Wolfgang Tillmans 2017, Tate Modern – OCA Study Visit 6.5.17

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I found this show to be inspiring and liberating. Tillmans holds a special place in my heart as I remember being deeply affected by his snapshot aesthetic early on in my journey as a photographer.

Seeing his photographs, (which did not look so different from the ones I was getting back from Bonusprint at the time) stuck on a gallery wall back in the 90s, with no frames or text baffled and delighted me.  It seems much more ordinary now although several of the students on the visit appeared to find it disorienting. Not knowing where to look can be unsettling and everyone felt ‘disrupted’ by the end.  In his own words: “I don’t expect anybody to understand this exhibition.  It’s about resonances, and the connections between us.” https://aperture.org/blog/wolfgang-tillmans/

According to the Tate pamphlet, “2017 is not a retrospective. Each room in the exhibition has been specially configured by Tillmans as a personal response to the present moment. Ever conscious of his role as an artist, his work engages us with themes of community and sociability, empathy and vulnerability.”

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Tillmans has said that music is at the heart of his work and he wanted to use the space as a form of theatre. His open approach to imperfections allows abstraction to emerge from mistakes.  This ensures that the exhibition succeeds in showing us a new way to look at the world.  Here is where his casual genius shines through. The interest in the mundane is intense and unashamed and is saved from being trivial by an undercurrent of politicisation.  His manifesto of “If one thing matters, everything matters” appeals very much.

His manifesto of “If one thing matters, everything matters” appeals very much.

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Points of interest

  • Using bulldog clips to weight the prints
  • No descriptors so the images have space to be themselves
  • Exploration of the capability of photography and printmaking – translating 3D into 2D
  • Use of double exposures and juxtapositions (eg severed agave chunk next to newspaper article about the atrocities of IS); creating fragments
  • The Truth Study Centre – focused on ‘how constructions of truth work on a psychological and physiological level’
  • Some prints very high up on the walls – too small to see – like memories you cannot grasp; the position of the images makes you move around and change your eye line.
  • Lots of empty space and reflections
  • Collaged layouts with some prints obscured by overlaps
  • The feeling of some of the work being unfinished
  • Organised by themes but also by colour – doesn’t have to be an elaborate project if you have enough confidence – very liberating. The rooms represent different dimensions of the artist as expressed by some of his world views or interests/ideologies (eg the simultaneity of a life as a sexual being as well as a political being, the importance of safe, inclusive and free spaces for people, fluid borders, connecting the time in which we live now to a broader historical context)
  • Acute awareness of fragility – attentiveness to textures and surfaces
  • Placing emphasis on the strength of an individual image in the self-curation

From the accompanying pamphlet

“That the image is read as a photographic record, and not the result of the artist’s brushstroke,  is essential to its conceptual meaning.”

“Tillmans is interested in social life in its broadest sense, encompassing our participation in society. His photographs of individuals and groups are underpinned by his conviction that we are all vulnerable, and that our well-being depends upon knowing that we are not alone in the world.”

Abstraction coming from the “coexistence of chance and control”

“By pinning and taping work to the wall, as well as using frames, Tillmans draws attention to the edges of the print, encouraging the viewer to interact with the photograph as an object, rather than a conduit for an image.”

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The above self-portrait, taken using a damaged mirror inside a prison, was the stand-out image for me.  It is aesthetically appealing, very painterly but also is a metaphor for the impact of confinement. Prisoners have no control over their bodies or their representation. Brilliant.

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The weed image was massive and really draws the viewer in, showing such beautiful, warm fragility. The scale elevates this to being something spectacular.

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Beautiful but dizzying images of the sea “energised by opposing forces, but not yet breaking into waves. Differing energies collide, about to erupt into conflict.”

My overriding feeling, looking at this huge body of work, is that Tillmans is really interested in the world and that he loves people. A tonic for the soul.

