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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Terrains of the Body, Whitechapel Gallery – 14.4.17

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Going to see this exhibition pretty much put the mockers on my plan for Assignment Three.  Although some of the images were quite interesting, I found the visit to be uninspiring and felt no real connection to the stated aims of the show.

The blurb says: “When contemporary women artists aim their cameras at the female body (including their own), they embrace the figure’s singular ability to express identity, communicate individual and collective experiences and give life to the imagination.”  All well and good but I came away thinking, “So what?”. There is no real focus; it felt fluffy and somehow mute which is the opposite of what was intended. And I fear my assignment work was headed in exactly the same direction.

The exhibition is in one room at the Whitechapel, featuring 17 artists from five continents – photography and video works from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC (NMWA). We are told here that “images of the body by contemporary artists are increasingly performative, filmic and incisive in their ability to tell compelling stories.” Hmmm.

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One image that did really resonate with me was Kirsten Justesen’s Portæt I Arkiv Med Samling (Portrait in cabinet with collection), 2013. This artist uses her body as sculpture and the image seems to place her almost like a doll in this beautiful cabinet but a creature with power and agency: her foot is pushing against the door jamb.  The figures on the top shelf are playful, as well as serious artefacts. There is a teapot, perhaps to indicate domesticity, and the writing on the box translates as ‘old bits of little sketches’. Is she feeling old or tired? Or is she subverting the idea that she is a curiosity or object?  Is she hiding behind her hair or sleeping on some ideas?  Whatever it all means, every intriguing detail resists the male gaze.

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It seemed to me rather patronising to be celebrating the idea of women as ‘observers and protagonists’. These images are not even new – Nikki S. Lee’s The Hip Hop Project spanned from 1997 to 2001, Hellen van Meene’s bubblegum image is from 2000. The vibe almost certainly would have been more ground-breaking then but this visual journey of women reclaiming their bodies and using them to express identity is now highly familiar from an even cursory look at Instagram or Facebook.  In fact, several of the images reminded me of Delphine Chanet‘s work (which Jesse described as looking like a ‘Top Shop ad’) from the Arles 2015 Discovery Awards shortlist but without the power of being part of a coherent series with context.

The show blurb even lampshades this by acknowledging that all of this was already happening decades ago: “Beginning in the 1970s, women photographers collapsed the boundaries between documentary and conceptual photography. They assumed roles for the camera and acted out a feminine masquerade (or asked their models to do so). Immersed in this directorial mode, artists today stage images of the figure to imaginative and poetic effect.”. Right… Fluffy.

I think the exhibition would have benefitted from more film installations (some of the images are stills from video, such as Themis in the Birdcage and Abramović’s The Hero) and immersive art. And I think it needed to be bigger and/or more thematically focused. As it stands, it makes a nice little tasting menu of the work of these women and does hint at the great potential for stories to be told by the use of the body but it falls well short of being great.

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Other featured artists include: Nan Goldin, Daniela Rossell, Adriana Varejāo, Rineke Dijkstra, Anna Gaskell, Charlotte Gyllenhammar, Candida Höfer, Icelandic Love Corporation, Justine Kurland, Mwangi Hutter, Shirin Neshat and Janaina Tschäpe.

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A final quotation from the pamphlet about the show: “The artists in Terrains of the Body serve as role models, achieving agency through unceasing creativity and enquiry into the elemental subject of the body.” Now that is definitely something I can get behind but my ideas need to ferment a little longer so I will be starting from scratch on my portrait assignment.

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Richard Mosse, Barbican – 3.4.17

I am still reeling from the intense experience of seeing Richard Mosse’s video installation Incoming at the Barbican.  The main part of the exhibit is film footage documenting the refugee crisis, shown on three eight metre wide screens. Mosse used a military thermal camera which can detect people up to 30km away.  The camera is very far away from most of the scenes but we feel like we are right in the middle of the action.

