Exercise 5.3 -Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare

Unfortunately, this photograph is no longer on permanent display at the V&A. It is in a study collection, available by appointment only, so I was unable to view it on a recent visit. However, there are numerous reproductions in print and online. This is one of the better examples.

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source: pinterest

This is a curious image, not one of HCB’s best – I prefer the keen observation and humour of his 1937 photos from of the crowds at the coronation of George VI that were exhibited in Strange and Familiar. It is not even that good technically, with its motion blur, clogged-up shadows and heavy grain. However it is pretty much the image that defines ‘the decisive moment’.

Look at the action. The man is crossing a large puddle or flooded yard. He is the first to have come that way for a while – the water is almost entirely unrippled – and has taken two or three rapid steps (we know they were rapid because the water has not rippled far yet) along the makeshift ladder and launched himself off the end.

HCB catches the action with the man’s foot about a centimetre above the water – only a few milliseconds before touching down and causing another ripple or a big splash to destroy the pristine surface. What happens next? Will he keep his feet dry or will the water overtop his shoes? We don’t know how deep it is. Sometimes I imagine a ‘Vicar of Dibley’ chest-deep puddle.

If that were all there is to the image it would be interesting enough, but there is a Barthesian ‘punctum’, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. Not immediately obvious until one has spent a bit of time viewing the image is the figure in the background poster mirroring the man’s leap. Was he conscious of it? Probably not. Was HCB conscious of it at the time of taking the shot, waiting for the man to poise himself in imitation? We don’t know, but he would have seen it when examining his contacts – and had the genius to print it.

HCB tells us (in L’amour tout court) that this was a lucky shot, grabbed blind through the railings. To some extent that is true (he cannot have timed his shutter release to the millisecond) but I am reminded of the great golfing put-down (variously attributed to Gary Player, Tom Watson or Ben Hogan) ‘Yes, it was a lucky shot, and the more I practice the luckier I get.’

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Yousuf Karsh at B+H

Beetles + Huxley have an exhibition of 23 portraits by Yousuf Karsh taken between 1941 and 1988, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. All are darkroom prints made by Karsh himself or under his direct supervision. The sitters are statesmen, artists and film stars.

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It seems appropriate to use the old-fashioned word ‘sitters’ in this context rather than ‘models’ or ‘subjects’  because, with two exceptions (WH Auden and Georgia O’Keefe), these are studio portraits, posed and with very considered lighting.

To get a sour note out of the way quickly, there were two images that I didn’t like (Martha Graham’s pose seems awkward and the fill light on JFK’s profile seems flat), but a 21:2 ratio of gems to ‘others’ is pretty damn good.

Because, I am currently working on the ‘ex nihilo’ section of part 4, I spent some time studying the lighting and making notes of how I thought Karsh had lit each one. I am almost certainly wrong in most cases (the ‘roaring lion’ portrait of Churchill looks like two lights and  a reflector, but the catalogue notes tell us that Karsh used six floods, two spots and a background light) but I will use a few of my imagined set-ups in exercise 4.4.

This is the classic ‘roaring lion’ portrait of Churchill after addressing the Canadian Parliament in 1941. The story of the scowl is oft-repeated’; given only a few minutes, Karsh snatched away Churchill’s cigar and photographed the reaction – producing one of the most iconic images of the man (and incidentally, one of the most widely-reproduced photographic portraits in history) and launched his own career. Less well-known is that Churchill was sufficiently amused by the incident to allow another photograph to be taken, this time smiling.

Unfortunately, B+H do not show this one as I would love to see them side-by-side. I must say that I find the smiling image rather creepy and I need to analyse my own reaction. I think it must be that the ‘roaring lion’ picture is so iconic, and has fixed the historical image of Churchill so firmly that the variation comes as a shock.

Many of the male images share the classic ‘Karsh lighting’, rim-lit  with front fill. Castro and Hemingway are fairly symmetrical, and it is the asymmetric lighting on Bogart and Cousteau that I found most interesting. The Bogart image also shows Karsh’s attention to the sitters’ hands (see also Churchill above, or Einstein, GB Shaw, or Joan Miro)

The ‘young romantic’ female subjects get a softer-lit treatment (but sharp focus) which seems to be based around a large front fill source with some accent lighting. Older female subjects with a few ‘character lines’ get the male lighting treatment.

Many of these images are familiar from books or online sources, and Karsh is known as a master of lighting. However, it is only when we view the prints in the flesh that we discover that he was a master craftsman in the darkroom as well. The prints are superb, especially the luminous highlights.

