Collecting • Tutor feedback and responses

I have now received my tutor’s feedback on Assignment 2 ,’Collecting’.Once again, it appears that the project itself is satisfactory, with no rework needed, but I have to make some changes to my approach to research and exercises.

Word document here

I have copied the substantive text in blue type and added my initial responses in black.

In this assignment you have demonstrated an ability to work consistently to a theme and have chosen a topic that has started to develop your thinking and approach to your photography.

My first view of this assignment was seeing the print submitted and the immediate impression that followed was to think that this looks like the work of the Brechers and that their work had been viewed as part of your research.

I am pleased with that reaction/impression because my approach was a deliberate homage to the Bechers’ style and presentation, albeit with a very different subject matter. See below on originality but I hope I put my own twist on it.

Through their position in the Dusseldorf school their work has influenced and permeated to a surprising degree European photography. Two of the better-known photographers coming from this background are Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, both of whose work develops on the Becher’s.

The Ruff JPEG images were referenced in one of the Part Two exercises. It will be interesting to research and do a blog posting on the Dusseldorf School – perhaps using as a starting point Tim Clinch’s tongue-in-cheek depiction as ‘the gloomy b*****d school of photography’ in the current issue of B+W Photography. Is it a legitimate comment or a caricature?

This influence has become particularly noticeable in the effect that it has had on a great deal of students studying photography in art colleges and the production of bodies of work that do not add anything to the canon of photographic originality. The appeal of the Becher’s work is it’s apparent simplicity that leads many unsuspecting student into a cul-de-sac.

In my case it was a deliberate choice to emulate a style, led by the brief, and to see if I could carry it off. This is a one-off and not something that I intend to carry forward as a personal style.

The question that arises is a fundamental one of originality and at what point does work produced become imitation. In the world were millions of images are produced daily we may have to question if there can be such a thing as originality. It is conceivable that at some point we may have to draw a line in the history of photography at the point where originality stopped and to consider imitation not only as a form of flattery but as the only means of producing work.

Another subject for a blog posting.

As a first response, I see two different definitions of ‘originality’. The form that Matthew (my tutor) refers to implies that nothing similar has been done in the entire history of photography. This is roughly equivalent to the concept of priority in scientific research. However, there is a weaker form of originality which requires that a concept is original to the individual photographer without consciously imitating work done by somebody else and somewhere else. There could be unconscious/subconscious influences at work or there could be something like convergent evolution (‘Great minds think alike’).

Drawing a line in the history of photography would be like trying to draw a line in the history of science. Some fields appear fully developed but new work is done all the time.

I was pleased to see that you found a level of experimentation in this work but I would like you to spend more time in developing your projects and in this case perhaps considering a range of different subject matter.

Mostly guilty as charged. I took a soft option, knowing that I would be spending a week in a location where a particular form of subject matter would be readily available. I believe I developed the project by focusing-in (moving from complete bikes to bike parts to a particular class of detail) However, I did not widen it beyond bicycles.

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

The technical nature of your work is consistent in quality and your own assessment of this work clearly demonstrates your understanding of technical process and application.

There is good relevant research into the work of other photographers but I would like to have seen you consider the topic in greater depth. The use of photography as part of classification systems has existed since the beginning of photography and we need to question as practitioners how we contribute to this process. Victorian photographers Francis Galton and John Lamprey used the medium to classify social types and anthropological subjects. Today these would be viewed in a totally different context and some photographers have chosen to readdress these views in contemporary work.

[image of Francis Galton’s composite portraits of social types.]

[images of John Lamprey’s record of a Malayan man.]

These images remind one of the butterfly collections pinned into glass cases in museum collections and of course museums are the great purveyors of classification systems.

Again, guilty as charged. I was more concerned with the aesthetics of the project than with the underlying concept of classification. There was, for instance the possibility of classifying drivetrains by the number of gears in each cluster (and I was looking quite hard but unsuccessfully for an outlier such as Sturmey-Archer hub gears).

The Lamprey images, in particular, appear as a sweeping generalisation. Do Malayans really have only one body shape and only one set of facial features, or do they have a similar range of variation to Europeans? This is similar in concept to some line drawings of ‘the races of men’ that I recall seeing in a Victorian encyclopedia.

You might have considered and critiqued how contemporary photography across a variety of genres falls easily into classification as an example what are the concerns of Sebastião Salgado’s major opus on workers? At one level the bleakness of exploited people throughout the world but on another his camera lingers lovingly on the faces and bodies of his subjects in many ways similar to the early anthropological photographers.

