Exercise: Outdoor portraits

I have rather learnt the hard way for this area of photography.  There are countless examples of me trying to get portraits in the wrong kind of outdoor light: faces screwed up in the sunlight, horrible shadows under the nose, burnt out highlights, irretrievable shadows etc etc

Reflectors have saved my work on more than one occasion and I am a big fan.

I worked through this exercise when studying People and Place – some of the results can be seen in my blog here: http://helenphotography.blogspot.co.uk/2010/08/exercise-3-experimenting-with-light.html  and I don’t feel I need to repeat it at this stage.

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Exercise: The Night Watch

Rembrandt’s painting known as The Night Watch (1642) is a fascinating masterpiece which offers insights to photographic portraiture. This group portrait, commissioned by Frans Banning Cocq and financed by him and a number of other individuals in the painting, breaks with tradition of static military portraits.

The nickname of the painting is misleading as it is, in fact, set during the day and is of a militia company which would not have been active. The painting had become very dark over the decades due to dirt and varnish but has now been restored.

Background: this is still quite dark – especially considering it is a day time scene – but we can make out some architecture which speaks to the civic pride element of the painting. The canvas is huge (originally 13′ x 16′ although trimmed down in 1715 to fit into a specific space in Amsterdam’s town hall) and the figures are more or less life size, which makes the lofty space above the crowd even more impressive. We are drawn into the scene from which the characters emerge, leading from darkness towards light.

Pose: FBC is central and confident but seemingly benevolent as he strides forward. Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch looks at FCB as he walks by his side.  Other individuals are engaged in various activities – the most prominent with muskets –  and looking in different directions. There is a pleasant sense of democracy and comradery. These are men of action and the energy is palpable.

Clothes: these are more ceremonial than practical. FCB is in black for maximum gravitas but with a red sash and white ruff centre front of the image. WvR is in cream, radiating light and goodness balanced by the female ‘mascot’. Another man wears red and the black clothes and white ruff of FCB is balanced on the right by another man looking out of the scene.

Props: the long staffs create diagonals and converging lines to lead the eye and enhance the dynamism of the scene. The weapons remind us this is a military portrait and all the formal trappings of the troupe are included. There is even a dog barking at the cropped drummer to add sound to this lively image.

Lighting: Rembrandt is, of course, famous for his use of tenebrism, chiaroscuro and the use of ‘rushlight‘ to create interesting and appealing paintings. These strong contrasts make the figures strongly 3D and allow a sense of depth but without the scene being impossibly busy. The use of pools of light leads our eye to various elements to create a narrative. There is a clear hierarchy. Some men are more flooded with light than others.The main light source is coming from sunlight on the left of the scene which is so bright that FBC’s hand casts a shadow on WvR (pointing to his compadre’s … er… Cocq?). There is light on all the faces and especially bright is the mascot girl who wears the symbols of the company (chicken claws). With a right to left reading, the light source could signify past glories that still illuminate the subjects.

 

Unfortunately neither of the links in the OCA course notes for this exercise are working but David Saffir and Sally Wiener Grotta were mentioned as having been inspired by The Night Watch in their photography. In other videos they have talked about how they use light and shadow to create structure as well as mood. The chiaroscuro sculpts a scene to focus our attention where it matters, whilst creating texture and movement. They expose for the subject and do not worry about the shadows.  An HDR proponent’s nightmare.  A key thing with portraits is the human connection and Saffir and Grotta believe that this is most powerful in a ‘luminous moment’. The choice of “local lighting” can transform a scene.

My dutch friend Karina van Berg, a lighting expert, says the aim is always “to make it round”. This dimensionality is crucial to Rembrandt’s scene. Karina and her team actually once recreated The Night Watch on a film set. That is her between the FCB and WvR characters.

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Key learnings:

  • Think proactively about how light and line can activate a scene
  • A tenebristic approach creates dimensionality as well as drama
  • Consider whether the direction of the light provides meaning (right to left readings, past to future) and what impact the quality will have

References

http://www.rembrandtpainting.net/rembrandt’s_night_watch.htm

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ltlnr4pb8kM

 

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Portrait photography – initial explorations

This Gesture&Meaning-induced exploration into Portrait photography is fascinating, so far. I thought it was the genre I understood the best and the one that is, in some ways, the most straightforward but I am finding this is not so.