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The Shortest Distance: the images

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Assignment Three: Statement of Intent, The Shortest Distance

Against a background of deeply disturbing social and political upheaval around the world, this series aims to raise a smile in these dark times.

The portraits explore the theme of ‘similar but different’ and give insight into the character and nature of four individual sitters.  

My aim was for the images to be simple, warm and uncluttered but interesting and contagiously happy.  

Each of the sitters was told the same four stories by my husband Matt.  His seemingly endless accounts of growing up rough in America are fascinating – made more eccentric and exotic by being from such a different culture from our own here in England.

Goethe said: “Nothing shows a man’s character more than what he laughs at.” Although these four sitters were each responding to exactly the same stories, their characters are revealed somewhat by their reactions to the bawdy tales: similar but different.

The title of the series comes from the Victor Borge quotation: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people”.  My sitters grew up a world apart from Matt, socially, culturally and politically. We all appear to speak the same language but the differences are actually unfathomable. Laughter bridged that gap.

The images also reveal a fifth sitter – they build a portrait of the storyteller.

My intention is that the viewers of these images will be slowed down by the aesthetic enough to revel in these unguarded snapshot moments; to enjoy the laughter lines, the unrestrained giggles, the squirming shock/horror expressions, the shyness about laughing at such ribald tales and the unbridled joy of shared hilarity.  The shortest distance between us.

 

 

 

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Assignment Three: notes

After some deeply frustrating idea development for this assignment – exploring concepts of gender and identity – I decided to deliberately ‘unthink’ things and go a little off brief.

I have found the last eighteen months to be extremely unsettling and depressing on a global scale, as well as personally. So what better way to combat this, albeit on a micro-level, than by making people feel a sense of happiness? It may not be as ‘important’ as an exploration of gender and identity but I believe this kind of work can have value too.

The course notes for this assignment specify that we must produce a series of 12 portraits that give insight into the character and nature of four individual sitters.  The broad theme is ‘similar but different’.

My starting point was simple: I wanted to produce images which would bring some joy in these grim times. I wanted the images to be warm and uncluttered but interesting and contagiously happy.

I could visualise some delightful pictures of my friends laughing. But how to make sure that the laughter was authentic?  The answer was staring me in the face. Literally. My husband Matt. Not only is he pretty good at making people laugh but his seemingly endless stories of growing up in America are fascinating – made more eccentric and exotic by being from such a different culture from our own here in England.

We settled on four reliably entertaining anecdotes and Matt recounted the same stories to each sitter while I photographed them. Goethe said: “Nothing shows a man’s character more than what he laughs at.” Although these four sitters were each responding to exactly the same stories, their characters are revealed somewhat by their reactions to the bawdy tales: similar but different.

The title of the series comes from the Victor Borge quotation: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people”.  My sitters grew up a world apart from Matt, socially, culturally and politically. We all appear to speak the same language but the differences are actually unfathomable. Laughter bridged that gap.

The images also reveal a fifth sitter – they build a portrait of the storyteller.

My intention is that the viewers of these images will be slowed down by the aesthetic enough to revel in these unguarded snapshot moments; to enjoy the laughter lines, the unrestrained giggles, the squirming shock/horror expressions, the shyness about laughing at such ribald tales and the unbridled joy of shared hilarity.  The shortest distance between us.

Communication of the ideas

Although capturing the moment was key for these portraits to be successful, I wanted them to be aesthetically beautiful – more in the fine art tradition than ‘vernacular’.  I chose to print the images on a textured fine art paper which alters the appearance of shadows on the faces depending on how the prints are held, in different light sources. To me this emphasises the dynamism of the split second expressions from these sitters, so absorbed in the storytelling. The rough texture is more in keeping with the rambunctious narrative than a shiny, glossy finish. The black background helps to keep the images simple and devoid of the context of place, whilst also emphasising the skin tones. It is also representative of the dark times in which we currently find ourselves. The colour provides warmth, draws the viewer in and underpins the humanity revealed by this shared laughter.