Overall an enjoyable and informative exhibition, and the catalogue is the best £10 that I have spent on a photography book.

Reference

Beetles+Huxley (2016) Yousuf Karsh London: Beetles+Huxley

Eggleston at the NPG (and a further musing on naked emperors)

If any photographer’s work invited the naive response, “my kid could do that” it might be William Egglestons’s photographs (Tucker, in Stepan (ed) 2005,170)

Anne Tucker also tells us (ibid) that “Eggleston’s pictures possess the seeming simplicity of snapshots”. I start with these observations because they match my own opinions on viewing the exhibition of Eggleston’s portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. Unlike Tucker (whose article accompanies an image of a table with condiment bottles and an out-of-focus crockery cabinet) I retain what she, insultingly, describes as my ‘naive response’.

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Although Eggleston is not primarily a portraitist, a comment made both by the wall-notes and by Ian Jeffrey (2008,330) the curators at the NPG have put together an exhibition of some 100 images from the 1960s onward. His portraits are all taken in and around Memphis, Tennessee and a high proportion are of family or friends.

In the first space, we see early monochrome work from the 1960s. These are smaller than the main colour images, typically 8×10. The images appear candid but there is an element of design, whether carefully composed or shot on the spur of the decisive moment is unclear.

The second space contains much larger, colour images from 1970 to 1975. Most are taken with a 5×7 view camera, an instrument with which Eggleston was clearly accomplished. The images have a characteristic shallow depth of field but very accurately placed plane of focus. This is clearly seen in the image above, of girlfriend Marcia Hare; the face and the out-thrown left arm are sharp (the camera a little less so) but the lower part of her dress, and most of the grass on which she is lying, are blurred giving a dream-like overall effect but focussing the viewers attention on the important parts. Incidentally, this image is displayed next to an earlier photo of Hare in a nightclub, dancing and with head thrown back, in a vertical version of the same pose.

However, the outstanding image, for me, in this space is one of Eggleston’s cousin, Shelley Schuyler, standing in a long dress gazing into the camera and holding a champagne glass. She is sharp overall but the depth of field is very tightly controlled, as seen in the grass at her feet.

My overall impression of this space is good. Large images (the head-shots are larger than life) and saturated colour seem to capture the personality of the subject and I left the room  feeling that I knew many of them. This is a clear counter-example to Ted Grant’s oft-quoted maxim, “When you photograph people in colour you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls.”

The third space, ‘Eggleston and Colour’, tells of his adopting the dye-transfer process and the shock felt by the photographic art world at his 1976 MoMA exhibition of colour prints. His contribution to the history of photography is the forced realisation that art photographs do not have to be monochrome.

This space has some thought-provoking images such as the one above, of Eggleston’s uncle Adyn Schuyler and a black ‘house man’. This is the American Deep South in the 1970s and the relationship between the figures says something about race relations of the period. Jasper, the servant, stands a few paces behind his employer but mirrors (consciously or unconsciously) his pose.

There is also a 1985 ‘Portrait of Elvis Presley in Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee’ which is a photograph of a photograph of Presley surrounded by memorabilia.

However, there are photographs in this space that appear to be no more than very large snapshots, and led me to muse on imperial nudity and Hans Christian Andersen’s classic story. To return briefly to Tucker’s comments at the top of this posting, it is the ‘naive response’ of Andersen’s child that exposes the truth of the exposed emperor.

I wonder what the response to many of the images (even the two that I have highlighted) would be if they were presented as 5×3 enprints in a Boots envelope rather than as massive prints on a gallery wall. How many would make it into the family album? Frankly, there are some which would not make it into my shoebox (for instance the Dennis Hopper image in which the alleged subject turns away from the camera and is unsharp compared with the dashboard of the car). To what extent does our acceptance of a photograph as ‘art’ depend on its being presented in an art context – printed large and hung on a white gallery wall?

Coincidentally, on the same day that I wrote this posting, an article in the Times (Whipple 2016) reported on recent psychological research suggesting that people’s reactions to an image vary depending on whether they are told it is art or not. This is a topic to be followed  up, although possibly in a later course module.

References

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

National Portrait Gallery (2016) William Eggleston Portraits [online] at: http://www.npg.org.uk/whatson/eggleston/exhibition.php (accessed 18 September 2016)

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

Whipple, T. (2016) Call it art and that’s what it becomes In: The Times September 19 2016, p.11

Ambient artificial light 3 (Shintaro and Zachmann)

In the previous postings of this series, I have looked at the effect of ambient artificial light in lighting the scene. By contrast, Sato Shintaro’s ‘Night Lights’ series is all about the light source itself. This is a set of images made in Tokyo and Osaka between 1997 and 1999, showing the clutter of advertising illuminations and deliberately excluding people.

