Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Reflections on the Writing & Reading About Photography Section

I’ve now completed the first main section of the course, entitled Writing about Photography (though it does also include a section called Reading About Photography).  As I’ve indicated elsewhere in these notes, I already do a fair amount of both reading and writing about photography & photographers.  For that reason, the study in this section has been more about providing some structure and embellishment to what I’m already doing rather than sending me off in a new direction.

The notes ask that we reflect on how our studying in this section might impact on our photographic practice.  I do feel that it has helped to hone the skills.  It’s always useful to go through a structured process such as this, and I also enjoyed reading the ‘Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images’ book by Terry Barrett, published by McGraw Hill.  This is the Fifth Edition of this American book (which says something in itself) and was published earlier this year.  I have read it through once and referred back to one or two sections again; and I think that it is a helpful read in relation to all aspects of the background study for the OCA Photography courses.  To read a structured study of how those criticising photographs approach what they do is definitely helpful when subsequently reading those critique – as well as helping us to structure our own.

Writing about one’s photography, in the broadest sense, is part of the development of a practice in many practical ways.  Whether writing captions, artists statements, proposals, or whatever, the skills of communicating ideas and concepts clearly, understanding the reader so as to write for one’s audience, appreciating how one’s work relates to others, all are important.  I’ve also benefited from some very simple practical tips, too.  Summarising each paragraph of a complex article in a single sentence, for example; it is obvious, but it isn’t something I’ve tended to do with academic writing in the past, but it worked well in pulling together the argument in the Berger essay – I shall use it again.

Speaking of the Berger essay, ‘Understanding a Photograph’, I think I got quite a lot out of that exercise, but partly because it linked into something else I’d read recently.  It makes me reflect on the joys and frustrations of reading about photography.  The ‘story’ went something like this – I read the Berger article & did the various exercises; it led me to go back to an article I’d read in Hotshoe magazine, A. D. Coleman’s ‘Letter from New York’ column, which in the March/April edition was entitled ‘John Berger goes to the dogs’; reading Cloeman’s comments about Berger’s writing and comparing them to my own led me to reflect on differences of approach – those like Berger, and perhaps Sontag & Barthes, with what I might refer to as philosophical discourse, on the one hand, and Fried, Coleman etc, with a more analytical approach; unsure whether my thinking was valid, I remembered some reference to the prevalence if literary-based writers (Barthes being one of those referred to) on photography theory over the more practice-based; that came, I think, from a book entitled ‘Photography Theory’, edited by James Elkins, and off I go to try and find the reference; etc etc.

At one level, it’s a delight to recognise that there is so much to read and learn.  At another, there is never enough time to follow everything through.  Patience is the answer, I guess, keep reading, keep reflecting, wait patiently for the occasional penny to drop!

Monday, 23 July 2012

Writing about Photography - Research and analyse exercise

I have already completed the exercises in volving writing about some of my own images and this exercise asks me to research & analyse one image – my choice from four provided in the course notes.  I’m going to go with this one.

Robert Frank ‘London Street 1951’

(From Victoria & Albert Museum website http://www.vam.ac.uk/users/node/5020)
Here's what I've written:

Even without its helpful and specific title, one could make a fair shot at identifying time and place for this image.  The two vehicles and the little girl’s mackintosh would probably place it in the middle part of the 20th century; and the housing would suggest UK, with London as a good bet.  Actually, though, a little bit of Internet research leads me to put a question mark against the exact location.  I came across a print of this image, on sale through Christies here, going under the title London (Belsize Crescent) 1951-52.  Looking at a current Google Streetview image of Belsize Crescent, one might question the accuracy of that title and wonder whether Belsize Terrace looks a better match.

Not that it matters, of course, other than as a small illustration of how an image develops a life of its own and easily loses contact with notions of truth and reality.  It doesn’t take too much further digging around to discover that there is, probably, a story around the creation of the image.  It is in a sequence of at least three photographs taken by Frank at this location in the winter of 1951-52.  There are diptych prints around of two images, one a front view of the hearse and the other a different version of the girl running, in which she is closer to the hearse – see below.

So, we might imagine Frank, walking the streets of London on that damp foggy winter’s day, during his visit to London, from Paris, in late 1951to early 1952, documenting the contrasts of the city – bankers in bowlers on the one hand and workers on the other - collecting images, some of which would eventually form part of his ‘Black White & Things’ book produced in 1952, and which would later form part of the ‘London & Wales’ book or the ‘Storylines’ exhibition more than fifty years later.  He sees potential in the hearse, empty, open, absurdly waiting unattended for who or what; and then the little girl appears, running down the pavement – from the rain, from Frank, from the hearse, who knows – but he has time to take (at least) two images of her from the back before she runs round the corner that seems to lie to her left in the original image from the course notes.  That may or may not be the ‘truth’; and the image now has the kind of iconic status that puts its reading and interpretation into the public domain of multiple readings where the ‘reality’ of what actually took place ceases to have meaning or relevance.