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This is ‘uncanny’ with knobs on. At times, the people look alien and almost zombie-like but they are also somehow mundane and familiar.  The slow motion, the white noise, the deafening sounds and vibrations, the ghoulish monochrome, the infrared, the huge screens; all this comes together to create tension and disorientation for the viewer.

Much of the imagery is absolutely beautiful and mesmerising but also succeeds in providing a new way of telling this devastating story, with which we are all too familiar. As the camera reads heat only, we are not distracted by skin colour or clothing or other peripherals. We just see people and are transported to their narrow pinhole of existence for a while.  Mosse has captured the vastness and danger of the ocean, the darkness, the vulnerability of fleshy humans, literally the blood, sweat and tears.

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I felt a sense of camaraderie but isolation even in the crowd scenes with each person on their own journey of survival.  It is an emotional experience.

Some of the imagery confirms our fears about the refugee crisis, such as the long queues of young men at refugee camps, but this work is very subjective and is designed to unsettle us as we confront the horrendous reality of migration.  There are many ambiguities and layers to the work – not least in the the thermographic camera is internationally designated as a weapon. The subjects are ‘other’, anonymous, silent, dehumanised. The gaze is from a long way off but gets incredibly close and invades this broken world.

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“Using a part of a weapon to figure the refugee crisis is a deeply ambivalent and political task,” Mosse says. “And building a new language around that weapon – one of compassion and disorientation, one that allows the viewer to see these events through an unfamiliar and alienating technology – is a deeply political gesture.” [1]

Moss also acknowledges there were technical challenges: “It’s operated through a laptop, so when you’re switching tabs, you suddenly realise the Henri Cartier-Bresson ‘decisive moment’ was 10 minutes ago.” [2]

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Key takeaways

  • There are always new ways to tell a story
  • Alien representation can still lead us to a sense of belonging to the same tribe
  • Moving images can have so much more power than stills, especially when combined with audio
  • Monochrome is still ace
  • I would very much like to visit the installation again but this time without a fear-inducing hangover

References

  1. http://www.bjp-online.com/2017/02/mosse/
  2. http://www.wired.co.uk/article/richard-mosse-barbican-exhibit-photography

 

 

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Exercise: The Hollywood portrait

Todd McCarthy’s introduction to John Alton’s Painting with Light reminds us about the nocturnal world of the characters in film noir and how scenes were illuminated with single lamps “slanted and fragmented beams and pools of light, all separated by intense darkness in which the source of all fear could fester and finally thrive.” [1]

“Very often, the brightest object in the frame would be located at the furthest distance from the camera, in order to channel viewer concentration; often the light would just manage to catch the rim of a hat, the edge of a gun, the smoke from a cigarette…”

Alton talks about the purpose of illumination being for quantity and quality:

“In lighting for quantity we light for exposure, to make certain that a sufficient amount of light reaches every corner of the set, and that it is properly balanced, in order that no part of the film shall be underexposed or over-exposed.  In lighting for quality, we strive to bring out the following values:

  1. Orientation – to enable the audience to see where the story is taking place
  2. Mood or feeling (season of the year and time of day)
  3. Pictorial beauty, aesthetic pleasure
  4. Depth, perspective, third-dimensional illusion”

Of course, we don’t find reference to George Hurrell (1904-92) in any serious photography books but he was important in establishing icons and a distinct style which, like the cinematography of the time, aimed to create depth and atmosphere and often high glamour.  His trademark was to use sculptural shadows rather than washing out the face with light.  When his style began to seem old-fashioned in the West Coast movie industry, Hurrell went to New York and found work in advertising.  The shadowy approach and heavy contrasts came back in fashion in the 80s as can been seen in this image.

I was amazed to discover that Hurrell was the photographer for the cover art of Tom Waits album Foreign Affairs, released in 1977.  Many of the songs have a very film noir vibe about them – Small Change being a prime example –  so it sort of makes sense.

