Assignment 5 -presentation and reflection

My tutor’s feedback after Assignment 4 suggested thinking more about how my work is presented. For Assignment 5 (where we are supposed to have a clear sequence of images) I have chosen to bind them into a book. Here it is.

OK, I confess, it is also something that I have been meaning to try for a while. This is a sidebound book, which is more appropriate for heavy paper pages than a folded book would be. Just for fun, I have covered it with used Christmas wrapping paper – to continue the Christmas theme.

Reflection – assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills: I am satisfied with my photographic technical skills. My book-crafting can best be described as ‘OK for a first attempt’

Quality of outcome: I believe I have identified the content, applied my knowledge of it and presented the  work in a coherent manner. Whether I have communicated my ideas is a judgement for the reader.

Creativity: This is fundamentally a documentary exercise, so there is little invention or imagination required. There was a fair amount of experimentation, to find a way to shoot the interaction images.

Context: Reflection occurred both during and after the shooting phase. Research is more difficult to define because I picked a familiar subject; effectively, I have been researching it for the past 3-4 years.

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Assignment 4 rework – getting crafty

My tutor’s feedback on this assignment suggested that I look at methods of presentation beyond a set of prints spread out on the table.

The remaining pictures are colourful but a little bland as single images. However looking at these and at your contacts I would suggest that there could be more impact made with the images if you considered the possibility of presenting them as a series of triptychs along the themes that you indicate in your submission shadows, puddles and so on. Another possibility would be to consider a single dominant colour for each triptych. The final outcome is of course down to you as in this project you have produced enough images to consider a range of presentation ideas and interpretation of the subject in a variety of ways.

Overall a good piece of work that may need to have the format for presentation reconsidered.

I was aware that some images held more interest than others. Presenting as triptychs would allow some of the weaker images to act as supporters rather than stand-alones.

I briefly considered presenting the images as a book but, with a limit on the number of images to present for assessment, I was unable to come up with a satisfactory book layout. I therefore reverted to the triptych idea, but resolved to include some book-crafting techniques in the final version. Of course, as I have never done any book-crafting before, this presented me with a learning curve.

One issue was the need to re-select images. Rather than looking for an all-landscape-format set, I now needed three strong landscape-format and six ‘supporting’ portrait-format. Here are my final selections.

triptychs

Car park markings

triptychs2

Blue/red

triptychs3

Fallen leaves

The original concept of triptychs was as decoration for folding altarpieces. I emulated these by mounting each set on folding boards, which close completely for protection. The set of three boards is contained in a slipcase. The colours, ‘twilight blue’ and black were chosen to recognise the project as a night-time shoot. I must confess to some hair-tearing and blasphemy during the crafting process (next time I will try with a starch paste rather than PVA adhesive) and there were a few false starts. However, I am pleased with the final version.

Ways of Seeing • John Berger

‘Ways of Seeing’ was originally published in 1972, as a collaboration between the BBC and Penguin to extend and elaborate on ideas contained in the BBC series of the same name. My copy is the 2008 Penguin Classics reissue.

To say that it is a strange book is putting it mildly. It comprises seven ‘essays’, four of which comprise words and images and the other three are images only. Typesetting is unusual, in Univers bold script (quotes and emphasised passages in a lighter script) which is more normally used for headings, and each page or double-page spread appears individually designed. At times I felt that I was holding a piece of conceptual art rather than reading a book.

Therefore, it is unfortunate that production values have suffered. Cheap ink and paper mean that the illustrations are very ‘soot-and-whitewash’ and the shadows have bled into  the highlights. This is one of the reasons why I got nothing out of the illustration-only essays; I spent too much effort working out what the images are, to think properly about the way they are arranged.

The first essay deals with the importance of context and the distinction between the original artwork (the thing itself) and the reproducible image. The original artwork may have been commissioned for the space it finds itself in (gallery, church altarpiece or the drawing room of a stately home) and has a particular meaning in that place. However, once reproduced (for instance by photographing it), it can appear at various scales and in myriad forms: postcard, book, TV screen, Athena poster (OK, I know I am dating myself with that reference but I am reviewing a 1972 book). If seen on TV, or a podcast, it may be accompanied by speech or music, or have details extracted. It can be subverted for advertising – an idea that forms the basis of the final essay. Berger is particularly rude about the sort of art expert who spends 14 pages discussing the history and provenance of a painting, rather than the image itself, and of the obscurantist language used by some critics.