There is in fact an endless mystery around portraiture: why do some images have impact and others less so? How do we reveal the truth about someone? Does it matter if we don’t? If portrait photography is not just about capturing someone’s likeness, what is it about? Why should the relationship between the photographer and the sitter be important when some street ‘portraits’ can be so powerful?  What can we learn about someone from what we cannot see?

Clarke asks: “in what sense can a literal image express the inner world and being of an individual before the camera?” [1] My early attempts at self-portraiture have revealed how problematic this area is, not least because of the perplexing nature of identity and subjectivity and our public and private personae.

We are guided for analysis purposes to consider the various elements of a portrait:

  • Is the subject known, familiar (ie a public figure) or unknown
  • Pose/gesture
  • Clothes
  • Props
  • Background/location
  • Lighting
  • Exposure
  • Meaning

The interpretation will be subjective and can change.

My personal tastes attract me to a ‘wabi-sabi’ aesthetic. I don’t think this is nostalgia as I have no love for sepia but the collodion process, with its tremendous tonal range, appeals very much. These images by Michael Schaaf are good examples.

Schaaf, incidentally, killed himself in 2016. Even though he was a professional photographer, running workshops for the Fox Talbot Museum at Lacock, the local newspaper headline announced “Tourist found hanged at beauty spot” which seems like a terrible reduction of his existence.

Could we see that Schaaf was suicidal from his portrait?

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Diane Arbus was convinced suicide could be seen on the faces of Monroe and Hemmingway.  Geoff Dyer: “Arbus’s belief in the prophetic power of photography was derived in part from Bill Brandt who, in turn, derived it from André Breton. Commenting on the ‘sadness’ in the eyes of the actress Josephine Smart (whom he photographed in 1948) Brandt felt that ‘the photographer’s aims should be a profound likeness, which physically and morally predicts the subject’s entire future.’ But while Arbus believe that there were ‘things which no one else would see unless I photographed them’, Brandt put the emphasis not on what he could see but on what his wooden Kodak camera could see; ‘instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing’.” [2] Dyer goes on to explain that Brandt bought his camera in a second-hand shop and later learned that it had been used by Scotland Yard for police records.

I probably should dig out some snaps of the people I have known who have taken their own lives to see what I – or someone else – can see.

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For my own work, I am keen to explore less literal representations of my subjects and I wonder where are those boundaries? I am thinking of O’Keeffe’s ‘indirect portraits’ of Stieglitz showing just glimpses of the red lining of his coat, perhaps inspired by Gertrude Stein’s ‘word portraits’ and attempts at verbal cubism. At what point does an image become – or cease to become – a portrait?

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Self-portrait by me, in the eye of a stray cat, snapped on my phone on the way to the shops…

Tagg says: “Heads and shoulders, as if those parts of our bodies were our truth.” [3]

In the early stages of this part of the course, I have been keeping an open mind and looking at as many portraits as possible. Here are a few that have particularly stood out for me.

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Bjork by Laurence Passera, 2004.  On one level, the pose is almost sculptural with the curved neck and wistful look evoking classic renaissance beauty. No clothes are revealed but the braids symbolise a chaste and timeless femininity. The lighting is bright and soft with little contrast giving smooth and impossible skin tones. The subject is perfect, goddess-like, perhaps slightly haughty and unattainable. But the distortion changes everything of course. Not only is the beauty broken up and undermined but we see the suggestion of layers or a mask. This person is multi-faceted, unpredictable, unique. She is a visionary artist.

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John Kerry by Alex Majoli, 2016. The pose is contemplative, humble, perhaps a bit weary but dignified. His clothes are smart but not flashy; well-tailored, conservative but with some rebellion – certainly not sombre. The lighting is subtle and feels quite natural. The subject is backlit as if he’s being driven forward by his responsibilities. He quietly walks the halls of government, surrounded by history and protocol. The men in the paintings seem to watch him go and smile. The overlap of the wall (or pillar) on the left hand painting creates a slight claustrophobia, accentuating the narrowness of the space, as if the work is never-ending and inescapable.This is a man of power and of action. He has stamina, dedication; he represents his office and his duties well. He will take his place in history.

