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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(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].

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Research notes – Country Doctor

The following comments are made after looking at the photo essay Country Doctor, photographed by W. Eugene Smith and first published by LIFE magazine in 1948. The essay, together with accompanying text and additional photographs were found in Time’s website (1)

The essay contains photographs taken by W. Eugene Smith chronicling the life and work of Ernest Ceriani, a country doctor working in a small Colorado town, during a period of 23 days. The photographs, which are all in black and white and were cropped to different sizes (possibly because of the way they originally fitted in the printed magazine), are all accompanied by a descriptive caption. It is not clear if the captions were written by Smith or the editors at LIFE, but they provide first hand information on what is going on at the time each picture was taken. Hence, the photographer must have provided, at least, a description of the situation to the editors. A facsimile reproduction of how the essay looked in the original publication can be found here (2)

As a whole, the images together with the captions provide a coherent account of what is like to be the only doctor in a small town, with a sampler of some of the cases he has to attend to and evidence of how his work affects his personal life. The captions seem to have been slightly romanticized or adapted to fit a certain value narrative that may be attuned to the editorial stance of the magazine or the photographer’s views. The themes of personal sacrifice, devotion to work and stoicism in the face of adversity are repeated throughout the text, alongside more subtle remarks underpinning other traditional Western values such as individualism and freedom. Looking at photograph number 7 in the series (link), for instance, the caption talks about Ceriani making less money as a rural GP than if he had pursued a specialist career in the city, nevertheless this seems to be acceptable to him because, among other things, “he is his own boss”.

The pictures themselves are quite dramatic in terms of angle of view, lighting and composition (see for instance this and this as an example. The latter image was not published by the magazine). W Eugene Smith manages to capture scenes which are quite intimate in a way that looks like he is not there. One of the captions mentions that Smith first accompanied the doctor with film-less cameras in order to allow him and his patient getting used to seeing Smith taking pictures. The result is a higher level of intimacy that we would expect to see from images taken by an outsider in just over three weeks.

As a contemporary observer, I have mixed feelings about this essay. The whole process feels slightly contrived and it is hard to ascertain how much of the final selection, presentation and accompanying text was controlled by the photographer himself, rather than LIFE’s editorial team. Was Smith comfortable about this? Would the end result be any different if he had done the series as a book in which he had more control over the process? My understanding is that he took in the region of 2000 photographs for this assignment, yet only 28 were published by the magazine (less than 2%). Some of the stories (like for instance the one about the patient with the gangrenous leg, images 18-20 in the sequence) are left inconclusive in the magazine article. The captions suggested the patient may be too old or frail to survive the amputation procedure, but an unpublished photograph (number 30 in the sequence) taken after the operation suggest that the patient may have survived the procedure. The selection seems to have been made to maximise impact and suspense, which is probably adequate for a medium like a magazine, but left me wondering if the original material could have been put to better use.

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(1) Time.com. (2017). W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’. [online] Available at: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [Accessed 3 Aug. 2017].

(2) W Eugene Smith ‘Country Doctor’ Life magazine-Kremmling Colorado- 1948- Slightly out of Focus. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.slightly-out-of-focus.com/W_Eugene_Smith_Doctor.html. [Accessed 04 August 2017].

Assignment 1 – Preliminary ideas / final concept

For this assignment I considered various options before settling on the final theme:

  1. Within the same area of London, take two series pictures including derelict and new buildings. respectively, to create the illusion of either well off / run-down areas (when the reality is neither of).
  2. A second idea, which followed from the first one, was to take alternative pictures of the north and south bank of the Thames showing derelict / new buildings on either side.
  3. The third idea that came to my mind was to identify something that was happening on the street (eg somebody doing road works, or taking a photograph) and then to split the scene into various shots, each showing incomplete information, with a final series including the complete scene. Each of these shots were then going to be part of a separate series, with the intention being that each series would mean something different when considered individually, as opposed to when the final series puts the series all together.

I considered the first two ideas to be too close to what I am normally familiar with my current photographic practice and only was willing to consider them as a last resort, as I wanted to try something new. For the third idea, I did some preliminary tests (see shots below), but quickly came to the realisation that it was going to be quite a challenge to find sufficient suitable situations in the limited amount of time I had available to complete this (about 3 weeks, as I started to work in earnest during the second week of July) and more importantly, I was not convinced I could build sufficiently cohesive sets. In the end, I decided I was risking too much of a departure from the brief, but this is an idea I would like to revisit sometime in the future, possibly as a long-term project (I envisage it will require many months, if not years, to build a cohesive set).