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Hurrell certainly seems to have had an ability to capture a sense of what Hollywood stood for, then and now. In Mario Testino’s words:

“Around the middle of the 1980s I started going to Los Angeles to work with American publications, mainly, at that time, GQ magazine. In this new location my curiosity urged me to discover the photographers who had defined the glamour of Hollywood’s silver screen era. Only one stood out to me: George Hurrell. It became clear to me very quickly that he was the most important image-maker of that era in Hollywood. He seemed to have an uncanny ability to turn everything and everyone into the height of glamour. No one looked more famous, more magical, more powerful than in his photographs.” [2]

Recreating Hurrell’s Bogart image was much harder than it looked but one thing it did confirm was that nothing beats trial and error and just altering the positions and strengths of the light to find the (almost) right effect. Trying to follow the instructions in the course notes didn’t seem to get me very far. The first three images show the process of building up of the lights and I like having the key light from slightly behind. The kick light effect works beautifully but I wish I had managed to get the right side of the model’s face more in shadow.

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References

  1. Alton, J. and McCarthy, T. (1995) Painting with light. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
  2. http://www.vogue.com/article/mario-testino-george-hurrell-iconic-photographs
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The Art of Sound, T-Magazine

Any new about Tom Waits is big news in the Tom Waits community. We all forage for our little nuggets of fascination and reassurance that we backed the right guy when we became lifelong obsessive fans all those years ago.

This feature in T, the New York Times style magazine, published at the beginning of March caused a ripple of excitement.  Could Tom’s involvement could be a pre-cursor to him announcing work on a new album or, miracle of miracles, a tour?  Unlikely. We would have – should have – picked up on rumours, otherwise what is the point of being obsessive fans, right?

The thing that initially struck me about the feature, when I was in tl;dr mode, was that each photo of our man was captioned: “Tom Waits in his own clothes.”  Waits has long had a staunch objection to lending out his personal brand for advertising purposes, after an early experience (promoting dog food) left him feeling as if he had betrayed himself. He famously and successfully sued Frito-Lay for using an imitation of his voice in what he dubbed a “corn chip sermon” and Volkswagen-Audi for using ‘Innocent When You Dream’ in an ad aired in Spain, saying,  “Commercials are an unnatural use of my work. It’s like having a cow’s udder sewn to the side of my face. Painful and humiliating.” So I am not surprised he refused to dress up in expensive designer gear (the total price of the clothes for the other two: $8,560 incidentally!) and I am probably just being very cynical about the default objectives of a publication when I wonder why they still went ahead and ‘booked’ him.

Reading the whole piece carefully was a rewarding experience. My respect for the NYT grows almost daily as it rises above the dross of some American media and the fact that intelligent and nuanced writers such as Wyatt Mason are featured in a style section indicates a solid strategy to ensure that high quality journalism remains viable commercially.

Here were my take-aways…

Genre and medium

Mason writes of the pervasive properties of music compared with other mediums:  A novel cannot assault you while you wait in line at the supermarket; a painting cannot reach out and turn your head as you walk on by; a poem’s feet cannot chase you down the street; a movie cannot screen itself. A song, though, can steal upon you in the dark, on a road, far from home, blow out your tires and leave you sobbing, in gratitude, at the wheel. All other art lives and dies in a medium that mandates we engage if we are to receive its gifts. Songs live in the air. Ears don’t have lids that can keep the songs there.

This led me to mull on the idea that whilst this all may be true (although only to a certain extent), photography has an advantage in that, barring some extremes, as a medium it is unlikely to alienate audiences due to its genre in the way that, say, rap music does. I was blown away by Lamar’s powerful performance at the Grammy’s but I know many people who would find it to have been much too shouty.  Of course, this is only important when an artist wants to reach multiple audiences but in the case of political messages it could be a consideration.