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Army veteran Jose Martinez by Balazs Gardi, 2016 (from an article in TIME about marijuana use to cope with PTSD and pain).  The pose is strong, almost rigid – he is smoking with purpose. Our view is drawn to where the hand and mouth meet and the vertical lines of the left arm are echoed but distorted in the nearside T-shirt sleeve, accentuating the stump. We glimpse the left knee, slightly raised and then become aware of the absence of a right leg. The clothes are casual and simple but evoke an active, almost macho, existence, albeit aspirational now.  For props, we can just discern a prosthetic leg nearby.  A large, prominent tattoo like his would be common in the military but also feels slightly threatening here. This should be a comfortable space but the black leather and dark wallpaper is quite sinister. Black and blue and smoky. The lighting is natural and bright around the window but diffused through the blinds. This accentuates the depth and complexity of the scene. The subject seems to be sinking into his plush sofa but he is not relaxed. This is no casual pothead. He is living a difficult existence, disconnected from the outside world – stuck inside with no view and restricted movement, surrounded by deep, dark shadows.

Mark Rylance photographed in New York on March 21, 2016.

Mark Rylance by Peter Hapak, 2016. The pose is alert and confident but gentle and warm. His clothes reveal an artistic soul, not afraid to be decorative – even a bit feminine – and stand out from the crowd. The lighting and creamy cast is decorative too; whilst not too harsh, it is hard enough to show the character in the subject’s face and the evidence of a life richly lived. We can tell this is a very unusual, charismatic person – perhaps a muse or an inspiration to some. He is relaxed in his own skin but active and focussed.

 

References

  1. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press (p 101)
  2. Dyer, G. (2012) The ongoing moment: A book about photographs. Edinburgh: Canongate Books. (p60-61)
  3. Tagg, J. (1988) The burden of representation: Essays on photographies and histories. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Education (p35)

 

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William Kentridge, Whitechapel Gallery 13.1.17

This is a stunning exhibition which I am glad to have visited before it closed.  The energy and scale is hard to put into words but it was a very immersive, almost hypnotic, experience with some elements of the steampunk aesthetic and the powerful impact of music with the imagery.

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Kentridge uses drawings, often in charcoal, as the basis for much of his work but then extends this with sculpture, film, music, puppetry and the spoken word.  His subject matter is vast and complex, centred around the title Thick Time.  The show spiel explains that the measurement of time, space and light has evolved in tandem with the control and exploitation of global resources and peoples.

As a South African artist, he is concerned with ideas of colonialism, identity and exile but all underpinned with the Utopian idea that time can flow both ways, fate can be eluded. We see scribbles and erasure and leaves and paper tape being blow around and disappearing. There are many glimpses of the process of the work which become part of the final output.

Some of the music has a strong Tom Waits/Kurt Weill vibe and with the declared influences of Francisco de Goya, Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Käthe Kollwitz, this work is like a dark carnival. The silhouette parade at the end of “Refusal of Time” was just stunning, as was the eerie but strangely comforting “Here I am” voiceover as part of an exploration of the Theory of Relativity.

The artist has talked in interviews about how important it is for him to collaborate and the teams involved with the installations are all clearly name checked on the walls.  He draws inspiration from all quarters and the results are immense.

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Inspiration

  • The drama of the music/metronome rhythms and how that enhances the imagery (similar to Eamonn Doyle/David Donohoe – END)
  • Text and drawings over dictionary pages; using text pages as a canvas
  • Use of filmed flipbooks to show a large number of images working together
  • Stop motion collage
  • Almost all monochrome with the use of black tape echoing thick black brushstrokes and charcoal lines
  • Influence of constructivism and expressionism – dramatic and unusual angles
  • ‘Vertical Thinking’, ‘Leap Before You Look’, ‘Her Absence Filled The Whole World’
  • Use of self as model and actor
  • Torschlusspanik: the idea that time is running out. Literal meaning = fear of a gate closing so often associated with midlife crisis.  Similar to Ultima Forsan
  • Kentridge: “Art is vital. It is one of the ways we construct who we are. In the books we read, in songs we hear, we find either affirmations of impulses we’ve had or find new things. But there’s a way one can describe the biography by all these cultural, ephemeral experiences that we’ve had the consolidate who we are. And there’s a great strength that comes from those connections of what it is to not feel on your own, to feel other points of understanding, commonality.”  This is a great reminder not to be afraid of making very personal work. I often think no one will be interested but actually I should always remember my sage tutor’s advice: if it resonates with you, it will resonate with someone else too.  The sense of commonality cannot be second-guessed and must be authentic.

References

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Reflection – December 2016

At the end of August, we went to Arles and then to Paris. We had a wonderful time. We came home and I had a five day ‘staycation’ to work on my OCA studies. It was glorious. I felt relaxed and happy and totally immersed in photography and art.

