Conceptual Art at Tate Britain

With two major exhibitions at the Tate and only time to properly ‘do’ one, I had the choice of ‘Painting with Light‘, an historic view of photography from the Raphaelites and Pictorialists onward, or ‘Conceptual Art in Britain 1964-79‘. As I had seen two ‘historical’ exhibitions in the morning, I chose conceptual art because it would be more challenging.

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It is not, strictly, a photographic exhibition but it has a lot of photography in it, either as artwork (there are several items by Keith Arnatt, for instance) or as a record of an ephemeral work such as Bruce McLean’s ‘Six Sculptures‘.

Conceptual art is based on the principle that it is the concept or idea that is the artwork, rather than its material form. By analogy, an architect might say that it is the design and drawings that constitute his art, rather than the physical form of the building that is constructed from them. Or a cookery writer could claim that the recipe is more important than the meal produced from it by a cook following his instructions. (Arguing by analogy is always suspect, but that is as near as I can get). As a result, the notes against each exhibit go into some depth about the concept and the reasoning behind it, many of which feel like a bad comedian trying to explain his joke.

I can’t pretend to understand, or to like, much of what is on show. Self-analysing, I think the exhibits I enjoyed are those that display a degree of craftsmanship to accompany the original good idea, such as Arnatt’s ‘Invisible Hole Revealed by the Shadow of the Artist‘ or  John Hilliard’s ‘Camera Recording its Own Condition‘. I actively disliked ‘naked emperor’ gimmicks such as the mirror exhibited with a wordy description, worthy of Monty Python’s caricature Gavin Millarrrrrrrr (starts at 3:47 in this clip), about ‘dislocating modern ideas of perception…’

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If conceptual art is all about the idea behind the artwork, then originality is vital. A pity then that one exhibit, Atkinson and Martin’s ‘Map of Thirty-six Square Mile Surface Area of Pacific Ocean West of Oahu‘ appears to be a copy of the Bellman’s map in the second fit of ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ (Dodgson, 1874, as collected in Gardner, 1974:56). I think Lewis Carroll would have appreciated many of the background ideas behind the other exhibits also.

Overall, my impression of the exhibition is similar to viewing a talent competition for conjurors. Much of it is fascinating and makes us think beyond what we see on the surface, but after a while I got bored with looking for the gimmick behind the performance.

Reference

Gardner, M. (1974) Lewis Carroll – The Annotated Snark, revised edition London:Penguin

 

Fox Talbot at MediaSpace

Fox Talbot: The Dawn of the Photograph at MediaSpace in the Science Museum is a display of prints by William Fox Talbot and his contemporaries, mostly from the 1840s. Although apparently comprehensive (at least in terms of FT’s own output) it is surprisingly unsatisfying.

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We start with copies of FT’s early experiments, including the famous lattice windows at Lacock Abbey and some of his ‘photogenic drawings’. Most of these are still-lifes or architectural details, allowing long exposure times. An 1840 study of a statue of Diogenes in the Great Hall at Lacock seems surprisingly modern with its subject lit by a patch of window light amid dark shadows.

It is not clear how much detail has been lost from these images due to age and reproduction, but there is a loss of detail at both ends of the dynamic range and it is possible to make out the grain of the paper negatives. The newer images, represented by original salt prints are considerably better.

There are two pull-quotes displayed on the walls of the second gallery

… what man may hereafter do, now that Dame Nature has become his drawing mistress, it is impossible to predict (Faraday, 1839)

and in rather Blackadder-ish tones:

I always felt sure you would perfect your process til they equalled or surpassed Daguerre’s but this is really magical. Surely you deal with the naughty one (Herschel, 1841)

This gallery displays contemporary processes, particularly the daguerrotype. Ironically, this includes a daguerrotype of Fox Talbot himself. It is worth viewing a daguerrotype ‘in the flesh’; they are stunningly sharp but the metallic surface gives odd reflections from some angles. Of course, the daguerrotype was a technological dead-end but it was a serious rival to FT’s calotype process, particularly among American portraitists.

