caption that this is actually the local football ground (and the men were probably standing on what would be one of the ground’s “terraces”). We are equally puzled by some of his photographs documenting the shooting of grouse. In “Gamekeeper, Frank Ideson, Hebden Bridge” (3)(link), the title being the only caption available in the book, we are not sure why the subject’s head is under the snow (the additional explanation in the Magnum website linked gives additional clues not present in the book), whereas the picture “Lord Savile (centre), Hebden Bridge” (4)(link) contains a woman in sunglases either playing dead or sleeping, seemingly at odds with what the other two characters in the frame are doing. These pictures may add a bit of humour to the series, but they also make the more serious point that life is not always what we expect and that others may choose to live it differently.

Parr makes a lot of emphasis on the religious aspect of life in these towns, and pictures covering this represent an important chunk of the book (about 40% of the total). The title of the book also derives from this (5). Pictures here are a mixture of lonely, intimate portraits of people praying and shots of congregations during services and in social functions. Parr impecable timing and observational skills are at its best in these pictures. The juxtaposition of a painting of the Last Supper with a lady adding suggar to her tea, framed by the backs of two co-diners (6)(link), has a powerful feeling of life imitating art, whereas the image of two separate group of churchgoers, separated across two floors, in “Steep Lane Baptist Chapel” (7)(link), sets the tone on the seriousness and formality of some of these proceedings. But is not all taken too seriously, for church life is more than just service and sermon in these places where there is not much else to do.  Parr does well in captures these moments, ranging from the typical tea parties to the more exotic vegetables auctions, in a way that focuses less in the action and more in the arrangement of players at the precise moment to emphasize a mood. Some of these pictures, such as “Pecket Well Methodist Chapel Anniversay service” (8)(link) or “Crimsworth Dean Methodist Chapel” (9)(link) are not, in formal terms, much dissimilar to the images captured by Joel Meyerowitz in the early 1970s in New York City (see for instance “Gold Corner, New York City” here), where you have people looking in all sort of different directions within the frame. But while Meyerowitz’s images convey a sense of purpose and individual determination (in a way dictated by the context), Parr’s subjects seem to be united in their distraction, in as much as it captures a moment (eg the socialisation that follows a religious service) that may be familiar to enough viewers to make the right connection in their minds.

__________________

(1) Parr, M. and Parr, S. (2013). The non-conformists Martin Parr. New York: Aperture.

(2) Idem, p 71

(3) Idem, p. 22

(4) Idem, p. 27

(5) The dusk jacket blurb of the book mentions that the title The Non-Conformists “…refers to the Methodists and Baptists chapels that characterize this area of Yorkshire”

(6) Idem, p. 101

(7) Idem p. 93

(8) Idem p. 159

(9) Idem p. 163

Research notes – Paul Graham

The following notes have been made after looking at the book Paul Graham (1) containing a selection of his pictures taken between 1981 and 2006, organised by series and in chronological order.

The book starts with Graham’s pictures from the series A1 – The Great North Road, which I presume were taken alongside the A1 from its start in Central London until its end in Edinburgh. The pictures are all in colour and were presented in the original book (a thumbnail facsimile reproduction of which is added at the end of the book consulted (2)) with one picture per two page spread, with the image on the right hand side page, and captions on the left hand side page.

The pictures are a mixture of portraits, candid shots, landscapes and empty interiors shots. All the pictures have an aura of outsiderness to them, like if they were a mere recording of all the people and places one can possibly find on a road trip. Some of the portraits feel warm (like that of Tony, Tower Cafe, Caldecote, Bedfordshire, May 1982 – link), but this is more the exception than the rule. Many of the lay-by cafes depicted in this series tend to be visited on a one-off basis and they generally have an unfriendly atmosphere to them, which I think was successfully captured by Graham. Some of his pictures are particularly stylish and manage to catch the eye very well, which helps to maintain the attention of the viewer, even though the subject may be mundane (see for instance Bible, Driver’s bedroom, Interior, Blyth Services link and Burning Fields, Melmerby link). In addition to the successful composition, colour here also helps to grab the attention (particularly in the Bible and Burning Fields pictures). I felt that as a whole, the series felt quite detached and strange, with the photographer choosing to focus on places on the side of the road, rather than on the cities and towns through which the A1 passes through. The strangeness, however, is something that is attractive and I can relate to in connection with my own practice, which recently has tended to focus on mundane objects found around me.

The second series in the book was Beyond Caring, which includes various interior photographs of the old Department of Health and Social Security (“DHSS”) offices and waiting rooms in the early 1980’s. The format used in the original book is the same as in the previous one, with one colour picture on the right hand side page and the caption printed on the left hand side page. A thumbnail facsimile reproduction of the book was also included at the back of the book consulted (3)

The images in here, also in full colour, are all shot in the interior of offices. They portray people waiting in DHSS offices, presumably for unemployment pay or job seeking advice. These pictures feel slightly closer than the A1 series, with the angle of the camera sometimes trying to put the viewer at the centre of the action, or rather lack of it, as the pictures depict endless stillness while waiting, (see for instance Waiting Room, Poplar DHSS, East London link), but it transmits the same feeling of melancholy as some of the A1 images, both of which included interior short of slightly run-down, dirty and cold places. They continue to be outsider images but have a greater degree of human interest, not only because there is more people in them, but also because the situation depicted could be considered highly political.