Inspiration and obligation

Wyatt writes about a press conference where Leonard Cohen was asked about a lyric in his song ‘You Want it Darker’: A Hebrew word that appears in the Old Testament, hineni — הנני : “Here I am” — is said by Moses and Abraham and Isaiah when God appears to ask something of each of them. It’s a declaration not of location but of disposition, of willingness. The reporter wanted to know from Cohen about the moment that inspired the line. “I don’t really know the genesis, the origin,” Cohen began. “That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”

Most artists have no choice but to keep expressing themselves through their art. I used to feel it was a-duty-having-been-given-a-talent but that was before I stopped believing in a god.  I still think artists have an obligation but it is to humanity; it is some kind of bond with the universe and with ourselves. It can feel like a vague need, sometimes a burden, a compulsion, a liability. For me, the best slant is to consider it to be a lifelong commitment. Of course, the exact moment when the ’emergency becomes articulate’ is different for everyone.

Terry Pratchett has often pondered on chance and inspiration and how often it can be missed by the people most suited to exploit it. In his 1993 Discworld novel Men at Arms he writes,  “Inspirations sleet through the universe continuously. Their destination, as if they cared, is the right mind in the right place at the right time. They hit the right neuron, there’s a chain reaction, and a little while later someone is blinking foolishly in the TV lights and wondering how the hell he came up with the idea of pre-sliced bread in the first place.”  His character Leonard of Quirm, fashioned on da Vinci, gives us an inkling of the burden of inspirations: “One of his earliest inventions was an earthed metal nightcap, worn in the hope that the damn things would stop leaving their white-hot trails across his tortured imagination. It seldom worked. He knew the shame of waking up to find the sheets covered with nocturnal sketches of unfamiliar siege engines and novel designs for apple-peeling machines.”

This reminds me to be grateful for any particles of inspiration that happen to land on me and to honour and nurture and develop them, instead of just assuming that everything has been done before and so what is the fucking point?  And, take note, they are just particles. The art comes from doing the work. It takes graft and resilience and experimentation and a lot of failure.  And we need constantly to furrow fertile ground to be ready for the drizzle.

Tom:  “If you want to catch songs you gotta start thinking like one, and making yourself an interesting place for them to land like birds or insects. Once you get two or three tunes together, wherever three or more are gathered, then others come. It’s like a line for a hot dog place, you know? And when there’s four people lined up on the sidewalk, some people will stop and get in line just ’cause there’s a line.”

Beck: “Before I make a body of music or a record or a song, sometimes there’ll just be a feeling for a number of years — something that’s just building or incubating. And I’ve noticed that if I get sidetracked or if I’m not really focused on the music as much, eventually some version of that feeling will come out in somebody else’s music.”

Curiously, Mason asks Beck “if there was a certain relief in that?” Not for me. I’d be so mad at myself for not acting more quickly to find the gold in the stream. That is part of the metaphysical emergency – do it, make it, share it before someone else does.

Authenticity: finding your voice

“You take a long time finding your own voice,” Waits told me, his speaking voice itself a kind of song, “to find the limits of it or the faraway endless possibilities it may have … Singing is just doing interesting things to the air. Elongating it and twisting it into shapes.”  

He speaks about how music – and by extension the creative process – is “emotional, once you transcend the equipment” and this is a big consideration for me right now. I have spent many years consciously separating my ‘art’ (painting and drawing) from my photography. I was very slow to realise that I could make photographs rather than just take them.  Now I am trying to spend much more time pre-visualising the images that I want to make. My strong sense is that I need to combine my art skills more with my photography. It would make sense to use Photoshop for a lot of this and I really need to hone my skills there.  More importantly, I need to stop letting my ideas be caged by equipment or timing or circumstance.

The amazing thing about Waits is that he makes up almost everything he says in interviews. He’s a compulsive storyteller, a fabulist, a raconteur. Just like he uses his voice as a range of different instruments to suit the song, he uses completely fabricated stories to tell the truth.”We went out to the meadow” is a magical phrase and a beautiful idea that no one in ‘classical music’ seems to have any knowledge of and there is no reference trail on the internet.