On Sunday the 11th of September, in the course of my usual Alice-in-Wonderland down-the-rabbit-hole style of research, I read this article about how illness can improve creativity.  I confess I was quite ready to be convinced by the notion of “not merely renewed but elevated mental and creative faculties coming out on the other end of a physically and mentally draining stretch”.  I remember thinking, that fated afternoon, how I could really do with something like that to kickstart my seemingly burnt-out brain. I was imagining sitting in a well-cushioned steam chair, under a fluffy blanket, bathed in Autumn sun, in the beautiful grounds of a a luxury sanatorium, reading Barthes and finally understanding everything.

A few hours later I had a temperature of 40.2, intense rigors and was vomiting violently. Four months on, I have not been able to return to work, have spent weeks in hospital, had major abdominal surgery to remove a giant cyst from my spleen and I am still recuperating.

So yeah, be careful what you wish for…

It has been difficult to make the most this time I have been given. I have been battling with feelings of depression and financial anxiety and the frustration of not being able to do normal things. But I think I am finally getting physically well enough to tackle some studying again.

As a gentle kickstart, here are some random things that have caught my eye recently…

This was a happy story.  I finally managed to get hold of a DVD of Searching for the Wrong Eyed Jesus, directed by Andrew Douglas, and am looking forward to watching it.

Still catching up on the many projects documenting the migrant crisis.  One of the most interesting for me is Seba Kurtis’ Heartbeat. The title refers to the capability of the police to detect even the heartbeat of a mouse in the lorries crossing into the UK. “I photographed some of the guys being held at detention centres using a really long exposure, so the film comes back completely blank. Then in Photoshop I pushed the levels up to reveal the information in the image, in the same way that the heartbeat detector reveals the information inside the tanker.”  [1]  The images provide a metaphor for the invisibility of the migrants and the surveillance to which they are subjected.  Kurtis concludes however that “photography is actually a poor platform” to speak about the issues that migrants face.  I suspect no single form of communication could come close to conveying what these poor people are enduring.

I was very happy with Helen Marten winning the Turner Prize (and also enjoyed the odious Gove’s frustration with it).  Adrian Searle puts it well: “There is a formal language at work here, leading the eye as well as the mind on a journey. Her art splices mental associations with an acute sense of materiality, scale and tactility. In her art, thinking is made concrete. It is more than free association or an unfocused interior monologue. We are forever losing the thread and refinding it with Marten. There are stems and branches, thoughts shooting off, parentheses, pauses for breath, full stops.” [2]

This was an interesting article about the Trump victory and what that says about the state of photography in the US.  Ed Kashi argues that there has been a failure by journalists and PJs to create and disseminate the images and real stories that will “move the needle on public understanding”.  He writes, “It is alarming that even though we live in a time where access to information is easier than it has ever been before, so many people live within a closed loop of falsehoods.” I cannot help feeling pessimistic as our society moves ever more quickly towards the soundbite, 140 character stories and single image Instagrams. One wonders how much tolerance there is for longer narratives and I certainly haven’t seen a contemporary equivalent of, for example, the Migrant Mother image to portray successfully the disenfranchised who sanctioned Trump or Brexit as a protest vote.

I found myself quite intrigued by the art of Blake Neubert. He uses a razor to scrape away layers of his paintings to reveal macabre and sometimes horrifying imagery underneath. “When I was younger, I guess I always thought there was one story – the truth, or the ‘real version’. As I get older, I see how we are able to shift the truth or make it fit our lifestyle. It’s something I have just always paid attention to. There are so many ‘truths’ out there. It also echoes my life a little bit. I have always been convinced there were two very distinctive versions of myself: the very polite, appropriate professional; and the irreverent, antisocial, borderline personality guy.” [3]  Neubert says that his images are not designed to shock or offend but are a way for him to try to come to terms with all the horror he sees in our violent world.  His work appeals to me as I wrangle more and more with the idea of twinning images and creating diptychs.

And finally, an inspiring thought from Ira Glass that that I picked up somewhere along the way:  “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one piece. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Let the fighting begin again …

 

References

  1. British Journal of Photography, September 2016 edition
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/dec/05/helen-marten-an-artist-who-thinks-differently-from-the-rest-of-us
  3. http://www.inkedmag.com/scrape-artist-blake-neubert-gallery/2/?ipp=3

 

 

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Robert Rauschenberg, Tate Modern – OCA Study Visit 10.12.16

I rather fell in love with the work of Robert Rauschenberg at the Tate Modern yesterday. It made me feel nostalgic for homemade playgrounds and hippie communes where everything is recycled and has paint on it. It feels like a relentlessly joyful artist has been let loose in a junkyard and made everything much more beautiful and greater than the sum of its parts.