The book continues with the series Troubled Land, which includes pictures of Northern Ireland taken between 1984 and 1986. The presentation of the original book is very similar to that used in Beyond Caring.

Like the previous series, the pictures here are in full colour. They seem again to be taken from an outsider perspective and show essentially no action, being primarily landscape and cityscape shots with very little human presence. A technique which Graham uses for this series, which I find myself attempting quite often in my own practice,  but that is quite difficult to do in a way that is visually arresting, is to use either a normal or wide-angle lens to capture objects in the distance, which would tend appear as tiny spots in the resulting photograph. This can be seen thought out the series, in pictures like Union Jack Flag in Tree link – or Army Helicopter and Observation Post – link. While we were quite close to the subjects in Beyond Caring, in Troubled Land, the distance could not be greater. Graham goes to great lengths to ensure that he is away as possible from any action, to the point that we cannot see it at all in many instances (like for instance in Republican Parade, Strabanelink or in H-Block Prison Protestlink, where the camera is so far away one cannot see either parade or protest). Without the benefit of the original book text, one would never guess what these pictures were trying to show; but after looking at the caption, one could could never be sure if these pictures are trying to depict the “aftermath” of the actions, or the the actions themselves. In the small number of images were the action is somewhat visible, the distance is so great that is impossible to distinguish what is going own (such as for instance in Army Stop and Search, Warrenpoint link). This creates a lot of ambiguity and feels like it has been done in such a way deliberately by the photographer to obfuscate his personal views on the matter. While the subject in Troubled Land can be considered as political as that of Beyond Caring, Graham’s point of view felt considerably more personal, involved and painful with the latter, than with his bucolic images from Northern Ireland that give very little away in terms of the difficulties experienced by its inhabitants.

The book continues with Graham series The New Europe, taken in various European locations between 1988 and 1992. The original book, also reproduced in thumbnail images (3), takes a different approach from the previous one, showing the images without captions, with some of them spreading two pages. All the pictures are again in full colour.

The images are an eclectic mixture of portraits and interior/exterior shots of places and objects. Graham makes use of flash for some of the images, most of which have a snapshot feeling to them. While the A1 and Beyond Caring pictures were clearly done in the style of a documentary, the pictures in The New Europe seem more personal, more as if they were taken from a position of privilege (insider view). In the picture Untitled, Belfast, 1988 (Woman Smoking Cigarrette) link -, for instance, I cannot help thinking that it is the photographer who is trying to grab the woman in the arm. Some of the other pictures, like for instance Untitled, England, 1989 (Baby) couldn’t possibly have been taken outside a circle of family or close acquaintances (or perhaps Graham have had it all staged in an attempt to deceit the viewers!).  Yet, other than showing people and places from various parts of Europe, the series does not have the sufficient togetherness, both in form or content, to pull the viewer in any particular direction of narrative. It is difficult to understand what Graham seems to be saying.

The next series in the book, Television Portraits has been taken since 1986. These are all colour portraits of people from various places (in America, Europe and Asia) watching television. The portraits are all quite similar in style, with the subjects looking equally intensely (see for example this) or bored (or this one) at the screen, which is always outside the frame. What I find interesting about these images, which are all taken from an insider perspective, is the fact that people from different cultures are all united in their reaction to televised images. Either television has universalized its cultural appeal or we are not as different as we think.

In the series Empty Heaven, taken in Japan between 1989 and 1995, Graham returns to his eclectic mix of object and subject portraits. This time, the original book (5) has pictures shown side by side, as if they were paired, or spread across two pages. It also includes some pictures that are either heavily unsaturated or that were taken in black and white film, but the majority of the images are in full colour. The aesthetic values are very similar to those used in The New Europe: there is a lot of flash used and the majority of the pictures have a snapshot feeling to them. The series shows cultural elements that have been associated with Japan (or that are perhaps stereotypes of Japanese culture), including images of cats (eg link), various visual references to the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath (eg link), cherry blossom (eg link) and car engines (eg link). Object pictures are inserted next to or between portraits of people, some of which have been taken in a personal setting and betray a sense of insiderness (eg link). My feeling from the series is that while Graham may have lived in Japan at the time of taking these pictures, and probably was acquainted with many of the people portrayed, his overall stance on the series is detached. It feels as if Graham is (politely?) pointing out what he feels may be odd about Japanese culture.