The next two galleries display FT’s calotypes from the period when the process had become ‘mature’. The exhibits are mainly original salt prints, sepia in tone with a good tonal range and very sharp – as we would expect from a contact-printing process. They are very much ‘record’ photographs (pre-dating the Pictorialist movement), mainly Scottish views and the architecture of Oxford. It must be said that the main interest is that these photographs were made at all, rather than their content and I wonder whether we need to see so many of them.

Here and in the final gallery, showing work by FT’s contemporaries, there are some treasures (Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes of British algae for instance) and it is interesting to see calotype negatives with the skies ‘inked-in’ so that they will print as dead white, a ‘look’ very foreign to modern landscape photographers.

So, why do I find the overall exhibition unsatisfying? As a photographer with a scientific interest, I believe there is a wasted opportunity. This is the Science Museum after all, so where are the displays showing the detail of the calotype process and comparing it with its rivals, the contemporary daguerrotype and the later wet-collodion glass plates? In my view, it would have been a better use of one of the middle galleries.

Unlike later photographers working with a mature technology, the importance of FT, Daguerre and other pioneers has at least as much to do with the process as with the images they produced. Although the daguerrotype and the calotype are seen as rivals in history books, the daguerrotype was a dead-end; (a) as a direct-positive process, it was not possible to make multiple copies, (b) it was expensive and (c) it compromised the health of its practitioners breathing mercury vapours.  The calotype was safer, cheaper and reproducible. By introducing a negative-positive process to photographic printing it made possible  the postcard, the carte-de-visit and the family album, all of which have social implications beyond the mere taking of a photograph. I would like to have been shown more.

Decisive moments at a regatta

Over the past weekend, I was Race Officer at a regatta for Shearwater catamarans at my local sailing club (Isle of Sheppey SC). Seeing the possibility of an unusual (although not exactly unconventional) theme for the ‘decisive’ moment assignment, I took my camera along and finished the weekend with about 1000 images. I used a combination of single-shots and short ‘machine-gun’ sequences (usually 3-5 in a burst)

Let’s be honest, most of them are rubbish for reasons discussed in this posting but I will be able to find the required 6-8 images if I decide to use this event for my assignment. I have posted a subset in a Facebook album.

The main issue is the viewpoint. I spent most of my time on the committee boat, anchored at a fixed point, the start/finish line, but could not capture starts or finishes because I was otherwise engaged. Likewise, because it takes an hour or so of preparation to set up the racecourse, flagstaff etc. I was not ashore to photograph the competitors setting up their boats and launching, which would have given plenty of off-water decisive moments to complement the on-water action.

For instance, in this sequence early in the day, raising a mast has echoes of Joe Rosenthal’s famous photograph of the US flag being raised on Iwo Jima. The decisive moment in the sequence is the third image, before the mast is secured; the man is still holding it up, the woman clearly has the forestay in two hands with good arm positions, and there is eye-contact between them. Unfortunately, the background is cluttered.

Practical issues on the water (see below) include the rolling motion of the boat, the fact that much of the action takes place up to a mile away, and that there are assorted ropes and other obstructions.

Action immediately after a start has all the competitors moving away, and stern views are usually not as dynamic as bow-on shots of a boat moving toward the camera. Sometimes (larger image) it can work well, in this case making a sort of study of concentration.

It is possible to get good views of competitors closer to the committee boat. For the purposes of this assignment I would eschew single-boat ‘portraits’ and action images where the boats overlap too much, causing confusion of shapes.

There is a length of course, of about 200m downwind of the committee boat where there is good dynamic action and plenty of opportunity for decisive moments. Burst-fire or ‘machine-gun’ mode shooting is useful because the relative positions of the boats changes quickly, as do sailors’ positions and eye-lines. Compositionally, it is better for both sailors to be looking forward, in the direction the boat is moving. In practice, a good sailor will also spend a lot of time looking at his sails and at the tactical situation with other boats, or checking the precise moment to tack for a mark. These five images were taken in a single burst.