OCA tutor Bryan Eccleshall’s enthusiasm for this show was infectious and justified. He explained in advance that Rauschenberg sits in the space between abstract expressionism and pop. For Bryan, the former is a rather dangerous place based on high-brow purity and an increasingly reductive approach, an easy vehicle to promote capitalist elitism.  The apparent chaos was actually very controlled in the search for universal truths.

RR said: “You have to have time to feel sorry for yourself if you’re going to be a good Abstract Expressionist and, er, I think I always considered that a waste.”  [1]  Instead this work is buzzing with ideas and exchanges with ‘multiplicity, variety and inclusion’ being the stated themes of his art.

The chronological curation of the show seemed a bit pedestrian given the dizzy heights of Rauschenberg’s innovative and eccentric approach.  I always find it a bit depressing seeing the last room before the gift shop entitled ‘Late Works’ or similar. I look around with my OCA hat on and try to ascertain how the artist has developed and improved through their assignments over the years. In this case, the final room is dominated by the huge three-panel Port of Entry (1998) which I found to be one of the most appealing works.

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“Working with photographs printed on transparent sheets enabled him to experiment with multiple arrangements on the work’s three large adjoining panels, overlapping and repeating imagery as needed to create a layered yet unified composition.” [2]

Key take-aways

  • RR had considered becoming a photographer and his blueprints with Susan Weil revealed this early interest. In later years photography became very important again and was a key element of Rauschenberg’s proactive way of looking at the world.
  • The viewer was always of utmost importance and RR played with scale to “collapse the division between the space of the viewer and that of the painting”.  He used actual depth, illusion and reflection.
  • RR wanted to counter the ‘stillness’ of paintings. His work comes off the wall, engaging the viewer often in a sculptural way and in some cases via performance.
  • The ‘Combine’ works feature scavenged materials and celebrate everyday objects for their own form or texture or beauty.  Spatial tensions are essential here.
  • RR wanted to work in “that gap between art and life”. His use of mirrors and everyday objects such as neckties or umbrellas goes towards bridging that gap. The inclusion of reflective materials also signifies RR’s desire for collaboration.
  • Travel was crucial – not least escaping the non-artistic environment of Port Arthur, Texas. RR seems to have been an exceptionally curious person, determined not to be stuck in a creative rut.  Once he knew he could do something he would move on.  Having won the grand prize at the Venice Biennale in 1964, he had all his remaining silk screens destroyed to avoid the possibility of repeating himself. He later embarked on a lengthy cultural exchange, visiting oppressed peoples in various countries.
  • Most of the work on display has a narrative element but not necessarily a hierarchy, central focus or even a starting point. In the collages, the images and elements all vie for attention and allow the viewer to prioritise and interpret and respond in a very personal way.  He also uses grids to encourage comparisons and new readings and to experiment with accidents (eg in Factum 1 & 2).  Here we are reminded how the smallest details can change the whole rhythm of an image.
  • “…the end of the 1960s found him weary and disillusioned. Senator Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King had been murdered; the Vietnam War was dragging on; and the country was torn apart by riots in the struggle for Civil Rights. Rauschenberg was increasingly tired of both technology and New York.”  (from exhibition booklet)
  • Like with Georgia O’Keeffe, a sense of place was important to RR. His response to NYC is evident in much of his art and his move to Captiva Island in 1971 gave him a renewed energy and fresh approach to work.
  • In 1970 Time magazine commissioned RR to produce a cover image for the new decade. The end result was rejected.  Signs “was conceived to remind us of the love, terror, violence of the last ten years,” Rauschenberg explained, “Danger lies in forgetting.” [3]

Inspiration

The use of layers of transparency/opacity.  Shades (1964) is made of six lithographs on plexiglas with a light source within to create depth and atmosphere. Spectacular:

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Collaboration was critical to RR’s career. He worked closely with his friends and lovers John Cage, Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, Merce Cunningham and Susan Weil.