Graham returns briefly to Northern Ireland (or maybe not?) in his series Ceasefire, shot between 6-8 April 1994. I express my doubts because even though the captions refer to places in Norther Ireland, the pictures themselves are all sky shots, not showing any recognisable feature that could betray their location. They could have equally been taken in Kent. As in Troubled Land, Graham largely takes an “aftermath” approach in this series and shows largely similar cloudy skies (except for a couple of shots in which the sky was particularly dark – link – (perhaps taken after sunset) or almost white and featureless – link), which are not only detached from any action, but so far removed from its subject that any connection or interpretation imaginable is possible. I find the lack of engagement of the photographer with the political undertones of the subject quite disconcerting.

In the series the End of an Age Graham shows us a series of portraits of young people not doing particularly much other than posing. The original book, reproduced is small thumbnails (6), is quite chaotic in its presentation, having full two page spreads of one picture (particularly used in facial close-ups), as well as two pictures side by side, and one picture alone on the left or right hand side page of a spread, with no particular order being followed. The images are quite close, as if taken from a position of privilege, but they are also feel detached, as if subject and photographer could not see eye to eye. There are many pictures of people’s backs (eg link) and side features and no one is really looking at the camera. In some of the pictures, people appear to be in a trance and there is a voyeuristic feeling to the whole series, as if the photographer was abusing his position by showing some of the subjects in an unflattering manner (eg link). The way subjects are depicted, as well as the randomness of the original book’s presentation give an overall feeling of chaos and irreverence, but it is not clear if the photographer is attuned to this or critical, because of the ambiguity there is between the closeness of the images and the detachment between subject and photographer.

In Paintings Graham takes a series of pictures of graffiti or dirty walls, done in the late 1990s. The book goes back to the early books presentation style of having just one picture every two pages, placed on the left hand side page, but the pictures now are slightly smaller and have no accompanying caption (7). Like in End of an Age, the pictures have a uniform style and seem to be merely a collection. Perhaps, given the title, this is what the photographer wanted this to be: a collection of dirty walls and modern vernacular “paintings” (see for example, this and this other one). I find the series not as successful as similar efforts to portray rubbish by the likes of Keith Arnatt and Fay Godwin. As the subject itself is generally unappealing from a classical aesthetic perspective, it would take a certain styling in order to grab the attention of the viewer. This is not present here, as the graffiti is depicted as straight as possible (see here and here, for example).

The book continues with American Night a series of images that were taken in the USA between 1998 and 2002. The original book is organised with one picture on the right hand side page and a blank left hand side page with no caption, as in the Paintings series (8). The majority of the images, which portray American cityscapes, have been deliberately overexposed or printed overexposed, so that they contain almost no discernible detail (eg link). From time to time, these almost blank images are intersected by correctly exposed images, showing the exterior of well-off suburban homes (eg link) or people (the majority of them seemingly destitute or disabled) on the street (eg link). The original book, which is lavishly printed, is perhaps the most aestheticised series I have seen to date, and is hard to make anything of it, except perhaps to say that the portraits and street photography images showed towards the middle of the series are in my opinion, clearly voyeuristic and exploitative. Perhaps the photographer wanted us to reflect upon the socioeconomic divide in America or to take a view on income inequality, but the aesthetic elements of the series are so strong that they are slightly off-putting and non-conductive of any political reflection. None of the people featuring in the street photographs seem to have given consent to be photographed, although some seem to be aware that they were being photographed (and do not seem particularly pleased by it, like for instance American Night No 38 (Woman Sitting on Sidewalk) New York 2002 – link). These pictures are not denouncing anything and appear to be intrusive and devoid of any sensibility.

In the final series contained in the book, A Shimmer of Possibility the presentation changes again. The original book had one image for every two page spread, either on the left or right hand side page, but the images were of different sizes (most of them quite small, though) and changed their position on the page as the book progressed (9). This is a series of photographs of people doing various mundane activities: cutting grass (link), eating (link), walking with their shopping (link), but Graham presentation is quite interesting in that it resembles the information one would get from a moving picture. In the series, for instance, we see a woman eating and we have a group of related images depicting the before, during and after of this activity, with a close up of the food she is eating as well as the rubbish she has left behind after finishing. With this presentation style, it is possible to get more information than what one would normally get from a single frame. It seemingly makes the job of the viewer easier, but at the same time, there has to be something for the viewer to get at. The problem with A Shimmer of Possibility is that the situations depicted are so mundane that there is no real interest in the end, even if we built the viewer’s attention up by showing different aspects of the situation.

_________________
(1) Graham, P., Mack, M., Chandler, D., Ferguson, R. and Almereyda, M. (2009). Paul Graham. Göttingen: steidlMack

(2) Idem, pp 305-309.

(3) Idem, pp 310-313.

(4) Idem, pp 320-323.

(5) Idem, pp 324-326.

(6) Idem, pp 328-331.

(7) Idem, pp 332-333.

(8) Idem, pp 334-339

(9) Idem, pp 340-352