I am part-way through ‘Genesis‘ at present and will review it.

I would like to see you take a wider view on the topics that you select to work on and to develop these within the context of your own research.

The final piece of work was a good choice of subject but when looking at your contact sheets I found that I was yearning to see another piece of work that included all of these images in a single frame.

Allowing for duplications, that would have been in excess of 100 images in the final grid, with very small images or a very large piece of printing paper. I chose to present a sample of nine because it fitted with the brief.

As a regards the exercises do not just consider these as merely a means of illustrating the techniques but take the opportunity to develop interesting images within the parameters of the course requirements and trying out possible ideas for future projects.

I think I take a utilitarian view of the exercises (particularly those in the first half of the course notes which look like revision of existing knowledge) but try to branch out with the assignments.

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

The learning log has a good layout and is well illustrated with your own work and that of other photographers.

There is good research into the work of other photographers and the descriptions of the work and exhibition visits are informative but I do not get a sense of what your intellectual and emotional responses are in relation to the work.

As I am new to the idea of art as an academic discipline, I have felt inhibited about my comments for fear of trampling on orthodoxies. I will take this comment as licence to be a bit more outspoken in future.

You say you did not get the Bruce Gilden work. I would have been interested to know what your thoughts were on this and where you placed the work in contemporary practice.

Strange And Familiar: Britain As Revealed By International Photographers, Curated By Martin Parr

The Bruce Gilden images in ‘Strange and Familiar’ are this set. My first reaction was one of revulsion. On reflection and analysis I see a common approach; larger-than-life images, highly detailed, oversaturated and showing wide-angle distortions produced rather grotesque caricatures of the subjects and presented them with no dignity, as exhibits in a freak-show.

Do analyze the work and ideas in greater depth. I would also like to see this applied to your own work. Try to draw connections between different photographers work. For example Keith Arnatt’s series could be related to the earlier work of August Sander and the contemporary work of Rineke Dijkstra.

Suggested reading/viewing

Continue critical reading with current books and relate to own work

There are many photographers historical and contemporary whose work can be researched. Some photographers that I recommend you investigate include W. Eugene Smith, Josef Koudelka, William Klein, Sally Mann, Andre Kertesz, Gary Winogrand, Paul Rheas, Martin Parr, Rineke Dijkstra, Cindy Sherman, Pieter Hugo, David Goldblatt.

All names to look out for. I have seen some of these (Mann, Kertesz, Winograd, Parr and Sherman) in books or exhibitions. First reactions: Martin Parr is definitely growing on me. Sally Mann shades worryingly into child porn. The Cindy Sherman self-portraits seem too self-indulgent for my taste.

Pointers for the next assignment

Select texts for critical reading appropriate to the assignment.

Between Amazon for new books and eBay for second-hand, my critical library has been building up since starting this course. My reading is starting to catch up with my acquisitions.

Continue to develop in depth your learning log to consider the progress of your own work and reflect upon your reading and viewing.

The ‘to do’ list is getting longer. I currently have 5 ‘saved drafts’ with titles only, following tutor feedbacks. Watch this space.

Take more time to develop projects and proceed with assignment 3.

Most of the mechanical exercises are done. I am looking forward to the HC-B review developing my ideas about ‘the decisive moment’. Plenty to do before the submission deadline.

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Collecting • Drivetrains – submission and reflection

These are the assignment notes for ‘Collecting’

EYV ass 2 Collecting analysis

We are invited to reflect on the assignment, checking the work against the assessment criteria. This reflection is tricky; if I were not happy with my work, I would not be submitting it, so it is difficult to be self-critical.

Technical and visual skills

I am happy with my technical skills (materials and techniques), having been making photographs in one form or another for over 40 years, and some successes at club level in the past few years. The images are sharp and well-exposed, displaying well-balanced histograms.

I am less happy about my visual skills. However, this assignment seemed to design itself and the use of a typology grid lends a high-level organisation to the images.

Quality of outcome

Given the brief, it would be difficult not to be coherent in presentation ( the brief is designed to promote uniformity). I believe I managed to conceptualise my thoughts (choice of subject and approach) and communicate them.