The second written essay deals with ‘the nude’ in art, noting that nude subjects are almost exclusively female. It starts with the proposition that a man’s ‘presence’ is chiefly external (it is about what he can to to or for ‘you’, the spectator) while a woman’s is internal (it is about what can or cannot be done to her) and develops to the idea, also expressed by Michelle Henning (Wells, 2000 Ch5), of men possessing the ‘gaze’ and women existing to be gazed at. Nudes appeared in notionally biblical or classical scenes but are clearly intended to interact with the Spectator (the viewer of the image) rather than the other figures in the painting – even when kissing a lover, her body is turned toward the spectator rather than the lover. I’m not sure that Berger comes up with any answers, he simply makes the rather disapproving observation.

The third written essay is the one least relevant to photography, except as a precursor to the fourth. It deals with the European tradition of oil painting between 1400 and 1900 and puts forward an argument that they were commissioned primarily to reflect the owners status, by reference to their possessions. The techniques of oil painting permitted a degree of realism unprecedented at the time which (according to Berger) was equivalent to owning the thing depicted. Photography also permits realism, but a photograph is reproducible and does not have the one-off status of a painting.P

The final essay deals with the use of imagery in advertising and publicity, and draws parallels with the tradition of oil painting. Artworks may be subverted or pastiched (p134 shows a pastiche of Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ ) or used as background (p135 suggests that Leonardo would have used a Parker pen for his doodles). Colour photography is used in a similar way to the oil painting described in the third essay, having an unprecedented realism and tactility. Berger sees the difference in the notion of ‘glamour’ (which could be an attractive quality, an enchantment or illusion, or a malevolent Scottish shapeshifter) which the photograph has and the painting does not need. The basis of publicity is that it engenders feelings of unease or discontent with the viewer’s present condition, or an envy of himself in an alternate reality where he has bought the product. While painting is rooted in the present, publicity invokes an alternate or utopian future.

The book is a bit of a period piece (but not so much as the TV series, with Berger’s hairstyle and shirt); for instance, it represents a pre-feminist age so much of the second essay appears dated. It was iconoclastic in its time, criticising the conventional way of viewing and criticising art (it was said to be a deliberate ‘counter’ to Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ series) and appears to be still valid, particularly the final essay on advertising.

References

Berger, J. (2008) Ways of seeing. London: Penguin Classics.

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

Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida (first impressions)

Camera Lucida is a book title that regularly comes up in OCA forums and social media pages. It is more relevant to a future course module, but I have allowed myself a ‘sneak preview’. This posting is written on the basis of a single read-through without taking notes. There will probably be a fuller review in a future module.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French teacher and researcher in sociology and lexicology at the Centre National de Recherché Scientifique. Camera Lucida, published in the year of his death, was his final book.

I found it an odd read. The book is in two parts; the first part is a vaguely Cartesian exercise in understanding Photography (Barthes uses the capital P) from first principles, the second is more of a self-indulgent ramble triggered by viewing a childhood photograph of his recently-deceased mother. I will comment on the first part which is more what I expected from the book.

Barthes equivalent of the photographic triumvirate of photographer, viewer and subject is Operator, Spectator and Spectrum (Barthes sees this as a portmanteau of ‘spectacle’ and ‘spectre’) which detaches the terms from our usual language. He is upfront in telling us that he is no Operator (not having the patience to wait for processing) but a combination of Spectator and occasional reluctant Spectrum.

Incidentally, it is worth remembering that we read Barthes in translation and I wonder (in this book and the essay Death of the Author) how much of the language, some of which appears obscurantist, comes from Barthes himself, and how much from his translator. Presumably, words derived from dead languages (studium, punctum, eidos etc.) are Barthes’ and the dictionary-bursting English is Howard’s.

Barthes reminds us that the unique feature that distinguishes Photography from the other arts is that it is evidential. Unlike painting, literature or sculpture, a Photograph is proof that the Spectrum or referent existed, at least at the time and place that the image is captured. The direction in which I am (currently at least) unable to follow Barthes is the leap from this-has-been to a connection between Photography and Death, which occupies much of the second half of the book.

The headline insight of the book, however, is the notion of studium and punctum. My understanding, from a first reading is that studium refers to intrinsic properties of the image, the generality of subject, place etc. Not all images possess punctum, which appears to be a unique connection between the image and the individual Spectator. The word derives from the same stem as ‘puncture’ and ‘punctuate’ and the punctum is some detail which ‘pricks’ or arrests the Spectator’s attention – Barthes gives examples of a bandage on a girl’s finger or the type of shoes worn by a portrait subject.