My biggest challenge was controlling the light as I shot the images outdoors, in varying weather conditions and at different times of day. This was unavoidable due to the availability of my models and impossibly small indoor space. Post-processing involved slight changes to colour temperature and fully Photoshopping the background out as some light had permeated the black cloth backdrop.

I had planned to make an audio recording of Matt recounting the stories but I decided it would be more intriguing for the viewers to wonder what on earth he was saying that evoked such reactions. I have made slideshows of some the ‘outtakes’ to provide some extended laughter therapy.

Brian & Stephy

Gemma & John

Hannah

Ian 

Contextualisation

In researching this assignment, it seemed that images of people laughing tended to fit in one of three genres:

  • Light and breezy stock photographs showing beautiful people having an impossibly brilliant time at work
  • Celebrities revealing themselves as real people, allowing us to feel more of a connection with them (eg some of Andy Gotts’ portrait work)
  • Real people or models often portrayed rather grotesquely (eg Natacha Lesueur’s work and Anders Petersen’s Cafe Lehmitz series)

For visual inspiration, I decided to go all the way back to Dürer and Rembrandt and Vermeer for light and warmth, contrast and drama.  Stylistically, Hendrik Kerstens comes to mind but his images are a little too deadpan for my purposes here. From the contemporary photography scene,  I am most interested in art photographers producing aesthetically stunning, cinematic portraits which capture character and emotion. I have been impressed by Denis Rouvre, Nicol Vizioli, Isabelle Waternaux, Paolo Roversi and, of course, my old favourites Danny Clinch, Anton Corbijn and Nicolas Guérin.

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Reflection – July 2017

Creatively, for the past few months, I feel like I have been trapped in ice and whenever I htried to scream, no sound came out. Nothing like a deadline to kick some sense into me though so I need to scramble to get assignment three completed in the next couple of weeks.

A prolonged period of time at home, after my illness and then losing my job, didn’t prove to be the fertile playing field I had hoped for. A combination of mild depression caused by redundancy and being up to my neck in the worries of unemployment resulted in me not being as productive as I had hoped.

It was not completely barren though. I found that as my world became smaller and shifted in shape, it looked quite different and sometimes odd details jumped out at me. I developed a mild obsession with people dropping banana skins in the street (haven’t they ever watched a cartoon?) and even more intriguingly, not quite managing to get them into the bin. I don’t really like bananas and we never buy them but the yellow is quite cheering and stands out beautifully against the urban grey.

 

 

Dealing with redundancy was a tough one, as it is for most people. My attempts to capture my feelings in a visual language were heavy-handed but I felt heavy-handed. It was all part of the numbness.

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I have taken inspiration from my heroes.  Nick Cave, from a Guardian article:  “I am not worrying too much about writing actual songs as such, rather just amassing a stockpile of lines and thoughts, images and ideas. I feel I have turned a corner and wandered on to a landscape that is open and vast.”

“The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience,” he says. “I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux. So, to apply that to songwriting, a song like I Need You off the new album [Skeleton Tree], time and space all seem to be rushing and colliding into a kind of big bang of despair. There is a pure heart, but all around it is chaos.”

Terry Pratchett, who has helped to keep me sane over the last year, has a character called Leonard of Quirm – based on da Vinci, of course – whom he describes as a “skilled artist and certified genius with a mind that wandered so much it came back with souvenirs”.  What a lovely idea.

 

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Assignment 3 idea: abandoned

I have been mulling this over for a long while but have realised that I went down a cul de sac several months ago with my idea for the third assignment and have decided to abandon it and pursue another approach.

Studying this part of Gesture and Meaning has opened up some rather unsettling thoughts for me around my own identity and where I fit into the world. This will need some further exploration but it did trigger thoughts around gender as a spectrum rather than being binary and notions of femininity. When I first embarked on the portraiture assignment, I wanted to tackle some of the serious issues over how women are perceived, how they see themselves and how they fit into their worlds. My aim was to provide a visual record of women confidently presenting themselves in all their multi-dimensional glory.

