Dandyism at The Photographers Gallery

‘Made You Look’, currently on at The Photographers Gallery has the strapline ‘dandyism and black masculinity’

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‘Dandy’ is defined by the Oxford dictionaries as ‘A man unduly concerned with looking stylish and fashionable’ and, in white European culture at least, has connotations of effeminacy if not homosexuality (cf. popular portrayals of Quentin Crisp) as also suggested by definition 2 from the online Urban Dictionary. It is, therefore, an interesting inversion to see dandyism presented as a provocative response to the stereotype portrayal of black men, of ‘maleness as performance’ and a deliberate transgression of a social order that would otherwise render them invisible (this sentence paraphrased from an exhibition wall note).

There seem to be two different forms of dandyism. A set of images by an unknown photographer in 1904 has its subjects dressed in very formal ‘Sunday best’ with bow ties or cravats, and later images also show the business suit and tie but with a sharp edge and attention to detail.

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The second form is characterised by (to my eye) outlandish patterns and colours, which are clearly intended to be seen and make a statement.

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The overall impression is of subjects displaying style and confidence, definitely masculine and by no means invisible. This fits well with the stated premise of the exhibition.

References

Oxford Dictionary (s.d.) ‘Dandy’ definition [online] at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/dandy

Urban Dictionary (s.d.) ‘Dandy’ definition [online] at: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=dandy

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Ambient artificial light 2 (Brassaï by night)

Gyula Halász, known as Brassaï (1899-1984) by reference to his birthplace, was a Hungarian-French photographer who settled in Paris in 1924 and started photography in 1929 to record his impressions gained on long nocturnal walks. His book ‘Paris de Nuit‘ (Paris by Night) was published in December 1932. (Jeffrey 2008,148)(Ray-Jones 1970)

The images are a mix of haunting outdoor scenes and vibrant interiors of bars and clubs. Showgirls and prostitutes feature large. Lighting of the interiors was supplemented by reflectors and magnesium flash powder (Meltzer 2014) , so it is not truly ambient and I will concentrate on the exterior images.

Brassaï was a pioneer of night-time photography, in an era of slow lenses and slow emulsions. All of his images were considered (and the people in them posed), taken from a tripod and with extended exposure times gauged by how long it takes to smoke a Gauloises, as seen above (Meltzer 2014)

The images start with black to which patches of light are added, visible street lighting, reflections in wet pavements or the Seine. A good proportion use atmospherics to diffuse the point light sources, and Brassaï is not afraid to render his shadows as dense black.

This treatment is diametrically opposed to Schmidt or the early Atget discussed in a previous posting. Brassaï is not particularly interested in the detail of his subject, he is evoking a feeling of the experience of being there. He wants his viewers to be emotionally involved, and he succeeds. I have enjoyed this research element enormously, which is why I have included so many samples; there were none that I could bear to leave out.

References

Jeffrey, I (2008) How to read a photograph London: Thames & Hudson

Meltzer, S (2014) The piercing eye of Brassaï: the stunning work of a master French photographer [online] at: http://www.imaging-resource.com/news/2014/01/07/the-piercing-eye-of-brassai-a-brief-history-of-a-master-photographer [accessed 19/8/16]

Ray-Jones, T. (1970) Tony Ray-Jones Interviews Brassai” Pt. I [online] at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/08/interview-brassai-with-tony-ray-jones.html [accessed 19/8/16]

Ambient artificial light 1 (Luxemburg and others)

Part 4 of the course deals with three different regimes of lighting, ambient natural light, ambient artificial light and studio (photographer-directed) artificial light. Project 3 ‘The beauty of artificial light’ looks at the second of these, ambient artificial light. This is the first posting to follow-up on the examples and quotes presented in the notes.

‘Daylight changes from moment to moment; the advantage of artificial light is that it stays the same’ (EYP course notes, 83). This is not strictly true; lights will be turned on and off, sometimes at semi-random (stage and event lighting) but it is, on the whole, predictable. The main difference between ambient and studio light (the subject of project 4) is that ambient is not under the control of the photographer; he has to work with what he is faced with – as with natural light.

Therefore, the Christopher Doyle films do not really fit into this section. The play of artificial light on his characters’ faces  is beautiful, but it is all under the film-makers’ control.