The use of scrap and the links via rope or wire – extension of the space and a sense that the art needs to be chained up or weighted or grounded adds to the kinetic energy.  I need to stop thinking of my photography in isolation from the other types of art that I make and experiment more with mixing media and taking a proactively ‘inter-disciplinary’ approach.

How would Rauschenberg be using new tech and social media if he were in his prime today?  “A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.” [4]

References

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b085k35h/robert-rauschenberg-pop-art-pioneer?suggid=b085k35h
  2. https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/99.360.A-C
  3. http://shuffle.rauschenbergfoundation.org/exhibitions/nasher/essays/Zakarin-soviet-american-array/
  4. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/arts/design/14rauschenberg.html
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Les Rencontres de la Photographie, Arles 2016

Rather a long period of stress-filled time has elapsed since our visit to Arles in September, which I suspect will be a blessing as well as a disadvantage for the purposes of this blog post.  We saw so much and discussed so many things, I will keep these notes as brief as possible.

Sincerely Queer, Sebastian Lifshitz Collections

As the blurb for this exhibition stated: it raises more questions than it answers.  This was an extensive exploration of gender issues and how the body is subject to power and cultural values.  The images were very intimate and felt like stolen moments. Many were joyful and almost triumphant but some seemed to quite dark and secretive.  The strength of the display lay with the sheer volume of images. Seen on mass like this provided a powerful representation of the extent of this aspect of human behaviour.

I found it to be very thought-provoking to consider the importance of the act of photography and the viewing of the images for the participants.  It was clear that empowerment, sex, fetish, humour and intimacy between friends and partners was inherent in the portraits.  Having never really felt personally driven to transform myself for the camera, this provided interesting insights.  I had no idea that mock weddings were even a thing!

My favourite set was of ‘Bambi’ – a stunningly beautiful transsexual who after a life of glamour settled down as a school teacher.

Inspiration: I found the aesthetic of private secret snapshots to be quite appealing and would be interested to explore recreating this, possibly as part of the portrait section of Gesture and Meaning.  I also liked the impact of the repetition and the visual rhyming.

Where the Other Rests – Awakening Forgotten Images

This was a bit patchy for me and did not feel like a cohesive exhibition.  It was even difficult at times to work out the ‘authors’ of the various works.  The introductory text reads: “Can images belonging to others be given a second life?  The trend is moving towards appropriation: many artists are working on the idea of borrowing.”  A lot of these visual ‘reactivations’ explored manipulation and various forms of representation, playing with scale and creating illusions.  One highlight was Afterlife by Broomberg and Chanarin – an “iconoclastic breakdown or dissection of original images which interrupts our relationship as spectators to images of distant suffering.”  This was very powerful with the fragmentation forcing the viewer to really slow down and consider the subject matter and context of this image.

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I won’t share my thoughts on the installation which overlaid stills from Rear Window with da Vinci’s Virgin and Child as an homage to Princess Grace.

Melik Ohanian’s Red Memory caught my eye, partly for its effective presence in a gallery setting with the image on glass which could be viewed from different angles. I also found the idea of this being his reminiscence of his first relationships with the world to be quite touching.

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I was fascinated by Albert by Tom Molloy.  These were grids of small delicate drawings from photographs of the ‘victims’ of Albert Pierrepoint (1905-92), one of the UK’s most prolific executioners. The combination of the transfer of photography to another medium with the emerging portrait of an unknown but fascinating character made this quite an intriguing highlight for me.

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Inspiration: ‘Bokashi’ is a form of Japanese censorship – fogging – which was used effectively. I am quite interested in the scope for changing the physical surface of photographic prints.  The idea of scavenging for images and using them to highlight specific narratives also appeals. This speaks to me about the idea of the massive over-abundance of images and their polysemous nature. Dredging them up to be seen again and reinterpreted seems valid and interesting. I acknowledge the intuitive idea that the production of new and groundbreaking stuff is preferable but this does not really stand up to much interrogation for me.

Systematically Open? New Forms for Contemporary Image Production

This Luma Foundation exhibition aimed to examine “new structures for the presentation of the photographic image, analysing the relationships between photography and its various modes of display.” The four ‘curators’ were Walead Beshty, Elad Lassry, Zanele Muholi and Collier Schorr. This was big and unwieldy and a lot of the imagery didn’t really resonate with me, even though there were a number of interesting ideas (such as Thomas Hirschhorn’s selective use of pixelation on horrific war images and his ‘Touching Reality’) and a lot of photographs of teeth.