3rd idea tester – Series 1

3rd idea tester – Series 2

3rd idea tester – Series 3 (full scene)

In the end, I decided to do two alternative series about myself. This is quite a departure for my comfort zone, as I only occasionally do portraits as part of my practice and when I do them, they are rarely self-portraits. The idea was to create two separate sets which show me as two different personas, the “city director” and the “photographer”, both of which are loosely based on aspects of my life but that contain elements which are stereotypes of what we expect these respective roles to do or be. Although the personas are clearly different, I wanted to emphasize the point that they may actually coexist, to a certain degree, within the same person and that both may be simultaneously truthful and misleading. This will play an important role in how I will shoot and present the pictures at the end. The whole set was in part inspired by observations made by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her essay “Inside / Out” (link to my comments on this), and the lack of objectivity that may result from being in an insider position, and the limitations of photography in showing anything but what appears on the surface.

Research notes – Contemporary street photography

The following summary notes are in response to my research into various contemporary street photographers and the points of reflection suggested by the course guide (p 32).

The adoption of colour in street photography brings an additional element of information to the visual impact of images. It is undeniable that colour photographs, by being a more realistic depiction of what we see, are naturally endearing and easier to see and interpret. Because of this extra appeal, the danger I can see is that the use of colour could glamorize or beautify the subjects in a way that may detract from the photographer’s message. This, however, is not necessarily always the case and the opposite may also be true. The series on food by Martin Parr (see for example here and here) required colour in order to have the impact that the photographer wanted). The movement away from black and white has also, in a way, brough a slight shift of aesthetics, from the play with light and contrast that characterised early black and white images (see for instance these images from Louis Stettner here and here, or similar ones by Brassai in here and here), to a more deadpan, straight on look of modern colour street photographs, such as these ones from Joel Meyerowitz (here) or Martin Parr (here), where colour has substituted shape and light as a drag factor.

It is perhaps because of this shift to colour, which is closer to reality, that street photography has become more grounded, more straightforward, and less focused on juxtapositions that evoke a sense of surrealism as a means to escape from daily life, often with humorous undertones (some examples of this from Cartier Bresson (link)(link) and also from some of his contemporaries including Rene Maltete (link)(link)). For sure, the early work of Meyerowitz still included some elements of this, such as his cinema ticket booth attendant picture (link) or Tiger, 5th Avenue, 1975 (link), but by the time he moved to his St Louis Arch series just a couple of years after that, he was talking primarily straight shots (see for example, this and this). Paul Graham’s photographs, from early on (he started publishing books in the 1980s), also exhibited this straightforwardness (see for example, this one from his A1 series or this other one from Beyond Caring. It could perhaps be argued that by freeing street photography from the influence of surrealism, contemporary practitioners have been able to focus on juxtaposition for other means, including what could be considered as ironic commentary on western values. While Martin Parr’s early work in West Yorkshire was quite straightforward and had some elements of humorous surrealism, such as this, his subsequent work has veered more and more towards subtle social commentary on contemporary life, including our obsessions with food, sexcultural identity and globalisation, achieved by combining seemingly dispar elements at the right time in a subtle way.

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.

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(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.

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(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 – Joel Sternfeld

The following comments come from looking at the book Stranger Passing by Joel Sternfeld (1) as well as browsing through his pictures in the Luhring Augustine Gallery website (2).

Stranger Passing is a book of portraits in full colour. These were taken in the 1980s and 1990s. The format of the book includes one picture per two-page spread, with the picture on the right hand side page, and a caption on the left hand side. The caption are generally just descriptive of what we see, as in “A man cooking his dinner, Cincinnati, Ohio, June 1999” (link) or “Real State Brokers, Westwood, California, May 1988” (link), but in some cases they contain a short description of events affecting the subjects around the time the photograph was taken, as in “A man waiting for a tow truck to take his car to a demolition derby at the county fair, South Hadley, Massachusetts, September 1998. The tow truck never came and he was unable to race that year” (link), or “A farmer taking a break, Iowa, November 1987. She has cancer of the thyroid” (link). The additional information provided by those captions helps the viewer place the subject in a given state of mind, and allows for an additional layer of narrative, when the connection is made between the moment shown in the picture, and what we imagine the subject could be feeling a few hours later. In the “man waiting for a tow truck” picture, for instance, we can get a sense of the subject’s excitement before going into the demolition race, and can imagine his subsequent frustration when the tow truck failed to show up.