Rut Blees Luxemburg (b.1967) is a German photographer with a studio in Shoreditch, London and is a tutor at the Royal College of Art. She has three major bodies of work, photographing London on 5×4 colour film, of which the second, ‘Liebeslied’ (literally, ‘love songs’ or ‘love poetry’ but renamed ‘My Suicides’ in the English translation) is referenced in the course notes. This is a series of intimate cityscape images, made at night and therefore lit predominantly by street lighting. Exposure times are typically 5 to 20 minutes (Campany 1999), which contributes to the overall look.

Her ‘alchemy … a secret process that uses artificial light to turn the streets into gold’ appears to involve embracing the real colour of the light source, rather than attempting to ‘correct’ it. Point light sources reflected in damp or polished surfaces are often beautiful at night, and she tells us in the Campany interview that she will wait for rain. Finally, the long exposures on large-format film are the diametric opposite of the instantaneous pictures of Jeff Wall and others, smoothing out variations and giving water a syrupy quality.

Stella Achimsa is the mystery woman of the course notes. In a Google search of her name, the leading ‘hits’ are five OCA learning blogs by coursemates who have studied EYV ahead of me. All of these blogs say that they are unable to find any trace of Achimsa online, a comment that I am forced to repeat (no independent Google hits, nothing on Facebook or Flickr). However, the search was not wasted because the learning blogs have given me at least one more name to research. Patrick Zachmann, a Magnum photographer will feature in a future posting.

References

Campany, D. (1999) A conversation between Rut Blees Luxemburg and David Campany 1999 [online] at: http://www.union-gallery.com/content.php?page_id=653 [accessed 18/8/16]

Natural light • follow-up on course notes

Before moving on to project 3 and consideration of artificial light, I take this opportunity to comment on the quotations offered by the course notes (EYV, 80-82)

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Eugène Atget (French, 1857 – 1927 ), Parc de Sceaux, 1925, gelatin silver print, Patrons’ Permanent Fund 2002.73.27 [Source: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.124987.html ]

The light in the south is so different from the north, where you have this crisp and clear light. There is no mystery in that light. Everything is revealed in the northern light. You have to live in the south to understand the difference. In summer, the quality of the air and light are so layered, complex, and mysterious, especially in the late afternoon. I was able to catch the quality of that light in a lot of the photos. (Sally Mann 2010)

In my opinion, this statement is a piece of Southern (Confederate) States “Johnny Reb” romanticism. Immediately before this passage, Mann tells us “Southerners are preoccupied with the past, with myth, with family, with death. And, of course, we tend to be a little more romantic.” Objectively, ignoring myth and romance, the further south the viewpoint (in the northern hemisphere) the higher the sun at any given time of day. My own experience of photographing in Georgia is one of very bright, harsh sunlight.

Of course, the quality of daylight depends on more than just its direction. Atmospherics are a vital component, and I note that most of the images in Southern Landscapes (Mann 1992-1998) seem to be taken in light overcast conditions (or rising mist in the case of the swamp image which is my favourite of the set) and exhibit flare from the uncoated lens that she tells us she uses.

The vulgar gate of the day gives no quarter and its insistent brightness will tell lies about all, forcing the subtlety back into the interiors of trees and the other side of the sky. (Brian Catling 2012, quoted in Surridge 2013)

Checking this quotation in its context yielded two surprises. The first is that ‘gate’ is not a misquotation of ‘gaze’. The second is that the quotation describes dawn light, rather than midday sun as I had assumed from reading it out of context. Indeed, it is a wet dawn with ‘lead-grey clouds’ and a weak sun, ‘moist and limp’. Catling is describing the light of day, as opposed to the ‘purity’ of darkness which he considers the forest’s natural state.

Going back to my original assumption, I can identify with the idea of bright light ‘forcing subtlety back into the interiors of trees’. As the outer shell of leaves is sunlit, the interior of the tree and the space below it becomes lit with a softer dappled light.

I prefer to work with neutral diffused light, i.e. to produce an image without noticeable shadows. The viewer must allow the objects portrayed in the photograph to take their effect upon him without being distracted by shadows or other mood effects (Michael Schmidt 1979)

The quotation as given is incomplete, missing an important clause from the first sentence, thus: In order to achieve a maximum of objectivity and thus create a photograph which possesses credibility and authenticity as a document (factual information), I prefer to work with neutral diffused light, i.e. to produce an image without noticeable shadows. …”  This tells us something about the photographer’s intent.

Schmidt was a member of the Düsseldorf School of photography and preferred to make images that would describe his subject without emotionally distracting the viewer. His images are monochrome employing a full range of great tones, “For me, black and white are always the darkest grey and the lightest grey.” (Schmidt, quoted in his Guardian obituary, O’Hagan 2014)

To my eye (camera-club pictorialist) Schmidt’s images are rather flat in terms both of subject and image contrast, which seems typical of the Düsseldorf School. Midday light with a light overcast would be ideal if that is the effect one desires.