Although the course notes tell us that these are ‘blue hour’ images, the skies are uniformly black and it is the artificial sources that illuminate everything. From the level of detail, these appear to be large-format film images (Shintaro tells us that ‘Tokyo Twilight Zone’ was shot on large-format film and these appear similar). The images are crisp and vibrant and capture the look, if not the bustle, of these cities at night.

Shintaro’s ‘blue hour’ images are in his ‘Tokyo Twilight Zone’ set (2002-2008). These are all taken from Tokyo fire escapes, giving horizontal views over the city, but usually from back-street locations (where the fire escapes are) rather than tourist spots.

Use of the ‘blue hour’ preserves some colour in the sky and sufficient light to show some detail in unlit areas, but our attention is taken by the artificial light elements. Unlike ‘Night Lights’  these are not advertising features but working lights such as the streetlights , the railway floodlights and the office window lights in the image above. In this set, we get a sense of how the city ‘ticks’

Patrick Zachmann is a Magnum photographer who has been photographing in China since 1982, and in colour at night since 2001. His ‘China Nights’ images (Magnum 2014) cover everything lit up at night, from construction sites to nightclubs.

CHINA. Guangdong. Town of Humen. 2005. Massage parlor.

CHINA. Guangdong. Town of Humen. 2005. Massage parlor.

Zachmann’s  images concern the integration of people and artificial light. Migrant construction workers and sex workers feature large, and there is no romanticisation. These images are different from his normal documentary style, much more impressionistic, but most give a feeling that there is abuse or coercion somewhere in the background. The treatment is good, some of the lighting is beautiful, but it is not an easy set to view.

References

Magnum (2104) China Nights 2005 – Patrick Zachmann [online] at: https://pro.magnumphotos.com [search string omitted for clarity]

Shintaro, S.(s.d.) Night Lights [online] at: http://sato-shintaro.com/work/night_lights/index.html

Shintaro, S. (s.d.) Tokyo Twilight Zone [online] at: http://sato-shintaro.com/work/tokyo_twilight_zone/index.html

 

‘Speed of Light’ • Donovan at The Photographers Gallery

The Photographers Gallery has turned over two floors to ‘Speed of Light’ a major exhibition of Terence Donovan’s portraiture and fashion photography. Arranged vaguely chronologically, the fourth floor covers his start in the late 1950s and his 1960s work, and the fifth floor covers the 1970s through to his death in 1996.

For me, one interesting thing is that this review is quite different, having taken a period for reflection, than it would have been if I had written it immediately. My first impression, particularly of the Sixties floor was of a mass of rather clichéd ‘gritty East End’ images. However, with time for reflection, I realised that the reason that type of image is now a cliché is because the ‘black trinity’ (as Norman Parkinson dubbed Bailey, Donovan and Duffy) invented the look and did it so bloody well that few followers could add anything significant.

Most of the Sixties work exhibited is fashion rather than portraiture. Donovan and the others of the ‘trinity’ broke the mould of studio fashion shoots by taking models and clothes on location in East London (Donovan said he preferred to work ‘East of Aldgate). This is my favourite image from the period, juxtaposing a man’s suit against a factory roof with steam, fire escapes and broken windows. The black suit against the white steam gives contrast and drama and gives the impression that the wearer (and, by extension, a purchaser of the suit) is a no-nonsense businessman who has worked his way up the ladder.

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source: The Photographers’ Gallery

In similar vein is a series titled ‘Goldenloin’ which presented mens’ fashions in a James Bond style (in 1961, a year before Dr No appeared in the cinemas). Ladies’ fashions are given a similar treatment, with this example contrasting the tweed pattern of her suit with the mosaic tiling of a pedestrian underpass.

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source: The Photographers’ Gallery

The later work, on the fifth floor, is predominantly in a crisp style, although rather less harsh, and we see Donovan experimenting with colour, flare and soft focus, for example ‘The Heavenly Suited’, below:

My favourite is also Donovan’s last piece of major work, ‘National Anthems’, a set of portraits of pop cultural figures which appeared in the December 1996 issue of CQ. This was formal studio work with a large-format camera but the sitters are clearly relaxed, as is the overall ‘feel’.

The images on the walls are supplemented by displays of the magazines with Donovan’s spreads, together with his meticulous notes and diaries, which give a feel for his working methods.

This is one exhibition that I want to see a second time.

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]