So, how do I read it?  The dark shape of the hearse’s body dominates the frame, contrasting sharply with the almost white, almost washed out sky, into which the background buildings seem to fade completely.  The diagonal lines, formed by the converging perspective of street, terrace, pavement and vehicle, all lead, more or less, to the figure of the little girl, as she runs, silhouetted against the wet pavement that is rendered almost white as it reflects the sky and mist.  The open rear door of the hearse frames a street cleaner, who stands beside his hand-cart, apparently watching from the other side of the street. A lorry is just visible, parked further down the street, and there could be another figure, standing by it or crossing the road.  It is a dull, damp, wet scene – funereal, one might say.  Whatever time of day, there can have been very little light and Frank must have been using a sensitive film to have captured the girl in motion as he has – hence the grainy nature of the print, which adds to the sombre feel of the image.

It is the juxtapositions that pose questions, prompt thoughts and reflections, and ultimately, I suggest, lead to the longevity if the image.  Although it was created and has been presented alongside images that contrast different strata of British society in the early fifties, this particular image is class-less.  Its ‘signs’ are about life in general – unlike, say, the comparisons between Frank’s images of London bankers and Welsh miners, all taken around the same time.  In this photograph, Frank has created a surreal scene out of the absurd accidents and incidents of ordinary life.  Death, represented by the hearse and the ‘grim reaper’ character across the road, awaits all of us – even this little girl who runs innocently away from our view.  It’s hard not to read the image in this way.  Some years later, Jack Kerouac, in his introduction to Frank’s groundbreaking book ‘The Americans’, said that Frank “... sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film ...”.  That book, and the ‘road trips’ that led to its influential sequence of images, was still some years away when the photographer, just 27 in 1951 and recently a father, took this little series of shots on a London street.  But this particular composition seems to fulfil that poetic notion – innocent and insignificant, apparently, yet provocative and unsettling.

I would suggest that it is a photograph ‘of its time’ in more ways than one.  Its power and its poetry stem, partly, from the association with and connotation of ‘truth’ that a grainy, black and white print possesses.  In the introduction to Frank’s book ‘London/Wales’, in which this image appears more than fifty years after it was taken, he is quoted as saying ‘... London was black, white and grey ...”.  The scene must, of course, have existed on colour, albeit muted in this light, but we read the ‘truth’ as this black and white.  In an interview with Sean O’Hagan in the Observer in 2004, Frank says “The kind of photography I did is gone.” And “There are too many pictures now.”  It is difficult to imagine a colour photograph of a similar scene in a London street today having the same poetic power.  And to recreate the scene, in grainy black and white would not be the ‘truth’, perhaps?  The photographic image’s slippery relationship with truth and reality is well illustrated here, as its ability to rival poetry in addressing some of the essences of human life, or death.

Some notes about what I’ve done for this exercise:

I could, maybe should, have done more ‘book’ research in putting together this analysis.  I’ve done quite a bit on the Internet, but finding evidence of ‘learned’ pieces on the subject hasn’t been easy.  I do have Frank’s ‘The Americans’, and can also pick up references to him and his work in other general photographic publications.  I know that this images appeared in ‘London/Wales’ and in the ‘Storylines’ exhibition at about the same time (c2003-4), but I’m still not sure where, if anywhere, it was published closer to the time it was made.  In the past, I have often gone out and bought the books I wanted to consult, and might have done so had this been an assignment, but I think I need to try and find access to a sizeable library to support my future studies.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Photographers Gallery – ‘Oil’, Edward Burtynsky

At the newly re-opened Photographers Gallery, the first major exhibition is 'Oil' by Canadian photographer, Edward Burtynsky.  I visited last week.  The exhibition presents some of Burtynsky’s images in a series that goes back more than ten years, and which explores much of the vast scope and influence of ‘Oil’ in today’s world – its extraction, refinement, use, ‘end’.  Indeed, the images on display are arranged, broadly, around these ‘stages’ of oil. In practice, I personally felt more comfortable reading them as a whole, as a complex but cohesive piece of work rather than as chapters in a narrative.

Burtynsky has said that he creates images that are open to multiple readings, and it’s important to bear in mind when looking at this body of work.  They are detailed, deep, often complicated images, presented on a considerable scale (even if Sophy Ricket in Hotshoe does describe them as “... surprisingly diminutive ...”, almost making it sound like a put-down), which explore a subject whose scope and impact across the globe and throughout our lives would be impossible to document in totality. The work does, most definitely have a political dimension, but Burtynsky seems to be more concerned that we ask ourselves questions about our own use of oil in so many aspects of our sophisticated and highly developed lives than that we prepare our placards and get out onto the streets.  Indeed he almost seems prepared to celebrate, with us, the wonder of what man has achieved with oil, whilst at the same time undermining our wonder as we are drawn into the detail of his wonderful images and see the waste, destruction and, very occasionally, human misery.