In his early views of Paris, Atget the documentarian sought to illuminate his subject with an even clarity, the best to convey information. He usually made such images – see, for example, Environs, Amiens – in the middle of the day, when shadows were minimal. Atget’s late photographs, however, are frequently marked by subjective light and deep shadows. Often made early in the morning, these pictures – such as Parc de Sceaux – use light and shadow to create a mood rather than to describe a place; they mark the apex of Atget’s formal and expressive investigations of the medium. (Washington NGA)

The quotation is prefaced, “Atget’s treatment of light and shadow was central to his style, especially in the expressive final phase of his career.” The two images referenced as examples are his first and almost last images in the Washington NGA collection, sorted chronologically. Viewing the collection in that order, it appears that Atget worked in a documentary style with even lighting for his whole career (his purpose was to produce images for reference by artists), with occasional more expressive images appearing when he restarted after the end of the Great War.

The three photographers quoted all seem to have a preference for diffused light, giving a full range of tones. I would have liked to see them balanced by exponents of hard lighting (such as Martin Parr’s ‘The Last Resort’) or dramatic light (such as Lee Frost in many of his articles for Black+White Photography magazine)

Overall, the message is that natural light comes in many and various forms depending on geography, time of day and weather. Which is best will depend entirely on the individual photographer and what he/she is trying to say with a particular image.

References

Mann, S. (1992-1998) Southern Landscapes [online] at: http://sallymann.com/selected-works/southern-landscapes [accessed 14/8/16]

Mann, S.(2010) The Touch of an Angel (interview in Chinese Photography magazine) [online] at: www.americansuburbx.com/2013/01/interview-sally-mann-the-touch-of-an-angel-2010.html [accessed 14/8/16]

O’Hagan, S (2014) Michael Schmidt obituary [online] at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/28/michael-schmidt [accessed 16/8/16]

Schmidt, M (1979) Thoughts About My Way of Working [online] at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/10/michael-schmidt-thoughts-about-my-way-of-working-1979.html [accessed 16/8/16]

Surridge, M (2013) Brian Catling and The Vorrh [online] at: https://www.blackgate.com/2013/01/15/brian-catling-and-the-vorrh/ [accessed 14/8/16]

Washington NGA (s.d.) Atget at Work [online] at: http://www.nga.gov/feature/atget/work.shtm [accessed 17/8/16]

 

Exercise 4.2 supplementary – harsh light of day

This posting compares some of the previous images with a set taken on 12 August in full sunlight. The later images were shot in aperture-priority automatic mode with no exposure compensation

The two early-morning images have the same EV, because the garden is still mostly in shadow. The haze in the sunny image arises from evaporating dew, exacerbated by contre-jour lighting. There is a lot of contrast between sunlit and shadow areas.

By mid-day, the sun is at about 90 degrees on the right and casting very harsh shadows in the right-hand image. The blue sky in the right-hand image is darker than the cloud of the overcast. The most surprising aspect, to me, is that the EV values are very similar; in the left-hand image, the shadows are lighter than in the right-hand image because they are lit by reflected light.

By mid-afternoon, the sun is “over the photographer’s shoulder”; the shadow of the house is visible in the foreground. Shadows are still harsh but the direction of the light means that modelling shadows are less blatant than in  the images above. The sunlit areas are a larger part of the image, which is +2.5EV brighter than the August 1 image; this is also partly due to the thicker cloud cover on August 1, reducing overall light levels.

The Death of the Author

Roland Barthes’ 1968 essay ‘The Death of the Author’ has been suggested by my tutor as an antidote to the cult of personality that has grown up around Cartier-Bresson and other celebrated photographers. The essay deals with the status of the author in contemporary literature, but there are parallels with photographers and photography.

Cards on the table; I must say that there is a major barrier to my understanding – the dense language used (at least in the translation that I have seen) makes the text pretty much unreadable. I put the full text into three online ‘readability test’ pages which confirmed my opinion. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease index was between 7.2 and 25 (average 13.1), Gunning Fog Index 24 to 31.5 (average 29) and SMOG index consistently just over 18. (The differences in scores may be due to different algorithms recognising syllables in different ways). At these levels, I am inclined to suspect obscurantism rather than a desire to be understood. I am also unhappy about the way that personal opinion is presented as if it were incontestable fact. I find myself, once again, in Gavin Milarrrrr territory (starts at 3:47 in this clip)

What Barthes appears to be saying is that, in pure literature (he specifically excludes literary history, writers’ biographies, magazine interviews and autobiography – and, by extension, non-literary writing) it is the words and their meaning, rather than the author who wrote them, that is important. He sees the emergence in contemporary (‘modern’ in 1968) literature of a different kind of writer, dubbed a ‘scriptor’ who exists only to write the text.