Overall, I suspect that I have read the book too early in my art-student career, and I look forward to revisiting it in about a year’s time.

Reference

Barthes, R.(1980) Camera Lucida (translated by Richard Howard) (1993 edition) London: Vintage Classics (Random House Group)

Magnum Contact Sheets

Pulling a good picture out of a contact sheet is like going down to the cellar and bringing back a good bottle to share. (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

‘Magnum Contact Sheets’ is a coffee table book, not just because it looks good on the coffee table but, at 524 pages of 150gsm art paper, it weighs roughly the same. According to the copyright page, the 2014 book is the compact edition.

The premise is simple, iconic images from Magnum photographers are presented with commentary (either from the photographer or Kristen Lubben, the editor) and the contact sheets from which they are extracted, complete with the editor’s chinagraph markings. The result is an insight into how photographers work on location and how they, or their editors, approach the task of selection and editing.

The book starts in pre-Magnum days, with HCB’s image of street kids playing among wrecked masonry in Seville 1933. Almost uniquely among the featured photographers, HCB did not like revealing his contacts. Indeed, it seems that he cut out his usable negatives into separates and would discard those he did not like. He is quoted thus, ‘A contact sheet is full of erasures, full of detritus. A photo exhibition or a book is an invitation to a meal, and it is not customary to make guests poke their noses into the pots and pans, and even less into the buckets of peelings’ (Lubben 2014, 18)

However, most contributors had views similar to David Hurn (quoted on p159), “The contact sheet is a valuable instructor. … Ruthless examination of the contact sheet, whether one’s own or another’s is one of the best teaching methods”

That appears to be the raison d’être for this book. Later (p162) Hurn tells us, “Looking at other peoples’ contact sheets allows one to understand their method of working and their thinking processes. When I first came to Magnum, I learned an enormous amount by perusing shelves of books of contacts from Henri Carier Breton, Marc Riboud, Réne Burri, Elliott Erwitt, etc. … What was a revelation to me was that I could see a similar working pattern in virtually all the photographers I admired. Little sequences which show the photographer seemingly stalking the image”

The book includes some classics of reportage. On p50 we learn how most of Robert Capa’s D-Day negatives were destroyed by a darkroom error, and on the following page we see the nine which survive. Pages 208-215 covers Gilles Peress’ images from Bloody Sunday together with a sketch and part of his statement to the Widgery and Saville enquiries.

There is also a leavening of lighter material, such a Martine Franck’s Buddhist monks of 1996 (p403) and Elliott Erwitt’s 2000 ‘Bulldogs’ (p457)

I bought this book as part of my research for EYV Assignment 3 (The decisive moment) for which it was useful (I liked Peter Hurn’s comment about stalking the image). I regard it as essential reading for any topic relating to reportage or documentary work.

Reference

Lubben, K (ed) (2014) Magnum Contact Sheets (compact edition) London: Thames and Hudson

Photography: A Critical Introduction • review part 1

This is the first introductory textbook to examine key debates in photographic theory and place them in their social and political contexts (Publishers note)

With the manifesto set out at the top of the first page this book, although said to be introductory, dives into (for me) some pretty deep waters and requires careful reading and several re-readings. This is the first of an occasional series of postings which will each concentrate on a chapter or two. I am working from the 2nd edition (2000)

The book is arranged in seven major chapters, each with its own bibliography, together with an extensive introduction, indexes, glossaries etc. In this posting I will be looking at the ‘topping-and-tailing’ material and at the first chapter, ‘Thinking about photography‘ by Derrick Price and Liz Wells.

The introduction signposts the structure of the book chapter-by-chapter, setting out its arrangement and purpose. I initially found the section, ‘How to use this book’ rather patronising but, after a foray into chapter 1, I began to see the point.

The end material will probably be the part of the book that I refer to most in my future studies with OCA as it seems to be a jumping-off point for research. In addition to the (expected) index and bibliography (14 pages!) we get a glossary of key terms and lists of archives, journals and websites.

Chapter 1 Thinking about photography

It must be said that this chapter makes heavy reading; the language being both dense and ‘technical’, particularly some of the late 20th-century pull-quotes. Having a scientific/engineering background and being exposed to ‘Pseuds Corner’ and Monty Python’s caricature art critics (example here at 3:47) it came as a culture shock to encounter similar language used in serious technical discourse, which leads me to consider  the reasons for it.