My favourite is the large image (which I have cropped slightly to remove the third boat) because of the eye-line and apparent concentration of the crew of the leading boat and the position of the trailing boat relative to the leading helmsman’s head and the trapeze wires.

I believe this event shows promise, but there are other ideas and outings to explore before firming up on the assignment.

Assignment 3 – first thoughts (rambles?)

Submit a set of between six and eight high-quality photographic prints on the theme of the ‘decisive moment’. … You may choose to create imagery that supports the tradition of the ‘decisive moment’, or you may choose to question or invert the concept. Your aim isn’t to tell a story, but in order to work naturally as a series there should be a linking theme, whether it’s a location, an event or a particular period of time. … This will be a personal response as there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course. You’ll find it useful to explore the photographers and works referenced in Project 3, if you haven’t already done so.

This is going to be the most challenging assignment to date, mainly because ‘the decisive moment’ is a slippery concept that we all define in our own way. My view from a previous posting is that it is a circular concept: the decisive moment is the moment I decide to press the button, for whatever reason. Ideally, it is because I have found a composition that I like in the viewfinder. Therefore, I am not convinced that there is a ‘theme of the decisive moment’.

Still, ‘there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course’, so I have some licence so long as the result is defensible. My first thoughts:

  • I want to avoid ‘street photography’ because (a) the link between ‘street’ and ‘decisive moment’ is a bit too clichéd and (b) I’m not particularly good at it.
  • The image elements have to be in motion, or at least changing, in order for a decisive moment to emerge.
  • I need an element of control or predictability because I have to produce a linked set rather than a group of random one-offs.

My first opportunity and attempt will come this weekend when I will be officiating at a sailing regatta, from the committee boat, which will give me a theme, movement and developing situations.

I have looked at many of the photographers referenced in Part 3 (there are not many in Project 3 alone) as I have worked through the exercises. My thumbnail reactions are:

  • Eadweard Muybridge: good analysis of movement but a basically mechanical/automated approach to exposure. Can any of his moments be considered ‘decisive’ if the shutter was activated by tripwire rather than by hand?
  • Harold Edgerton: single high-speed images show normally-invisible ‘decisive moments’ but still mechanically triggered (or incredibly lucky)
  • Eyoalha Baker: ‘Jump for joy’ images are ‘peak of the action’ rather than decisive moments
  • Jeff Wall: staged reproductions of ‘decisive moments’, which could be said to be cheating.
  • Robert Capa: war and street photographer. Decisive moments and not afraid of a bit of unavoidable blur. Panning, as in the Barcelona air-raid image, is worth considering to simplify backgrounds.
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto: long exposures smudge any suggestion of ‘decisive moment’
  • Michael Wesley: ultra-long exposures, avoiding the decisive moment altogether
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson: forever linked with the phrase ‘decisive moment’ by a lazy translator. Skilled at finding formal compositions in messy situations.
  • Paul Graham: Nothing here for me. Randomness presented as something meaningful.

My inspirations are likely to come from photojournalists such as HCB and Capa, or from sports photographers.

Exercise 3.3 – Landscape, foreground to background

Find a good viewpoint, perhaps fairly high up (an upstairs window might do) where you can see a wide view or panorama. Start by looking at the things closest to you in the foreground. Then pay attention to the details in the middle distance and, finally, the things towards the horizon. Now try and see the whole landscape together, from the foreground to horizon (you can move your eyes). Include the sky in your observation and try to see the whole visual field together, all in movement (there is always some movement). When you’ve got it, raise your camera and take a picture. Add the picture and a description of the process to your learning log.

The exercise brief describes the process that a landscape photographer would go through instinctively. However, it can occasionally be useful to break down a process and think about it step-by-step.