Having disposed of the ‘author’, Barthes then wishes to dispose of the ‘critic’ and literary criticism, on the assumption that the purpose of criticism is to ‘decipher’ the text, i.e. to discover what was in the mind of the author at the time he wrote it. He believes that the text has a wider meaning than the writer’s intent. As an aside, and an interesting contrast, it seems that modern art critics also believe that the artists stated intent is no more valid a guide than the viewer’s or critic’s opinion (Barrett 2006,56). Perhaps “the critic’s” obituary notice is, like Mark Twain’s, premature.

For Barthes, the person who gives meaning to the text is the reader or spectator. He gives the example of Greek tragedies, written with words having double meanings that each character interprets differently, causing dramatic misunderstanding, and only the spectator (playgoer) grasps the whole story. Likewise, with literature, it is the reader and his unique set of life experiences and cultural references, who filters and give meaning to the text.

Bringing this into a photographic context, Barthes would say that it is the viewer of a photograph who is responsible for interpreting it, rather than the photographer. As a photographer, I should resent that view but have to accept an element of truth – although I take a view nearer to Barrett who says that the photographer and the viewer have equally valid interpretations.

For me, the viewer cannot be supreme because without the photographer there would be nothing to view. Perhaps the ‘meaning’ of a photograph arises by collaboration (or even a conspiracy) between author and reader, photographer and viewer. Something to ponder for the future.

Like the peasant in Spamalot, the Author “ain’t dead yet”

Reference

Barrett, T.(2006) Criticising Photographs (4th ed.) New York: McGraw Hill

Barthes, R. (1968) The Death of the Author (translated by Howard, R) [Online] at:www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf

The Decisive Moment • Tutor feedback and responses

I have had my tutor feedback on Assignment 3 (The Decisive Moment). No rework required (phew!) but we may have a conceptual difference about what the phrase ‘decisive moment’ means. But hey, ‘there are no right or wrong answers in a visual arts course’ (course notes, 72) so this is maybe a topic to be developed in future postings.

Feedback here, as a Word document

The substantive text of the feedback is presented below in blue text. My comments and initial responses are in black.

Overall comments

The work presented for this assignment demonstrates a clear understanding of technique and composition. These skills have been applied to the Image making process and have been analyzed to ascertain the most appropriate methods of presentation. There has been good research carried out to underpin your approach to the work and this has been carried through to your reflections upon it.

Thank you.

You have interpreted this assignment in relation to Cartier Bresson and from your own research it is apparent that you are aware of other ideas in making images and also of critical views regarding the concept of the decisive moment.

The images that you have submitted for the decisive moment project indicate a reaction to this genre of photography. In the context of the work of Cartier Bresson the concept of the decisive moment is humanist in nature rooted in the recording of people and their activities. The work that you have submitted could have perhaps been better described as the frozen moment in that your choice of subject matter was capturing sporting moments. The work that you have produced is somewhat static in nature whereas the decisive moment as practiced by Bresson is about movement.

At this stage in my studies, I am not sure that I recognise a difference. My take on the ‘decisive moment’ is that it is the photographer, not the moment that is decisive. We take a subject in motion and isolate a moment of that motion, which will necessarily freeze the action.

You have discussed in your learning log the original phrase used by Bresson “it references the French phrase ‘vendre à la sauvette’ meaning unauthorized street trading or street peddling”. Another translation of this is in haste, hastily, furtively and “image a la sauvette” is generally taken to mean an image taken on the run.

I was aware of the interpretations ‘… on the run’ or ‘… on the sly’ but found them rather strange in a book title. I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ when I came across “vendre à la sauvette” which has an obvious parallel with street photography.

You quote Bresson again “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.” This moment encapsulates not only the subject but also the meaning inherent in the image. As such the viewer is invited to contemplate the social, cultural and environmental symbols within the image.

I feel that in this work there is perhaps a barrier that prevented you from fully engaging with the concept and that this may be down to the very nature of the subject matter which is working against you and also that you were anchored to a specific spot.