I am aware (from use in my own primary profession) that jargon has two uses, to obfuscate or (more properly) to serve as a form of shorthand between practitioners in a specialist field. I believe Price and Wells are using it in the latter form and it is a privilege to be allowed into the discussion at that level even if it means diving into the glossary at regular intervals. The first part of the chapter is particularly difficult because it is trying to introduce a theory of criticism and ‘art theory’ from scratch, without resorting to circular definitions. This is analogous to the sort of pure mathematics text that introduces number theory (“what, precisely do we mean by ‘two’ anyway?”). We all learned to count in primary school; most of us use numbers every day without thinking about then, but it is sort of comforting to know that they have a valid foundation.  Similarly with art criticism, it is useful to have a framework to work within and comforting to know that it has a firm basis, even if we do not consider it from day to day.

The chapter is arranged in four main sections. The sections are subdivided but I found that there was not a great correlation between the subheadings and the text.

‘Aesthetics and technologies’ eschews the standard list of inventors  but instead looks at the evolving technology in the mid-19th century and asks (but unfortunately doesn’t answer) why the need to produce and fix an image became an active field of research at the time. Once the technology is in place, it became adapted to social uses in a variety of ways, not all of which were intended by the original inventors. This appropriation and subversion of the technology continues to the present day in such forms as social media.

The “is it Art” debate is aired by quoting opposing views from Baudelaire (quoted on pp.13-14) who said that photography would corrupt or supplant art (by which he appears to mean painting) and should serve only as a ‘handmaid’ to the arts and sciences, and Lady Elizabeth Westlake (quoted on pp.15-16) who considered that a good thing. Photography was not ‘Art’ but would displace the old structures of Art.

Outside the ‘high art’ world of galleries and salons, we see the proliferation of jobbing photographers, mainly portraitist but also producers of views and postcards, springing up in most towns, which upset the painters (presumably, the jobbing portrait painters) with their improved speed, accuracy and quality control.

This accuracy, together with ease of reproduction makes photography a very democratic medium and valuable in documentary uses. However, there is some debate about whether a photograph shows us more than the surface appearance of a subject.

We move forward to the modern and post-modern eras with the rise of ‘straight photography’ presenting a new way of seeing the world. Moholy-Nagy (quoted on p.19) wants us to see what is ‘optically true’ rather than the pictorial framework erected by individual painters. In other words, he wants us to see what is really there, rather than what we have been taught is there.

Contemporary debates‘ looks at the development of ‘photography theory’ out of ‘art theory’ in the early 20th century and the shift in emphasis from techniques to a reading of the image as image, with a brief reference to the more recent approach through semiotics.

Price and Wells consider that the ‘great masters’ approach found in other branches of art criticism does not fit particularly well with photography (although it is traditionally used) because of its democratic nature and the difficulty of separating ‘masters’ from movements. This is a theme repeated in several places in this chapter.

The realism debate compares Sontag’s view of photographs as objective traces of the subject with Kozloff’s view of the photograph as a ‘subjective witness’ with the possibility of misunderstanding or partial information.

The major part of this section is a case study showing alternative readings of a particular image, Dorothea Lange’s ‘Migrant mother’. The image is seen as a testament to an event and a period of American history, although the title was changed (‘Seasonal Farm Worker’s Family’ has an entirely different meaning) and there was some minor retouching (part of a hand holding the tent flap was removed). We see that other images from the same set were not used, and Lange posed the subjects, giving the iconic ‘madonna’ impression that we now know and which has been appropriated or subverted into different forms.

The context of the image is important; we would get one reading from its placing in a report on farming conditions, properly captioned, and quite another when seen enlarged and out-of-context on a gallery wall.

Histories of photography‘ notes Martin Gasser’s 1992 classification (Wells, 46) classification of photographic histories into (1) the priority debate, (2) the development of equipment and techniques and (3) histories of the photograph as image. The first two are dealt with fairly swiftly with a warning against taking contemporary and early 20th-century accounts at face value. Nationalistic factors come into play with, for instance, French accounts giving the daguerrotype more importance than I consider a blind alley deserves.

Viewing the history of the photograph as image became the the predominant approach after the Second World War. This section compares the contributions of Beaumont Newhall and the Gernsheims and the later 1989 works by Mike Weaver and John Szarkowski which marked the sesquicentenary of photography (both works starting as exhibition catalogues for the Royal Academy and MoMA respectively). Price and Wells note that all of these histories ultimately tend toward a ‘grand masters’ approach.