I need to learn from this. Something doesn’t have to be presented literally to be authentic. Tom’s songs are full of thoughts and scenes and emotions with which we are all familiar. He chronicles the human experience with universal appeal.  His artistic vision is unique and unpredictable and at times, off the chain, but more often than not, it is relatable. And on this occasion I guess he just needed to pretend he was a firefighter to explain how he deals with his preoccupations…“It was an emergency, and when dealing with emergent behavior there is nothing to do but respond. I was in the moment. And it was not the fire I imagined or dreamed of. It was the fire I got.”

 

 

 

 

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Exercise: A studio portrait

I found my experimentations with studio lighting to be a very interesting process. It took me quite a while to get my head around the physics, when I was trying to create specific effects. Definitely need regular practice and to adopt a way of being able to experiment with sitters without looking like an amateur.

Before the shoot I followed the recommended tutorial about the various ‘standard’ lighting styles for portraits and made rough sketches. Luckily, the studio had a chequered rug so I was able to calculate the angles a bit more accurately. Trial and error prevailed as always.  The tutorial makes the point that it is often not very flattering to shoot face on, especially women, so the photographer will often have the sitter turn slightly to one side of the camera.

The studio equipment included a large octagon softbox (200 cm) with a 200 w flash, two narrow beam strip boxes with 300 w bulbs, a small octagon softbox and a small light with a snoot. I also used a silver reflector and a large piece of polystyrene painted black on one side to reduce reflection from the white walls.  The large octagon was useable as a key light and a fill light by changing the power settings.

These two images show what a difference a reflector can make:

As usual, even though I took several lenses, I only ended up using one (24-70mm) for the whole shoot which was a bit daft!  I kept my camera on f8 to ensure focus from front to back, with a speed of 1/125 and ISO 100. I bumped up the ISO when it needed a little more exposure rather than changing shutter speed in order to avoid problems with the sync, as evidenced in these shots (when I forgot briefly how a dSLR works):

The studio was quite small and contained a lot of equipment so I had to be careful about tripping over things and touching hot lights.  The model was tall and so I spent some of the shoot up a ladder to be at eye-level or higher.

 

Split lighting

This is for dramatic or moody shots and is more likely to be used in ads, music photography or fine art than in commercial portraiture.  It may be used to imply evil or duplicity. More likely to work well with men than women. The source is 90 degrees to the left or right of the subject.

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I found it quite difficult to get any light in the eye on the dark side and the possibility of this will depend on the physiognomy of the sitter.

I think for this subject it worked better in black & white or desaturated/cold tone to add to the drama and I really liked the effect actually.

 

Loop lighting

The source should be 30-45 degrees from the camera and higher than eye-level. The effect is for a small loop of shadow to one side of the nose but one which does NOT touch the shadow from the cheek. There is also defined line shadow under the chin the give shape to the jaw.

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This was initially tricky as the sitter had a dark moustache which obscured the size of the nose loop. A good effect though and one which would suit many faces. The lesson here was to look very critically at all the shadows being cast and decide if they are flattering or distracting.

Rembrandt lighting

This technique results in a triangle of light on the darker cheek of the subject as seen in some of Rembrandt’s portraits. The sitter needs to be turned slightly away from the light and with a high light source, much like Rembrandt’s window.

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This is lovely subtle lighting but with some atmosphere still. It is flattering for people with good cheekbones but may not work as well if the nose is very small as the shadow below should meet the cheek shadow. I seem to have cheated a little with this model as he has a black moustache which can give the impression of a classic Rembrandt but it worked well when he smiled.

Butterfly lighting

The technique should give a small butterfly-shaped shadow under the nose and light sculpting shadows under the cheeks and chin. The source should be behind and above the camera and is used in glamour shots or for older subjects to soften lines.  It works best for sitters with slimmer faces.

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Again this was difficult to see properly due to the model’s moustache. We had to test lots of different heights and power levels for the large key light and eventually concluded it did not work too well for this subject’s face and skin tones.

Broad lighting

With this technique the subject is turned away from the camera with the ‘broad’ side nearest in most light. This can widen the appearance of the face and commonly used in a high key approach.

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I think I should have added a little bit of fill light on the other side to give some definition to the full face.