I found the pictures themselves to be quite interesting, not for any particular technical aspect, but because of their ambiguity. A lot of the pictures are clearly posed, and in all cases, the subject is fully aware of the photographer’s presence. The title to the book suggests that the photographer did not know his subjects in advance, but in many pictures there is a sense of complicity, of mutual understanding between the subject and the photographer that may betray a relationship or at least brief familiarity between the two. This, however, seems to be broken in those pictures were the subjects look bemused (as in “Summer Interns having lunch, Wall street, New York, New York, August 1987” – link) or even slightly annoyed at the apparent intrusion of the lens in their daily routine (as in “A lawyer with laundry, New York, New York, October 1998” – link). Other than what we see, however, there is no clear evidence that these pictures are genuinely candid or staged. The viewer is left to wander that on its own.

The series At the Mall, New Jersey, shot in the early 1980s, is also mostly a collection of portraits and not necessarily what we would expect to see from the title. There are several pictures of couples and families, presumably shoppers at the mall, but the shots are quite tight and is hard to figure out the context of the images, others than through clues included in some of the images, such as people holding shopping bags or the goods they have just purchased, or store front signs in the background. While the pictures in Stranger Passing were frontal, leaving no doubts about the presence of the photographer, in At the Mall there are a few images which are taken from behind the subject (such as “New Jersey, (#3) May / June 1980” – link, and “New Jersey, (#25) May / June 1980” – link), and which look more candid. As these images where shot at close range, one could have some doubts as to whether the subjects were aware that they were being photographed or if the images were actually staged. All in all, the series seems to be more about people the photographer have encountered on location, but the location itself does not seem to mean much (other than providing a backdrop), and these pictures could have been easily taken at any other place with the same effect.

In Rush Hour, taken in the mid-1970s, Sternfeld approach is reminiscent of the early colour work of Joel Meyerowitz (see my observations on this here). The images have a somewhat chaotic or disorienting feeling to them, with many being slightly slanted (see for example “New York City (#2), 1976” – link), taken from a high angle (like in the case of “New York City (#16), 1976” – link) or showing the subjects too close (see for instance “Chigago (#6), 1976” – link).  Like in many of the pictures in At the Mall, Sternfeld makes extensive use of flash, in many cases for fill, but in other cases rendering the background so dark that it is not possible to determine the time of the day with certainty (see for instance “New York City (#14), 1976” – link), which adds to the disorienting feeling. I presume that Sternfeld wanted to show us life in large metropolis was always unpredictable and in a rush, and to an extent the pictures show that, but there is also an element of interference by the photographer, which is not a far-off bystander but very much in the middle of the action, in some cases literally within breathing space of his subjects. It is impossible to conceive some of these pictures without the subjects being aware of the presence of the photographer. The photos all look candid enough to assume that either the subjects did not care or were directed to act naturally, but I find the angle of view combined with the use of flash a little bit disturbing in some cases.

The approach is completely different in the series Walking the high line, which was shot in the early 2000 in a disused section of the elevated West Side rail line in New York city (recently converted into a park, but derelict at the time Sternfeld took his pictures). In here, we are not shown people, just straight shots of abandoned railroad filled with grass and wild flowers, changing through the seasons (see for instance “A view towards the Hudson, February, 2001” – link, and a shot with a similar view a few month later in “A Spring evening, the Hudson, May, 2001” – link) and contrasting with the functioning buildings in the background. These images are evocative of an oasis of tranquility among the rush of city life. Perhaps to emphasize this, Sternfeld’s pictures are shot completely leveled with verticals corrected (he likely used a view camera) and no flash. There is no intention of creating any dynamism in the images, as these are not about action but more about retreating and contemplating.

Sternfeld returns to street photography in the series iDubai, taken in the middle eastern city. While many of the pictures in the series were taken in malls, according to the captions, the approach followed by Sternfeld is completely different from At the Mall, New Jersey. The photographer here has decided to maintain good distance to his subjects, cementing his position of outsider, with many of the shots being taken from the back, and possibly in a concealed way (see for instance “Cinema, Mall of Dubai, 2008-2009” – link, and “Burjuman Centre, 2008-2009 – link). The images in here are also quite plain from an aesthetical perspective, having a snapshot quality. The whole series feels like what a tourist would take when he goes to a place for the first time and finds something either out of the ordinary (such as the shiny chrome car in “Valet parking, Kempinski hotel, Mall of the Emirates, 2008-2009” – link) or connected to home (as in Burger King, West food court, Mall of the Emirates, 2008-2009″ – link), and fails to provide (perhaps purposely) any sort of judgement on the matters portrayed.
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(1) Sternfeld, J., Nickel, D. and Frazier, I. (2001). Stranger passing. New York: Melcher media.