My starting point was that using multiple images, POVs and perspectives would create something much more revealing than a single portrait. Could these perhaps be blurred together to soften the effect and show how the multi-dimensions meld together?  Cubism has always appealed to me conceptually but not aesthetically.  Could I extend the portraits with additional angles and also possibly by overpainting to bring new colours to the depiction, redefining the edge of the image.

In the end, I hatched a plan to base my images on a game we played as children: drawing different sections of a person, leaving some indicative lines visible, then folding the paper and passing it around for the next person to add another part. The more ludicrous the juxtapositions, the more hilarious it seemed.

Taking this approach with the representation women alludes to the commodification and fragmentation of the female body, with a call back to the past, but also the multi-dimensionality.  It would reveal how all women are different even when they are trying to fit in and sometimes actually be the same as their peers or their heroines.

 

 

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Although a few early experiments were starting to come together in terms of the visuals, I struggled to see how it would be possible to convert a game based on line drawings into successful lens-based imagery.  Every path I took seem fraught with technical challenges.

On top of that, researching this project just made me angry and upset. My frustrations were compounded by the general millennial complacency over feminism. I want to tackle social, cultural and political issues and make work about important ideas but I could feel my enthusiasm for this whole angle dwindling rapidly.

I am not abandoning it forever but it is definitely kicked into the long grass and I am pursuing something much more joyous in the meantime.

 

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Radical Eye, Tate Modern – OCA Study Visit 22.4.17

This exhibition was surprisingly marvellous. I was taken aback as I am not particularly a fan of Elton John (let’s call him EJ for the sake of brevity) or celebrity culture. I expected this to be just a not-very-sneaky way of getting more visitors into the Tate Modern.

Well, it has worked and beautifully so.  EJ is quoted in the Tate blurb: “Each of these photographs serves as inspiration for me in my life; they line the walls of my home and I consider them precious gems. I want people to think, ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before, I never knew this kind of things existed’ – just as I did when I first saw these photographs.”

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The exhibition features around 170 images from EJ’s collection of over 8,000 photographs. Section headings included: Portraits; Experiments; Bodies; Documents; Objects, Perspectives, Abstractions.  EJ said his love for photography began shortly after he got sober and I wonder how much he was inspired by the modernist idea of the camera being revelatory and progressive.  The experimental, and at times risqué, aspect to some of the images must surely relate to his journey with drugs and alcohol, dealing with immense fame and fortune and gaining acceptance as a gay man?

Modernism emphasises materiality and form and new perspectives – something very different from traditional pictorial art.  “Photography was a major carrier and shaper of modernism. Not only did it dislocate time and space, but it also undermined the linear structure of conventional narrative in a number of respects. These included access to visual information about the past carried by the photo, and detail over and above that normally noted by the human eye.” [1]

Many of the portraits were of famous and talented musicians, writers or artists. Clearly these were people with great presence and charisma and who were very aware that their representation would influence their standing in society.  This raises questions around the levels of control and collaboration between artist and sitter.  This section of the show, however, did not shed much light on the alchemy of portraiture for me. I still wonder, could anyone possibly take a bad picture of Salvador Dali?  How much can an individual’s creative fire be seen in a portrait?  Or is it just a question of having a penetrating stare and great facial hair?

In the post show student discussion, almost everyone agreed that the Irving Penn corner shots were a highlight. Superb images, some awkward, some confident, all powerful.  “This confinement, surprisingly seemed to comfort people, soothing them. The walls were a surface to lean on or push against. For me the picture possibilities were interesting: limiting the subjects’ movement seemed to relieve me of part of the problem of holding on to them.” [2]  I overheard a young child asking his Mum if “those people in the corner have all been naughty?”

Another highlight for me was Steichen’s Gloria Swanson, 1924.  This is a beautiful example of some of the kitschy camp in the show. There were a lot of effeminate male nudes and androgyny – all very positive and self-possessed, even at its most experimental. There were mirrors and masks, a mixture of the familiar and strange. We also see some photomontage, camera-less work, light abstractions and attempts to construct an alternative reality.