Zanele Muholi’s self-portraits seemed to be the highlight for everyone. The work explores self-presentation, using high fashion tropes and performative art. The accompanying text explains how her skin tones were exaggerated to reclaim her blackness. “Can photographers look at themselves and question who they are in society and the position that they hold, and maintain these roles thereafter?”  These are stunning, disquieting images; technically perfect and endlessly fascinating.

Inspiration: be brave with portraits and think creatively about props and tropes. Size matters.

Ethan Levitas/Garry Winogrand

I found the link between these two photographers was not made convincingly enough for this exhibition to be plausible. Levitas felt like a weak pretender which distracted from both artists’ work.  I perhaps should have given it more time and attention.

Inspiration: meh.

Discovery Award

Participation in pooling our own gold, silver, bronze and ‘most disliked’ judgments for this felt slightly less enthusiastic than last year but I found it to be really useful again.  Not least because Gareth managed to identify the point and worth of Frank Berger’s slaughterhouse work in a way that Rob and I entirely missed which was quite instructive.

I gave my gold to Sarah Waiswa’s Stranger in a Familiar Land (and found out afterwards that the actual judges agreed!). The work is technically superb, depicting an albino woman in the Kibera slums of Nairobi.  The images are very light and bright mounted on a white background with white frames.

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This is the artist’s statement from her website:

“Stranger in Familiar Land is a series that looks at the persecution of albinos in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Tanzania, for example, they are hunted for their body parts, which are believed to possess magical powers. People fear what they do not understand and, because of this fear, people with albinism continue to be at the receiving end of ridicule and persecution. This project groups together various portraits of an albino woman set against the backdrop of the Kibera slums, which are a metaphor for my turbulent vision of the outside world. The series illustrates the life of an albino who is forced to face challenges emanating from both the sun and society. The series also explores how the sense of non-belonging has led her to wander and exist in a dreamlike state.”

Although I thought the series was excellent, my response to it does not really match the stated intentions in this statement. The dreamlike quality certainly comes through but my overriding sense was of the model’s calm dignity and humanity in a highly complex society.  She seems safe even though she is clearly uncomfortable in some of the captures. Maybe my reading of the images is just off-kilter with the staging.

Inspiration: some of the work in this competition seemed quite unoriginal and not very engaging but was based on a reasonable premise so just keep chipping away.

Sid Grossman – from document to revelation

I wasn’t familiar with this photographer at all but loved this exhibition. Superb street with loads of fascinating details and some stunning compositions. The show also included work from a number of Grossman’s students who continued his legacy: Morris Huberland (1909-2003), Leon Levinstein (1910-1988), Rebecca Lepkoff (1916-2014), Arthur Leipzig (1918-2014), Sy Kattelson (1923 – ), David Vestal (1924-2013), Harold Feinstein (1931-2015).

Inspiration: take time to find great composition opportunities and keep shooting until you hit perfection.

Eamonn Doyle – END

This blew my socks off. A collaboration between the photographer and painter (and curator of the show) Niall Sweeney and with sound by David Donohoe, this was an atmospheric tour de force. It is hard to believe that street photography can still look completely fresh but Doyle has created an eerie, anonymous, fragmented portrait of Dublin which is vaguely familiar but also revelatory. Photographs sit next to abstract paintings and images on glass. Huge structures support grids of scenes from the city and its sleepwalking/zombie inhabitants, perfectly choreographed to show every day life as we have never seen it before. Gaps allow massive prints of people to be seen from the other side of the room, cleverly and inescapably wedged into a changing landscape. Number one highlight of the whole festival for me.

Inspiration: yes, yes, yes, all of it!  Think about collaborations more, don’t be afraid of pursuing something that seems to have been done to death and don’t be afraid of mixing media or being brave with radical presentation.

Nothing but Blue Skies

This exhibition was a thoughtful and creatively curated collection of work about the September 11th attacks on Manhattan, particularly as represented through the media. It was inevitably quite harrowing as much of the imagery – even massively abstracted (eg by Thomas Ruff) – is very evocative for anyone who remembers the event first hand.  There is a focus on the repetition and the symbolism with all its resulting hyperreality but like the day itself, there is so much to take in that one quickly becomes befuddled with incredulity and confusion.

Some of the ideas were incredibly clever such as Fontcuberta’s Googlegram photomosaic of images of the twin towers made up of 8,000 images thrown up by searches for ‘god’, ‘yahve’ and ‘allah’.