 

Short lighting 

This is the opposite of broad with the side of the face towards the camera being in more shadow.  I particularly liked this effect with this model as I think it presented his face well and was more interesting to look at than the ‘broad’ approach which is probably more intuitive in a natural light scenario.

Experimentation

After working through these basic – but distinct and labelled – approaches, I experimented with ways to accentuate the model’s physique. I played with using a rim-light and then building from one light up to having five, placed strategically around the sitter.

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One of the best aspects of the full light set was a brighter background which gave depth and a more professional look to the shoot.  I realised afterwards that I should have experimented with a white background to get a sense of the hardness of the shadows and the fall off.

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Things I have learned

  • Tether the camera (or use wifi if possible) to a laptop to be able to see the results better immediately. I didn’t do this as I wanted to have freedom to move around in what was a small space full of equipment and I regret that decision now.  The modelling lights can give an indication of how things will look but nothing like the final effect.
  • Next time I get access to a studio I would like to experiment with different lenses and using wider apertures.
  • Some make-up might have been useful as there was a sheen on the model’s forehead for some of the lighting configurations.
  • Every face is different and experience/practice will help me to be able to anticipate which lighting set-ups will work best for each individual and suit the objectives of the shoot.
  • Look very carefully and critically at all the patterns of light and shadow being cast. At the time I thought everything looked good but with close inspection some effects have worked better than others.
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Reflection – February 2017

The last few weeks have been rather tough as I have been trying to stay positive about the apparent lack of progress in finding a suitable job. The search is incredibly time-consuming and, although all necessary, it feels like many hours are being wasted every day.  Meanwhile our savings are dwindling and the money will have run out completely by May.

I have sensed that familiar depressing feeling of losing my photography ‘mojo’ but, luckily, committing to taking at least one photograph every day has kept me moving, albeit slowly and often unimpressively.  When I can bring myself to study properly, it is a wonderful escape from the crushing combination of fear and isolation which comes with unemployment.

The Portraits module is surprisingly challenging as I am having to work hard not to rehash my usual, rather haphazard, approaches to shooting people.  I am currently obsessing on a large range of ideas for assignment three and trying not to let the logistics put me off following a specific path. Some of the ideas involve not following the brief very closely which is very appealing but I will (perhaps?) need to be careful not to go too far off piste.

My research has been leading me down the rabbit hole again. Just catching up on some of the posts on the OCA Student Forum set me off. I found myself thinking about Proust and the multiplicity of perspectives. Somehow I got to iridescence and started thinking how I could incorporate that in my portraiture. Confused myself by reading a bit of Gilles Deleuze, pondered Mono no aware for a while, learned about the concept of Weltschmerz, spent some time considering the work of Valérie Belin, wasted some time trying – and failing – to get my head around quantum theory and then got lost in a forum about Vince Gilligan choosing Heisenberg as Walter White’s alias in Breaking Bad because of the Uncertainty Principle.  I really enjoyed some of the thoughts in this essay, particularly the conclusion:  “So art becomes a journey, a shamanic descent into the underworld, where what was past becomes present and the pilgrim, like Orpheus, learns the tongues of animals, trees and stones. Art explores the older and inner levels of reality.”  After all that, I had fun learning why the A-sizes of paper are the sizes that they are.  Fascinating stuff.

Sad to see Ren Hang has died, with rumours that he took his own life and that his depression had been “intensified by global political instability” [via BBC]. He was a huge talent and not afraid to be provocative, sharing his work openly on social media and facing consequences for it in China.  Easy for me to say from a safe environment in London but: artists should always be brave and now more than ever.

I am not really prone to depression but I have felt more down about the state of the world since the Brexit vote and the rise of Twitler and his cohorts than I ever have in my life. I’d like to think I could channel this – as Carrie Fisher urged: “take your broken heart, make it into art” – but these are such extraordinary times, I am still reeling.

 

My conclusion to today’s reflections, as always: make more work.  Things will get better.

 

 

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