Demonstration of creativity

I tried to show imagination by adopting the ‘none of the above’ option. My journey from concept to a rather different execution was a process of experimentation (and failure)

Context

In developing this assignment, I forced myself to consider more deeply the concept of typologies and deadpan photography, than I had when reading the ‘deadpan’ chapter of Charlotte Cotton’s ‘The photograph as contemporary art’  and to appreciate it more. I already knew about the Bechers but discovered Tabuchi.

More typologies • Herwig and Tabuchi

I have recently been introduced to two further photographers who use typologies.

Christopher Herwig (website here) is a traveller and documentary photographer who has worked in some of the world’s remoter places and deserves a separate blog posting at some time. He is also the author of a photographic typology of Soviet bus stops (web page with carousel of images here).

The local bus stop proved to be fertile ground for local artistic experimentation in the Soviet period, and was built seemingly without design restrictions or budgetary concerns. The result is an astonishing variety of styles and types across the region, from the strictest Brutalism to exuberant whimsy. (Herwig, ibid)

The bus stops are collected as a book, rather than shown as a grid, so we tend to view them in series. Herwig explains that the project started during a long-distance cycle ride in 2002 where he had set himself a target of taking one good photograph every hour. He became aware of roadside furniture and particularly of the variety of bus shelters. There is considerably more variety in the series than we see in anything from the Bechers or Tabuchi (below) but everything is quirky enough for the humour element to hold the series together.

Eric Tabuchi (website here) is a French photographer who seems to out-Becher the Bechers in the variety of material he has used in typology grids and books. For instance, he has two series of ‘Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations’ and a further ‘Twentysix Recycled Gasoline Stations’ in which these structures get a new lease of life in various retail or restaurant uses, or just as canopies for covered storage. These projects appear as an homage to Ed Ruscha’s 1963 book, ‘Twentysix Gasoline Stations’. The treatment is different from the Bechers, the structures being seen with perspective, rather than square-on and formal.

As with the Bechers, there are other typologies of buildings, e.g. ‘Smalltown Chinese Restaurants’ or ‘Concept Stores‘ (shopfronts with the word ‘concept’ in the signage) but it is when he breaks away from buildings that he gets really adventurous. For instance, there are two books of ‘Alphabet Trucks’, shot on motorway journeys.

A particularly moving set is ‘Roadside Flowers’, documenting the small posies that appear at the sites of fatal accidents. This set is quite formally arranged, as befits the subject and is treated with some  respect.

Overall, I have spent a very pleasant hour or so, exploring Tabachi’s website and appreciating the combination of obsession, observation and good humour that underlie his work.

References

Herwig, C. (s.d.) Christopher Herwig Photographer [online] at: http://herwigphoto.com (accessed on 15 April 2016)

Tabuchi, E. (s.d.) untitled website [online] at: http://www.erictabuchi.com (accessed on 15 April 2016)

Wikipedia (2015) Twentysix Gasoline Stations [online] at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twentysix_Gasoline_Stations (accessed on 15 April 2016)

Collecting • Drivetrains final selection

It was fairly easy to prune 153 images down to a long-list of 30. Where subjects had been duplicated, I selected the best-framed of the set. I also eliminated images with gross technical faults, very poor framing or very cluttered backgrounds.

Selecting the final 9 for printing and submission took longer. I decided to opt for large-wheeled bikes, because I found that complete or near-complete rear wheels formed a dominant picture element, distracting from the main subject (the gearing and chain). I selected a set with reasonably consistent framing, which I was able to improve on with minimal cropping. During print preparation in Lightroom, I noted that two selected images were not sufficiently sharp, and therefore had to select substitutes.

These are the images finally selected and printed:

All images are RAW files, processed in Lightroom. Global settings were used to increase clarity, reduce vibrance and open-up the shadows. I also attempted to make the histograms as similar as possible, particularly the central peak which represents the colour of the paving.

Finally, to complete my homage to the Bechers, I produced a tenth image, being a composite print.

Collection composite

Collecting • Keith Arnatt

 

I had looked briefly at Arnatt’s work in connection with Assignment 1 (Square Mile) but it occurs to me that two of his projects are equally relevant to Assignment 2 (Collecting)

Walking the Dog

A set of images (samples below from Tate website) of dogs and their owners, presented in a  very uniform style – full length pictures of both, with a minimal background. Individually, the photographs are banal, the stuff of family photograph albums, but viewed as a set we can appreciate the similarities and the individual differences between them.