An image I had not seen before and which really appealed was Man Ray’s Anatomies, 1930.  This abstraction and depersonalisation of body parts works so well with the unusual perspective creating a powerful sculptural shape which is almost monumental.

Many of the prints were made soon after the photographs were taken and some are extremely small – perhaps due to photographic paper being scarce or very expensive? EJ says that he adores images from contact sheets and says that Kertesz’s Underwater Swimmer is one of his favourites (also, incidentally, “credited by British artist David Hockney as the inspiration for his Californian swimming pool paintings.” ) [3]

The photographs were all shown in the actual frames displayed in EJ’s home. Some were so bling that I was worried it would ruin the exhibition for me – it seemed to be extremely distracting and detracting. I did question my own prejudices on this and wondered why it was OK for oil paintings to be in very ornate frames but not a Kertesz. After a while I could see the framing added a surreal and modernist feel to the images so I soon got over myself and now all other photos look boring and unfinished!

The distorted Irving Penn portraits of EJ in the first room of the show disabused my notion of him being overly vain and precious about his own image. This also set the tone for a number of portraits which explored the possibilities of how studio conventions could be flouted.

There were photographers were featured with whom I was not familiar: Paul Outerbridge (American, 1896-1958); Jaromír Funke (Czech, 1896-1945);  Josef Breitenbach (German, 1896-1984); Emmanuel Sougez (French, 1889-1972); Otto Umbehr AKA Umbo (German, 1902-80); Margaret de Patta (American, 1903–1964);  Herbert List (German, 1903-75); Albert Renger-Patzsch (German, 1897-1966).

We debated at length how many of the prints had been purchased for their collectible value, as opposed to their aesthetic appeal or emotional punch (such as this incredible portrait by Lange.)  As Modernism is partly about a fascination with the medium of photography in itself, it would make sense that this appeals to EJ who came to it late and admitted he knew nothing before starting his collection.  He can enjoy the coming of age of this form of art.

It was fantastic to see finally some iconic images ‘in the flesh’ such as Evans’ Allie Mae Burroughs. I had never noticed before that there is a strong line created by a wood slat across the top of her head, which seems to be very confining and made me feel quite claustrophobic once I had seen it.

In the final room, I eavesdropped a long and rather technical discussion between a middle age dad and his adult daughter. They were looking at Margaret Bourke-White’s photograph of the George Washington Bridge, taken in 1933, and went into great detail about the engineering, where the load would be borne, how the suspension would have worked, the challenges of the construction. Both seemed to know as much as the other and it was such a charming interaction I could not tear myself away, pretending to be absorbed in the Rodchenko image displayed nearby. When they had finished, there was a pause while they both carried on staring at the photograph and then the dad said quietly, “I loved that conversation.”

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Takeaways

  • Great aesthetic and impact of the positive and negative Man Ray images (usually displayed above EJ & David Furnish’s bed) – Noire et Blanche
  • A chequered background is an interesting idea for a portrait (eg George Antheil, 1924 by Man Ray)
  • “Now at least we know everything that painting isn’t.” – Pablo Picasso in answer to whether painting figures was still possible after photography
  • Exploring unusual perspectives of the body (eg Man Ray’s Anatomies) for new abstractions
  • Dali is quoted saying that the camera has the ability to record an “unprecedented reality” and “nothing has proved the rightness of surrealism more than photography”
  • The simplicity of this Emmanuel Sougez image – when shadows become more interesting than the object

References

  1. Wells, L. (2009). Photography: A critical introduction – 4th edition. 4th ed. New York, NY: Routledge. Taylor & Francis Group.
  2. https://fraenkelgallery.com/exhibitions/portraits-in-a-corner-1948
  3. http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/radical-eye-modernist-photography-sir-elton-john-collection/a-z
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