Inspiration: this exhibition was based around one globally-recognisable image, of the burning towers against the blue sky background, and includes over a dozen brilliant and often wildly different, artistic responses to it.  Don’t be afraid to tackle something that has been done a million times already.

Yan Morvan – Battlefields

This part of the festival really took me by surprise. What looked like a bunch of rather tedious landscapes quickly moved me to tears. The former war photojournalist has travelled around the world photographing scenes of battles from the last 3,500 years. Morvan has captured the timelessness and the natural beauty of over 80 battlefields, showing that conflict can reach everywhere.  The quiet scenes, devoid of human figures, simply placed on green and brown walls, allow for contemplation and it was the accumulation of the images that created such a strong sense of emotion for me.  Where the battles were already known to me, it was a revelation to see the actual site and imagine the unfolding of events and the carnage. But each image was gripping in its own way and the overall effect was to show me something that a camera could not reveal without the collaboration of my imagination, and an insight into war that I would normally quickly turn away from.

Inspiration: this exhibition reached me in a way that most war photography has not and it seems it was an authentic artistic development for Morvan who felt that the genre had become nothing more than ‘infotainment’. It is always worth trying different ways to communicate a message you feel passionate about.

The Hollow of the Hand – PJ Harvey and Seamus Murphy

I am a huge fan of PJH and really wanted to be moved by this but it fell short in my opinion.  The combination of the written/spoken word and images was engaging and atmospheric but the piece did not provide me with enough information or time to feel anything much about the places visited. The artists did not seem to add anything I couldn’t have probably guessed about Kosovo or Afghanistan or DC.  PJ Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project album is much more evocative, albeit after a few listens. This may be something that required more than just the one viewing.

Maud Sulter – Syrcas

Although I found it hard to relate personally to this series of images, I found myself interested in Sulter’s short life and vision for her art. This work explores the genocide of black Europeans using visual tropes from the Nazis.  Collage always appeals to me, for reasons I have not yet fully identified, and some of these images were quite striking.

Inspiration: for goodness sake, experiment more with collage and photomontage!

Sara Galbiati, Peter Helles Eriksen, Tobias Selnaes Markussen – Phenomena. A Close Encounter with a Reality of Aliens and UFOs.

This was my second favourite exhibition at Arles.  Absolutely fascinating with a wonderful mix of mystery and unknown quantities of fact vs fiction.  The aesthetic and general approach was very anthropological and documentary in style, with a 60s/70s feel. Not all the images were captioned which added to the sense of intrigue and portraits sat alongside pictures of ‘evidence’ such as alien cakes and random bits of rock. The project reminded me of all the things I love about Soth’s Broken Manual. Superb work by an clever team of Danes.

Inspiration: it is fine to make stuff up if you do it well enough. Developing a narrative based on some great ideas and well-researched information can be extremely engaging.

Other work included:

Tear My Bra – a brilliant look at the Nigerian film industry. The work was witty and well-executed.

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Radicalia by Piero Martinello – featured religious fanaticism, the mafia and ravers. I liked the idea and the presentation but I don’t think it  really hung together as a concept.  Or maybe the photographs were just not quite good enough.

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Christian Marclay – a highly entertaining interactive piece which celebrated abandoned bottles and city pavements; walking through the tunnel allowed the viewer to become part of the installation. Much more fun on the inside than listening to the bottle noises from across the hall.

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Maginot Line by Alexandre Guirkinger – didn’t do a lot for me except to make me wonder if I should have done the OCA Landscape module for the 973rd time.

Swinging Bamako – I thought the Cuba connection would make this more interesting to me but it did nothing.

A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission by Peter Mitchell – loved the idea of this but found the execution to be too dry for my taste.  Cool to look at old pictures of Leeds though.

A History of Misogyny, Chapter One, On Abortion by Laia Abril – clearly very important work and superbly done but way too harrowing for me to look at for very long. I am hoping that a lot of people (especially men) gave it plenty of attention.

The Jungle Show by Yann Gross – beautifully presented in a darkened atmospheric room with backlit images. Again, important work looking at lost communities and the impact of globalisation but it did not strike a chord with me.

Fabulous Failures – The Art of Embracing  Serendipity and Mistakes, curated by Erik Kessels – a wonderful collection of eclectic work. Some was ludicrous but funny, some just brilliant and I wish I’d had more energy for this but it was sadly the end of a very hot day.

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Final thought:

Cannot bloody wait for next year!

 

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