(2) Luhringaugustine.com. (2017). Joel Sternfeld – Artists – Luhring Augustine. [online] Available at: http://www.luhringaugustine.com/artists/joel-sternfeld/artworks [Accessed 17 Jul. 2017].

Research notes – David Campany

The following notes come after reading David Campany’s essay ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”’, first published in David Green ed., Where is the Photograph? (1).

Campany’s essay focuses on the role of photography in contemporary documentary practices. One of the arguments made is that with the growing popularity of video from the late part of the 20th century, photography’s role in documenting current events has moved from capturing the action (ie being in front of it) to a depiction of the aftermath (ie being behind the events). The reasons for this, according to Campany, are not directly related to technological changes as such, but to the transformation of photography’s place in culture, with photography now being “much less the means by which the event is grasped” (1) in news outlets, while “Video gives us things as they happen” (1). The popularisation of television first and then social media / alternative digital distribution channels in recent years have meant that people consume current events more through moving images than stills, which are more attuned to increasingly unpopular news outlets like the printed press or magazines.

The “aftermath” focus of photography in recent documentary practices, according to Campany, is also in part attributable to another cultural shift, which is the use by moving image outlets (Campany singles out television and the cinema) of still images as some sort of “…instant history or memory that they, as moving images, are not” (1), which Campany believes may have “…cemented the popular connection of photography with memory…” (1). It is not entirely clear why the still photograph is more “memorable” than the moving image, but Campany believes this may be connected with the simplicity and compactness of information of still photography, compared with the complexity and large amounts of information that would need to be consumed at fast speed while watching a movie or television programme. This simplicity of still photography, and (although this is not explicitly mentioned by Campany) its superficiality, being only able to capture what we see in an instant with limited narrative powers, also allow it to remain ambiguous and open to interpretation, a characteristic which is particularly present in “aftermath” photographs which are taken after the events.

In the essay, Campany makes reference to a project undertaken by Joel Meyerowitz to photograph Ground Zero in NY while they were cleaning the remnants of the World Trade Center. These photographs, taken after the event, have a certain aesthetic component that Campany argues is probably impossible to avoid for a photographer with a long experience like Meyerowitz, that have develop a certain style that is now become second nature. The danger, according to Campany, is that with “aftermath” photography the removal from the events depicted combined with a desire, even if unconscious, to capture what is attractive to the eye may elicit “…an aestheticized response.” (1) and could “…easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance” (1).

On a personal level, a lot of my photographs in recent months have been of the “aftermath” type. While I do not normally do documentary photography as such, and I am not trying to reflect on events of historical significance, I recognise there is a certain ambiguity in my pictures which may be disconcerting. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if that was the response I am trying to elicit, but sometimes I feel the aesthetic elements of the picture are too overpowering and it is not clear what the actual intention of the picture is, even if I may have an idea about what I want to say. \With this type of photography, and particularly for circumstances that are not specifically tied to an event, it is crucial to be able to hit the correct balance between form and content. Form should be able to create and sustain attention just enough to that content can build a narrative, particularly over a series of photographs.

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(1) David Campany. 2017. Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’ – David Campany. [ONLINE] Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/. [Accessed 06 July 2017].

The essay was reproduced in the author’s website, from where it was accessed.

Research notes – Inside / Out

The following observations are based on my reading of the essay “Inside / Out” by Abigail Solomon-Godeau, which first appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition “Public information: desire, disaster, document” held at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art between January 18 and April 30 1995 (1).

Central to Solomon-Godeau’s essay is the perspective of the photographer and how that may influence the interpretation of the results. She cites two possibilities in that respect: the “outsider” perspective, characterised by a detachment from the subject, lack of empathy and, on an extreme level, “…rejection of all the hallmarks of photographic authorship…” (2), and the “insider” perspective, which involves engagement between the photographer and its subject (including in occasion direct participation in the events depicted) as well as privileged access to the intimacy of the latter.