The scene I have chosen is one of the iconic views of Kent, Aylesford village with its medieval bridge, as seen from the nearby road bridge. Normally, I would take this from mid-span, which shows more of the old bridge, and crop tighter into the bridge which excludes much of the foreground. For the purpose of this exercise, I have moved to the left and included the river bank as foreground. Unfortunately, this includes a lot of ’empty’ water but at least, today, a fresh breeze has thrown up an interesting ripple texture.

The visual interest is in the middle-ground (bridge and houses) and background (church and distant trees), and I build up the scene forward and backward from there. As noted above, I have used the undergrowth of the left-hand bank as foreground interest and a lead-in line to the bridge. The threatening sky (threat fulfilled five minutes later) gives us our backcloth. I have used the two trees at the left and right edges as ‘eye-stoppers’ to prevent the viewer’s eye wandering out of the sides of the image.

Finally, the image was made with a Canon G1X in aperture-priority mode, ISO100, 1/100s at f/8 and subjected to a bit of tweaking in Lightroom

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(In)decisive Moments

Before you go any further, give some careful thought to the ‘decisive moment’ debate and note down where you stand (at the moment, anyway) in your learning log.

I start this posting agnostic on the question of “the decisive moment”: whether it is fundamental principle of photography, a cliche or just irrelevant. Partly it is because the concept is slippery to get hold of and partly because I am not convinced that HCB intended the phrase to have the importance later authors have ascribed to it. For instance, the phrase appears nowhere in O’Byrne’s film ‘L’amour tout court‘ (O’Byrne 2001).

The phrase first appears in a photographic context as the title of a 10-page essay forming the preface to HCB’s 1952 book ‘Images à la Sauvette‘. The original book title does not translate easily into English (it references the French phrase ‘vendre à la sauvette’ meaning unauthorised street trading or street peddling (Reverso) which looks like a good parallel with street photography) so the American translator and publisher adopted the essay title ‘The Decisive Moment‘ for the entire book. (Assouline 2005, 140)

From then onwards, Cartier-Bresson was established as the photographer of the decisive moment. Thus are legends born. The effect was to blur his image in the United States, for by radicalising his ideas in so restrictive a manner, the description had fixed him once and for all (Assouline ibid.)

As with my posting on originality, it is necessary to heed Humpty Dumpty (as reported by Dodgson and collected in Gardner 1970, 269) on the meaning of words. It is possible to create or to escape from a problem by the way we define our key words.

HCB describes, rather than defines the concept:

If a photograph is to communicate its subject in all its intensity, the relationship of forms must be rigorously established. Photography implies the recognition of a rhythm in the world of real things. What the eye does is to find and focus on the particular subject within the mass of reality; what the camera does is simply to register upon film the decision made by the eye. (Cartier-Bresson, reported by Fotografia 2015)

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression. (Cartier-Bresson, ibid.)

In L’amour tout court (part 2, 2:11 and 4:30), HCB tells us that form and geometry are everything. His ‘decisive moment’ then is the moment at which the elements of the image come into a formal composition and he decides to press the button.

For me, the best illustration from popular culture is the old Channel 4 station idents, collected here on YouTube.

My favourite example is at 1:59 because it could be a real-world situation, not invoking levitation. Of course, these clips are not a perfect analogy because the scene and the motion are pre-defined to create an artificial ‘decisive moment’. However, they illustrate the point that there is an instant when everything comes together correctly.

Eric Kim takes a similar view and tells us ‘This moment is fleeting, meaning that once you miss that half of a second to capture that moment, it is gone forever. You can never recreate the same circumstances in terms of location and people… Capturing an image half a second too late or early can greatly influence the outcome of an image.‘ (Kim s.d.)

