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)

Collecting • refining the concept

It is interesting to see how my preconceived idea of how I would tackle this assignment has fallen by the wayside in almost all respects. Hoping to extract entire bicycles from their backgrounds with a long lens and wide aperture has proved impossible with the equipment available and calculation suggests that it is impossible (or at least problematic) in any event.

If I want to do a typology of bicycles, I suspect that it would be best achieved by removing a group of bikes to a studio, rather than trying to ‘collect’ them ‘in the wild’ which seems to be the object of this assignment.

I have had some more success in isolating detail features, which has promise for a pictorial panel of prints.

Alternatively, I could ‘collect’ a particular type of feature. I had considered rear hubs and derailleur mechanisms, but these give the image an incomplete look as there is always some drive-chain leading out of frame to the right.

My ‘eureka’ moment was the decision to include complete drive-trains, (front and rear chainwheels, gear mechanisms, pedals and enough rear wheel to make contact with the ground. This places my viewpoint rather further away (about 1.5m) and the depth of field at f/8 (or at f/5.6, which is the best my standard zoom can manage at the 42mm (84mm equivalent) end of its range) is too great too isolate the subject.

I have therefore turned to the short end of my telephoto-zoom, 50mm (100mm equivalent) at f/2.8

This has promise, but I can understand why the Bechers chose to use flat lighting for their typologies. A further tour of the bike parks this evening should yield the images that I need.

Some work will be required in post-processing, to make my intent clear. A reduction to monochrome may be too much (especially as I used a monochrome set for Assignment 1) but a reduction of vibrance, coupled with opening-up the shadows and increasing clarity, gives an interesting look.

P3308446

 

Typology

As it is becoming apparent that my response to Assignment 2 is an example of what the Bechers would call a ‘typology’, it is time to be sure that I understand the meaning of the work. Simply breaking it down into ‘type’ and ‘-ology’ suggests that it is a study of types, but that is too much like folk etymology to serve for academic purposes.

Merriam-Webster give two related definitions (there is also a theological definition relating entities between the Old and New Testaments, which is not relevant):

a system used for putting things into groups according to how they are similar : the study of how things can be divided into different types

study of or analysis or classification based on types or categories

The definitions given by Oxford Dictionaries are similar:

A classification according to general type, especially in archaeology, psychology, or the social sciences

Study or analysis using a classification according to a general type.

So the word can mean either a classification of things according to types or similarities, or a study of such classifications. In my view, the Bechers have appropriated the word and slightly misused it. I would suggest that their overall body of work is a typology, each series or composite is a type and each individual image is an instance of a type.

I was attracted by Bernd Becher’s comment [see MoMA website] that the winding towers in that set “. . . look very similar, and you could think that they came from a production series, like cars. Only when you put them beside each other do you see their individuality.” I hope the same will be applicable to my ‘Collecting’ assignment.

References

Merriam-Webster online dictionary (s.d) [online] at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/typology (accessed 30 March 2016)

MoMA (s.d) Bernd Becher, Hilla Becher Winding Towers 1966-97 [online] at: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/136060?locale=en (accessed 30 March 2016)

Oxford Dictionaries (s.d) [online] at: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/typology (accessed 30 March 2016)

 

Collecting • further thoughts

Some views of a random bike, trying out focal lengths and viewpoints.

In the context of the assignment brief, the best images are those in which the subject almost fills the frame. Minimum distortion occurs at the long end of my standard zoom, 42mm (84mm equivalent) and a viewpoint 4-5 metres from the subject. The frame can be filled at the 14mm (28mm equivalent) end of the zoom range and about 1.5m from the subject, but there is no valid reason for introducing the associated distortions.

An alternative approach is to use the long end of the zoom to extract details.

This will be my fallback plan if I cannot make my original idea work.

Even with the bicycle filling the image frame, there is a lot of background visible. Ideally, this should be de-emphasised by differential focussing, requiring a wide aperture. My next experiments will be made using an OM-system 50mm f/1.4 lens. Initial results suggest that it is a little soft at f/1.4 so I will work with it at f/2, which is wider than anything I have in my E-system kit. However, with no auto-focus and no focus-confirmation aids (microprism or split-image) it will take some practice.

A further thought is that series of similar images, such as I intend, will be a typological exercise similar to the work of Bernd and Hille Becher, who will be the subject of further research. (example below)