At some point in the essay Solomon-Godeau talks about the implications of the two perspectives according to contemporary photographic critics including Marta Rosler and Susan Sontag, hinting that the “outsider” perspective has perhaps the more negative connotations, associated with voyeurism, objectification and expropriation / disenfranchisement (by the “outsider” of his/her subjects), whereas the “insider” position is associated with a more humane, sometimes even more compassionate, approach to the subjects. Yet, Solomon-Godeau believes that in reality the distinction is not as clear-cut, due in part to the limitations of the photographic medium itself: photographs are only able to capture what is visible and nothing beyond that. Consequently, no amount of intimacy or engagement with the subjects by “insider” practitioners is able to overcome the fact that photography “…remains fixated on the outside, that it cannot tell what the photographer knows, it cannot reveal a truth of the subject.” (3), and as a consequence, it may not be possible to separate, either in form or in content, an “insider” picture from that produced “superficially” by somebody taking it from an “outsider” perspective. The issue is further complicated by the interaction between photographs and their viewers. Indeed, some of the examples of “insider” works cited by Solomon-Godeau in the essay, such as Nan Godin’s “The Other Side” or Larry Clark’s “Teenage Lust” contain images of vulnerable groups of people (drag queens in the former, teenagers performing sexual acts in the latter), that, in spite of the author’s best intentions, may still be perceived or interpreted as being portrayed in an objectivising, exploitative manner simply by virtue of the viewer’s prejudices.

Paradoxically, perhaps, Solomon-Godeau argues that the cold detachment of the “outsider” perspective, by being more attuned to the superficiality of photography as a medium, is capable of achieving a certain degree of unambiguous authenticity, which Solomon-Godeau has termed “a truth of appearance”, achieved by a presentation of the subjects “…with a sort of principled modesty and discretion [that] refuses “interpretation” altogether” (4).

The implications of Solomon-Godeau’s argument are interesting. The “insider” approach, by virtue of its intimacy, is capable of giving the viewer access to points of view that would otherwise not be accessible, but at the same time, because pictures are not capable of providing any clarity beyond their surface, the resulting ambiguity could give way to interpretations which are considered as exploitative or objectifying. This is avoided somewhat by taking an extreme “outsider” perspective that, by refusing the subjectivity of artistic interepretations, contents itself with embracing the authenticity of what is being shown, without looking for any further meaning or truth beyond the surface. In my opinion this latter position is too safe, and is perhaps also untenable in reality. The examples quoted by Solomon-Godeau in her essay are perhaps in the extreme ends of the perspective spectrum and is likely that most photographic practices will fall somewhere in the middle of the inside / outside duality. It is hard to argue that a photographer can be wholly objective most of the time: we all have prejudices and preconceptions and will develop various degrees of attachment to our subjects, all of which will influence how we photograph them. Even if it was possible to be completely neutral vis-a-vis the selection of our subjects (like for instance, when we photograph indiscriminately a collection of similar objects) it is difficult to conclude that the photographer is not exercising its artistic interpretation when, for instance, he or she decides to take the series of pictures in a certain style.

As a practitioner, most of my work at the moment could be seemingly classified as being on the “outsider” end of the spectrum, in a much as I tend not to have a relationship or attachment with the people or objects that I photograph, other than a temporary attraction. But alternatively, I could turn around this and say that my temporary attraction to these subjects comes from inside of me, from a picture that forms in my mind and which in many cases differs from the reality captured by the camera, and that these pictures are all somehow related. This potential “insider” perspective, which could at some point turn autobiographical, is presently plagued by the limitations of the medium, as mentioned by Solomon-Godeau, which prevent me from effectively transmitting thoughts and feelings into something that can only hold what is on the surface.

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(1) Solomon-Godeau, Abigail. “Inside / Out”. Public Information : Desire, Disaster, Document. Kara Kirk and Fronia W. Simpson. 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1995. 49-61. Print

(2) Idem, p 51.

(3) Idem, p 58.

(4) Idem, p 60.

Personal reflection – Why I photograph

As I was setting up this blog and filling the “about” section, I wrote that I had been taking pictures regularly for more than 10 years without really understanding why I photograph. I looked back at my profile for the first photography blog I set a year ago, in the context of me starting OCA’s Expressing your Vision course, and realised that I wrote something similar: “…I hope [that studying photography at OCA] would…help me rationalise what I do, why I do it that way and how I can improve it”.