Photography and social history‘ moves away from ‘grand masters’ and the gallery wall and considers the review of ‘popular photography’ meaning the postcard, the family album, the records of clubs and societies, etc. In other words the sort of images encountered or used by most people. In noting the use of photography as a testament to history (initially by the popular medium of television, rather than by traditional historians) we are warned that context and provenance are important but can be difficult to determine.

There is also a short section on ‘categorical photography’ noting that photography was implicated very early in issues of surveillance and control. This, of course, is an issue that concerns us today with the proliferation of CCTV and other monitoring technologies. Control issues include the Victorian attempts to categorise races, social classes, criminality etc by means of ‘typical’ or composite photographs (introducing a point that will be covered in more detail in chapter 5)

The final part deals with photographs viewed out of context, on the gallery wall or in forms of history other than that for which they were taken. Again, provenance is important but there is a concern that images are often selected for aesthetic reasons, ignoring their original context, and thus becoming unreliable witnesses.

The final paragraph is a teaser for chapter 2 on documentary and chapter 3 on personal photography.

Overall, the chapter was a fascinating insight and a good introduction to a more serious approach to viewing and reading photographs and their contexts. I look forward to reading and reviewing further.

References

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

The Last Resort • Martin Parr

I had intended to use this book (Parr and Walker, 1998) as part of my research for Assignment 1 (Square Mile) but it arrived late from the library. However, it remains of interest for the course in general. The book was originally published in 1986; I refer to the 1998 edition.

The book is in two parts, a six-page essay by Walker and 40 colour plates by Parr. There is no referential link between the two, except for a footnote to the text noting that Walker visited New Brighton in 1985 and Parr’s photographs were taken in the three seasons 1983-85. The link, of course, is the subject matter.

New Brighton is a seaside resort on the Wirral peninsula, built in the 1830s, popular in its heyday but starting to fall into decline after the First World War. By the time Parr and Walker visited in the mid-1980s the resort was a depressed area, the tower and pier long-gone, the ferries had stopped visiting and many shops and establishments were boarded up.

The Walker essay describes two visits to New Brighton during the dismal 1985 season, interviewing residents and leisure business owners. The essay style is very ‘colour-supplement’ and the attitude of the interviewees came across more as resigned than despairing. The essay sets up the backdrop for Parr’s photographs, taken during 1985 and the preceding two hot seasons of 1983 and 1984.

The 40 plates are mostly placed one per spread, on right-hand pages, but there are three spreads with two images on facing pages, where these juxtapose. The blank pages are not completely white, having random confetti-like small geometric motifs. My impression is that these, together with the device of placing the plate number in random positions on the page, echo the general sense of litter and untidiness seen in the images.

These are very saturated colour images (I understand that they were taken on medium-format Fuji slide film) and appear to have been taken in bright daylight with on-camera fill-flash. The pictures are not of New Brighton, except as background, but of the people who are using and enjoying it. We see them sunbathing, eating ice-cream or fish-and-chips, changing or feeding the baby and competing in beauty contests all apparently oblivious to the litter and general broken-down nature of their surroundings. With the exception of the ice-cream seller in plate 23, all seem to be ignoring the photographer, who cannot have been inconspicuous.

The image below is plate 40.

Mother concentrates on her tan, while the girl plays with a bucket and spade, both apparently oblivious to the large tracked excavator; the passer-by in jacket and long trousers is oblivious to both.

Badger (2010:161-2) notes that the book led to controversy with Parr, ‘a middle-class boy from Surrey, being accused of cynicism’ but was also immensely influential, particularly among young photographers of the time.

Badger (ibid) writes ‘Above all, it was about Britishness, about how the British muddle through, how they make the best of things despite crowds, bad weather and litter-strewn promenades’. Although he has a point, I suggest that this is a rather romanticised view of the book. My impression was more of an anthropological exercise and I felt a little like an intruder or voyeur in reading/viewing it.

Postscript: 30 years on and, unsurprisingly, the local tourist board websites (Wirral Council and Visit New Brighton) make no reference to Parr or Walker. They appear to show a resort that has ‘turned the corner’ with major redevelopments (theatre, leisure centre etc.) It would be nice to think that this came about, at least in part, due to ‘The Last Resort’

Bibliography

Badger, G. (2010) The Genius of Photography, How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille

Parr, M. and Walker, I. (1998) The Last Resort – Photographs of New Brighton by Martin Parr, Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

Visit New Brighton (2016) [online] at : http://www.visitnewbrighton.com (accessed on 20 March 2016)

Wirral Council (s.d.) [online] at: http://www.visitwirral.com/attractions-and-activities/places/new-brighton (accessed on 20 March 2016)