I agree with this. Given freedom of movement, there would have been other photo opportunities on the water (upwind of the start, mark rounding) and on land (preparing boats, event briefing, launching) which would have allowed me to present a more rounded view of the event.

The genre of sports photography can of course produce many decisive moments and these are usually represented by the struggle of the individual within the context of the activity. The limitations in this genre from the photographers point of view is that they are not always able to be close to the subject and the lack of intimacy often leads to the recording of an event rather than any effort to interpret it.

To get close to the subject would interfere with it and, therefore, change it. I could ‘get close’ only when the competitors got close to me. Incidentally, with sailing there are two levels of ‘individual’; there is the boat and crew as a competitive unit, and there are the individual sailors working to control the boat. I tried to show both.

You researched in some depth the decisive moment concept that has led you into a questioning mode and to reconsider Bresson’s influence within the context of contemporary practice and the cult of personality that has grown up around him. It is worth bearing in mind that photography is prone to fads and fashions just as any other medium and that ultimately you must find the direction that is true for you. There are reassessments of this practice and its relevance within contemporary photography. The writing of Zouhair Ghazzal is worth looking at for an alternative point of view and a quote from the American photographer Les Krims that may be apt to a lot of contemporary practice.

“ I am not a Historian, I create History. These images are anti-decisive moment. It is possible to create any image one thinks of; this possibility, of course, is contingent on being able to think and create. The greatest potential source of photographic imagery is the mind.” 

Two names to check out. Ghazzal is mentioned briefly in the course notes.

In relation to Bresson it is worth recalling that he was one of the founders of Magnum and that this agency’s purpose was to sell photographers work. The creation of myths in no way hinders this purpose

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

The technical quality and presentation of the work submitted is good.

The images submitted record part of a sporting event. They suffer from distancing the viewer from the subject due to the fact that the photographer is not close to the subject. As a record of a sporting event they perhaps have to be considered more within that genre and as such they are good images that fulfill their purpose. You have assessed these images and your own criticisms are apt particularly in relation to the images that have the subject turning away from the viewer. The aficionados of sailing would find these images relevant to their own particular interests but how do they impact upon the general viewer?

I hope that the general viewer will be engaged by the image with two boats racing toward camera from a turning mark and, possibly the closeups. I agree that the others may be of more specialist interest.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

There was quite a lot to cover in this assignment and it is apparent that there has been a focused growth in your response to developing your ideas from the brief to the finished work. It is clear that you engaged with a number of ideas in carrying out the exercises prior to formulating your final piece. The research into the work of other photographers and critical reading is good and this has opened up new perceptions and an engagement with new ideas. However there may be a need to reflect upon your relationship with this material. How far has this research influenced your thinking and your work?

It has clarified my thinking about the decisive moment (had I given it much serious thought before enrolling on this course)

It is right to reconsider Bresson’s influence within the context of contemporary practice and the cult of personality that has grown up around him. The significance of Roland Barthes essay Death of the Author refers to this personalizing of work “The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us.”

I have downloaded ‘Death of the Author’ for future review, and seen a short YouTube explanation of it. The question of whether it is the photographer or the viewer who has the more valid interpretation of an image is parallel to Matthew’s question in his Assignment 1 feedback about whether it is the photographer or the viewer who is the voyeur in the case of candid photography. One for a future posting.

I would like you to have developed in depth your critique of Paul Graham’s work within the context theoretical and critical reading.

Tricky. I considered the work shallow and pointless, therefore difficult to critique in depth – there isn’t any. I gave my reasons in the original posting.

I was interested in your comments “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”

Perhaps it might be interesting to consider that new technology has freed us from the potential tyranny of the decisive moment and that it allows us the reflective ability to work on and develop our images.

I wonder if it has replaced one tyranny with another, the need to spend more time in selecting and editing than hitherto.

We would not consider it strange that a painter would make many sketches of a subject before attempting to finalize it in a painting and if necessary return to it many times. Bresson himself may have found this need for reflection when he abandoned photography in 1968 and returned to painting.

I agree, and that is the message that I took from study of the Magnum contact sheets album.

Overall this assignment has evidenced a good broad scope of research and reading supplemented with exhibition visits.

Thank you.

Suggested reading/viewing

Henri Cartier-Bresson “Pen, Brush and Camera”

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ei45S87R2dk

Death of the Author – Roland Barthes

www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf

Both downloaded for future review.

Apart from the above I will not suggest too much specific reading at this point as you are already well underway in this area. I would like you in the learning log for the next assignment to select and refer to texts/photographers that have had an impact upon the work and the development of your ideas.