Gardeners

Similar in concept, but illustrating gardeners in a favourite corner of their gardens (samples below from Tate website) either working or proudly showing off their work. There are, necessarily, greater differences than we see in ‘Walking the Dog’ but there is still evidence of a typography, and the possibility of making comparisons.

Both sets appear to be human-subject versions of the sort of work done by the Bechers in their building typologies.

Reference

Tate (s.d.) Search Art and Artists, Keith Arnatt [online] at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/search?aid=666&limit=100&sort=date&type=artwork (accessed 3 April 2016)

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Bernd and Hilla Becher spent 50 years, from 1957 to Bernd’s death in 2007 photographing and documenting unloved and threatened buildings, mostly industrial, initially in their native Germany and latterly in other parts of Europe and the USA. My first encounter with their work was a book illustration (unreferenced, before embarking on this course) of one of their composite prints of timber-framed large houses, representative sample below:

This has resonance for me in my primary career as a building surveyor. I have had to record buildings (including UK framed buildings) by measured drawings and photographs and I understand the way these buildings ‘work’. Viewing a group of individual but very similar images, such as this points up the similarities (function, shape and major structural members) which are important and the detail differences (window positions, minor structural members) which are less critical and therefore accidental and individual.

The same kind of analysis can be made of their composites (which they called ‘typologies’) of industrial structures such as pitheads, winding gear or water towers, example below:

Their systematic survey and recording has a similar motive to Jimmy Forsyth’s images of Scotswood Road and Gateshead, a feeling that it is important to record a way of life that was threatened and vanishing, which could be dubbed the Joni Mitchell Motivation (… you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone). As Bernd Becher explained in a 2005 interview (Sign and Sight, 2005):

we simply thought that we would be considerably poorer in Europe if we didn’t have the sacred buildings of earlier epochs. It’s still possible to experience the Gothic period, not to mention the Romantic. Only nothing remains of the industrial age. So we thought that our photos would give the viewer the chance to go back to a time that is gone forever.

I have chosen to view these images and others from the MoMA, Guggenheim and Tate websites because they are relevant to Assignment 2 (Collecting) in which we are asked for a set of images of similar subjects with uniformity of focal length, aperture and viewpoint. The Bechers appear to have looked (within each set) for uniformity of viewpoint, subject, apparent size and weather conditions.

The work is worthy, it is outstanding record and documentary photography but I wonder whether it is ‘art’.

Reinhold Misselbeck, writing in Icons of Photography (Stepan (ed) 2005, 154) takes the view that its status has shifted over time, ‘… but this shows how far photography has come since 1981, how much our understanding of documentary photography has changed. In the meantime, it is apparent that it is the concept that makes the Bechers artists, and that their documentation is no detriment to this.‘ He takes a similar line in 20th Century Photography (Museum Ludwig Cologne 1996, 53)

Charlotte Cotton (2014, 82) regards the Bechers as highly influential in the shaping of contemporary deadpan photography. She notes their work appearing in the 1975 touring exhibition ‘New Topographics: Photographs of Man-altered Landscapes‘ which highlighted the implications of contemporary urban generation and the ecological consequences of industry, and considers it significant that these issues were raised in the context of the art gallery rather than elsewhere.

The last word goes to Badger (2010, 70)

The typological approach they revived has become almost ubiquitous in what one might term ‘conceptual’ photography, and shows little sign of abating in popularity. It influenced their pupils at the Düsseldorf School of Art, several of whom have gone on …  But none followed the Bechers’ advice more rigorously than they themselves. Find a subject and pursue it obsessively for your whole career.

References

Badger, G. (2010) The Genius of Photography London: Quadrille

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd

Guggenheim Foundation (2016) Bernd and Hilla BecherWater Towers (Wassertürme) [online] at: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/500

Museum Ludwig Cologne (1996) 20th Century Photography. Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag

Museum of Modern Art (s.d.) Bernd Becher German 1931-2007 [online] at: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/422?locale=en&page=1 (accessed 3 April 2016)(there is a similar page for Hilla Becher, referencing the same images)

Sign and Sight (2005) High precision industrial age souvenirs [online] at: http://www.signandsight.com/features/338.html (accessed 3 April 2016)

Stepan, P. (ed) (2005) Icons of Photography The 20th Century. Munich: Prestel Verlag

Tate (s.d.) Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher 1931–2007, 1934–2015 [online] at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/bernd-becher-and-hilla-becher-718 (accessed 3 April 2016)