Derrick Price describes HCB’s technique thus:, ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson lay in wait for all the messy contingency of the world to compose itself into an image which he judged to be both productive of visual information and aesthetically pleasing. This he called ‘the decisive moment’ a formal flash of time when all the right elements were in place before the scene fell back into its quotidian disorder‘ (in Wells 2000, 98)

All of these descriptions converge on the idea that ‘the decisive moment’ is the moment that the photographer decides is right to take the photograph. While this is a useful idea to have in the back of one’s mind, it is also a circular definition analogous to, in other fields, Darwin’s  concept of ‘survival of the fittest’ (where ‘the fittest’ are defined as those most likely to survive) or Lord Atkin’s ‘neighbour principle in Donogue v Stevenson (1932) which is the foundation for the law of negligence (paraphrased: I owe a duty of care to my neighbour; my neighbour is a person to whom I owe a duty of care)

Therefore, in my opinion, ‘the decisive moment’ is not so much a cliché as a tautology. In the example given on p.69 of the course notes, the unknown photographer’s 1953 image is poor not because it is derivative but because it is badly-executed.

Michael Freeman (2011, 146) notes that some photographers have challenged ‘the decisive moment as not being relevant to their way of shooting, citing Garry Winogrand’s ‘indecisive moment’ and Arnold Newman’s comment that ‘there are many moments’

He also (2007, 98) notes that the concept is not unique to street photography and the decisive ‘moment’ might play out over minutes or hours.

One modern debate arises from digital technology and the ease of taking multiple images in ‘machine-gun mode’ at effectively zero cost, rather than pre-planning and exposing valuable film at precisely the right instant. Darlene Hildebrandt (2014) dubs this technique ‘Spray and Pray’.  She prefers to get it right in camera but quotes situations where ‘spray and pray’ has an advantage: very fast movement, too quick for normal reactions, or where the intention is to create a sequence.

My view on ‘spray and pray’ is that it is a way of delaying a decision. In principle, it allows us to select a ‘decisive moment’ post-hoc and in post-production. In practice, it encourages laziness at the point of shooting and involves lot of work in editing.

Incidentally, Freeman (2011, 146) accuses Winogrand of doing the same kind of thing in film, shooting ‘haphazardly and in great quantity’ and leaving behind 8000 unprocessed rolls of film awaiting a selection process.

The course notes also refer to ‘The Present‘ a work of Paul Graham, as reviewed by Colin Pantall (2012) as being an example of ‘the decisive moment’ missing the point of our contemporary situation.

Pantall tells us ‘And what he wants us to see is the antithesis of the decisive moment and the spectacle of the urban experience. Instead we get a very contemporary contingency, a street with moments so decisively indecisive that we don’t really know what we are looking at or looking for.’ but he appears to consider this a good thing.

I agree that Graham’s images are the antithesis of the decisive moment and, frankly, I find them rather pointless. In the examples given in the review we see street scenes with no particular composition (or even attempt to hold the camera straight), two or three examples of each taken at random times with random passers-by. The big concept appears to be conning the viewer into believing there is some significance in doing a ‘spot-the-differences’ exercise.

In summary, and returning to the original question,  I believe ‘the decisive moment’ is a central concept to photography, but one that each photographer subtly redefines in his own image (if you will excuse the pun).

References

Assouline, P. (2005) Henri Cartier-Bresson: A biography [English translation] London: Thames and Hudson

Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye Lewes:Ilex

Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s Vision Lewes:Ilex

Fotografia (2015) The Decisive Moment as Henri Cartier-Bresson meant it [online] at: http://fotografiamagazine.com/decisive-moment-henri-cartier-bresson/

Gardner, M (1970) Lewis Carroll. The Annotated Alice. Revised edition. London: Penguin

Hildebrandt, D. (2014) Do You Wait for the Decisive Moment or do You Spray and Pray? [online] at: http://www.digitalphotomentor.com/do-you-wait-for-the-decisive-moment-or-do-you-spray-and-pray/ (accessed 13 June 2016)