This is only the beginning of my second course and I can only say that I have more doubts now than when I started. Until a few years ago, photography was relatively uncomplicated to me: I just took pictures as a pastime, publish them online or at my local camera club and little else. Before that, at the very begining, it was event less complicated: I was just taking pictures for my own pleasure without even bothering publishing them, and I was not even part of a camera club. I was just content with snapping away, probably in the same way (but obviously without the same results) as Garry Winogrand enjoyed picture-taking so much (as can be seen here) that he accumulated over 6000 rolls of film that he either did not develop or had no time to print by the time of his death(1).

I cannot really pinpoint how and when the doubts started to creep, but at some point I realised that I was doing the same thing over and over again and then the feedback I was getting from others started to become predictable, but not in a satisfactory way. I was known for certain types of pictures, but I was unable to explain them, not only from the point of view of their narrative, but (perhaps more frustratingly) also from their aesthetical value. If I was unable to explain myself, nobody else could be bothered either.

Just as I was doing Expressing your Vision last year, I started to “fill buckets” with my pictures. One of the assignments in that course was about collections and from that I got the idea of creating thematic collections, or buckets, in Lightroom that I would fill with the pictures I took as a pastime. Prior to that, I had arranged pictures by ratings and places, and also by equipment (useful for when I could not find a picture by keyword but at least I remember which camera or lens I used to take it), but not by themes. Some of the buckets have filled more quickly than others, and at least I can have an idea of what my recurrent themes are. I still cannot make sense of it, but I seem to be attracted to dark, high contrast scenarios; to people in geometric patterns (perhaps something unconscious from seeing Henri Cartier-Bresson pictures); to reflections and shadows; and to abandoned objects and rubbish. Unlike pictures that may come from the imagination of an illustrator or a painter, or at least composed from images previously seen and remembered, these pictures are not made up. They are there in nature to be seen by anybody but I somehow feel compelled to capture them. They have no clear meaning and no obvious purpose, other than to satisfy my desire to collect them.

But they clearly must come from one place. Brassai, when interviewed by Tony Ray-Jones in 1970 (excerpt available here) mentioned that his training as a painter may have influenced some of the photographs he took, something that would not have happened to a photographer “…who had never seen paintings and who did something with his or her sight absolutely fresh.” (2). Perhaps on this day and age of social media, when one is likely to be inundated by thousand of different (or not so different) pictures on a daily basis, the correct analogy may not necessarily be between ones background as a fine artist and what we photograph, but between what we experience as consumers of images, and how that shapes our photographic outcome, either at the time of clicking the shutter or when post-processing for printing or web sharing. In recent months I have experienced repealing forces in my photography: on the one hand, I have taken photographs that are in no way any different from the many million pictures posted every day in Flickr or Instagram. At the same time, I have also taken photographs that are either inexplicable, boring or unappealing by the conventional aesthetic standards of today. Both types of imagery must come from some place inside my head (for Brassai, in the same interview, also mentioned that “…one doesn’t only photograph with the eyes but with all one’s intelligence.“(2)) and while I could only assume that the conventional photographs must come from all the good samples that I have seen of this in websites, magazines, books and my local camera club, the weird ones must also have their inspiration, be it a unconcious rejection of (what I consider to be) the prevailing aesthetic standards, which may simply manifest itself as an impulse to try “something new” or, at least recently, some sort of attraction towards unconventional work from the likes of Keith Arnatt and Fay Godwin, which I first experienced while studying for Expressing you Vision.

Shown above are some recent images I have taken, some conventional, other not so much.

To be clear, the problem is not that I am not able to imagine how a picture will look like in the end. I am capable of forming at least a preliminary idea of what the outcome needs to be, although in many cases limitations in technology, lack of the necessary post processing skills or even (sometimes happy) accidents may make me change my mind in that regard. The problem is more or less one of inception: at the moment what I seem to have is an impulse for clicking. This is not, in the end, something I want to have. If I can get to a position where I am conscious about what I am doing and able to explain to myself why I need to take a picture, what I am going to do with it in the end, and how the whole process transforms my vision into something that I feel personally satisfied with, regardless of whether it is unique or conventional, then I stand a better chance at convincing others that they should care about what I got to say.

I sincerely hope that by the time I write the introduction to my next learning blog under OCA, perhaps a year from now, I would have made some progress on my understanding of why I photograph.

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(1) Anon, Garry Winogrand. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/garry-winogrand [Accessed June 13, 2017].

(2) Anon, 2015. Tony Ray-Jones Interviews Brassai” Pt. I (1970) | #ASX. AMERICAN SUBURB X. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/08/interview-brassai-with-tony-ray-jones.html [Accessed June 13, 2017].