Kim, E. (s.d.) How to Master “The Decisive Moment” [online] at: http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2010/07/01/“how-to-masterthe-decisive-moment” (accessed 13 June 2016)

O’Byrne, R.(2001) Henri Cartier-Bresson L’amour tout court (with English subtitles) [online] at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL707C8F898605E0BF (accessed 6 June 2016)

Pantall, C. (2012) The Present [online] at: http://www.photoeye.com/magazine/reviews/2012/05_17_The_Present.cfm

Reverso.(s.d.) ‘sauvette’ translation. [online] at: http://dictionary.reverso.net/french-english/sauvette (accessed 13 June 2016)

Wells, L (ed.) (2000) Photography: A Critical Introduction (2nd edition) London: Routledge

YouTube (2006) Channel 4 idents [online] at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CVdllN67OQ (accessed 10 June 2016)

L’amour tout court

Raphaël O’Byrne’s film/interview L’amour tout court can be found on YouTube with English subtitles and split into five parts. Because of a copyright issue with part of the soundtrack, parts 4 and 5 are muted, but we are still able to hear Henri Cartier-Bresson’s (“HCB”) voice in parts 1-3. The film can be found as a single entity but the whole soundtrack is muted.

In the film we meet HCB as an old man, age 92 or 93, reminiscing and perhaps rambling a bit (this could be the result of editing) over a full life. His speech is slow and he is occasionally vacant or on the verge of tears as if a memory is particularly hard to reach, or painful. An example is the assassination of Gandhi, minutes after HCB had been discussing death imagery in a photograph with him.

Although one of the greats of photography, Assouline (2005) sees HCB as an artist, first and last, who expressed himself with a camera for a time. In the film (O’Byrne 2001, part 3 3:00) HCB tells us that he has not taken a photograph for a long time and prefers to draw. However, much of the same principles apply, “You look, you transcribe” and you have to know where to stop, where any more would detract from the image (HCB in O’Byrne 2001, part 3)

It is in parts 1 and 2 that we learn most about HCB’s philosophy of photography, through a series of quotes:

Most of them don’t look. They press the button… (part 1, 1:27)

This is about seeing and composing the image before taking it. HCB composed in the viewfinder and instructed that his images should be presented without cropping.

It’s always luck. It’s luck that matters… You have to be receptive, that’s all… Like the relationship between things, it’s a matter of chance. If you want it you get nothing. Just be receptive and it happens (part 2, 0:55)

HCB is being modest. I am reminded of the quotation (attributed by Gary Player to Jerry Barber) “The more I practice, the luckier I get”. HCB had trained his powers of observation; elsewhere in part 2 we have a third-party description (Yves Bonnefoy?) of the taking of a photograph of children in a covered square. The narrator had not even noticed children there; HCB snapped the image as he walked, without slowing down. While others are distracted or unobservant, HCB was on the lookout and ready to react.

I go for form more than light. Form comes first.(part 2, 2:11)

Sensitivity, intuition, sense of geometry. You have it or you don’t. Even now, that’s all that interests me (part 2, 4:30)

HCB’s images are composed (possibly ‘designed’ is a better word) in the viewfinder, which is why he would not crop them post-capture.

In parts 4 and 5, we learn of the influence of the Far East and Buddhism. In parallel, Assouline (2005, 127) records that a great influence on HCB’s approach was a copy of ‘Zen and the art of archery‘ presented to him by Georges Braque on D-Day 1944. This approach is seen in the way that HCB could apparently fade into the background so that his subjects didn’t see him, even at emotional times such as the Japanese actor’s funeral.

Overall a fascinating insight into the man and his philosophy. I watched it twice and was inspired to read Assouline’s biography as a result.

References

Assouline, P. (2005) Henri Cartier-Bresson: A biography [English translation] London: Thames and Hudson

O’Byrne, R.(2001) Henri Cartier-Bresson L’amour tout court (with English subtitles) [online] at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL707C8F898605E0BF