Another reading, though, and one that I found myself exploring, both in the gallery and subsequently, relates to the formal qualities and the relationship of these pictures to others, going back to Romantic painters and taking in the New Topographics and other contemporary fine art photographers along the way.  Compare 'Shipbreaking No 13' with this from Joel Meyerowitz and this from Caspar David Friedrich (and influence that Burtynsky acknowledges).  Like Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and others, he uses the large format camera to step back (quite some distance in many cases, up in a crane – like Struth photographing Notre Dame in a film seen at the Whitechapel Gallery – or up in a plane) and capture scale, light, colour, perspective and detail, in the manner of the sublime landscape.

Moving specifically to the formal qualities; the prints – very high quality chromogenic colour – are large (in my opinion anyway, Sophy), highly detailed, and much sharper in that detail that some of the big exhibition prints I’ve seen.  That matters for Burtynsky’s work (perhaps for others, too, if the scale is going to work). His ‘VW Lot No 1’ depicts, from a typically elevated viewpoint, what must be thousands of Volkswagen cars, arranged in neat rows, and disappearing into the distance out of the top of the frame, presumably awaiting delivery.  As a viewer, one can step back with Burtynsky’s camera, and wonder st the scale; be intrigued by the abstract pattern; reflect on the industry behind their manufacture; and be troubled (in context) by the oil they will consume.  But one is also (or this ‘one’ at least) drawn into the vast frame to look at the detail and the way in which each individual car is sharply defined.  Then, one can admire Burtynsky’s skill and professionalism; recognise his attention to detail; compare him to the painter who carefully craft each brushstroke; but also, perhaps, consider that each of those vehicles will be delivered to someone like ourselves.  We all, in our protected little environments (and the inside of an automobile on a highway is the epitome of that aspect of the modern world) contribute to the whole.  The ‘big picture’ is the sum of its parts.

Comparable in its intense detail, is 'Densified Oil Filters No 1', in which used and compacted oil filters fill the frame in their hundreds.  The scale is different but the effect is similar.  Firstly the viewer is caught by the size of the print, the ‘texture’ that makes it look like an abstract oil painting (Pollock?) even though the surface is, of course, flat; and the ‘what is it’ question, which (as with the VWs) draws one into the detail, where we ‘get the message’.  Filling the big frame and letting the waste filters ‘flow’ out of its edges adds to the sense that this particular oil outcome may go on forever.  The same principle of intense abstract detail is present in 'Oxford Tyre Pile No 4'; this time with a huge pile of waste tyres, but with a compositional difference.  Just off centre frame is a ‘void’ reminiscent of a deep canyon and echoing the deep earthworks that appear elsewhere in Burtynsky’s images.  A similar centre-frame breaking of the detail occurs in 'Highway No 5', where two highways and the intricate intersection at their meeting, carve through the seemingly endless sprawl of Los Angeles suburbs, laid out across the frame in an image shot from an aircraft.  Are the rows and rows, streets and streets of buildings being compared to the tyres, the oil filters, the VWs?  It’s tempting to think so.  And once again, we can step back and wonder at man’s industry; stare, appalled, at the sprawl across the landscape; admire Burtynsky’s professional and creative skills in envisioning and then constructing this immense view; and admire the beautiful quality of the final print on the gallery wall.  All seem to be valid readings.

I also found myself, again, reflecting on process – creative process.  How does Burtynsky get to these final prints that I’m studying?  From a notion to this result; how does that happen?  There are numerous interviews and video clips on his website, in some of which he discusses process.  I havn’t had the time to look into it all in detail but, as well as reaffirming that this is a project that has already been ongoing for more than ten years, he describes how he approaches particular site that he is to photograph – the research; the numerous visits; the taking of many preparatory shots; the identification of what he then wants to produce and how he will go about it; and so on.  As with my visit to the Roger Ballen exhibition some weeks ago, I begin to appreciate the dedication, attention to detail, professionalism etc in the creative process.  Here are two very different artists; totally different images and aesthetics; Ballen looking inward and creating his own black and white images; Burtynsky looking outward and documenting the world, in colour.  Yet in comparing the artistic and creative processes associated with each and the quality of the end result in these two exhibitions, the same basic quality of dedication and professionalism is clear.

In conclusion, this exhibition demonstrates how a dedicated and skilled fine art photographer can use beauty, scale, colour, perspective and detail to present fantastic quality and hugely impressive images that both singly and in total engage the viewer and invite detailed reading.  And then, it offers multi-dimensional possibilities for the reader – see the exquisite formal qualities, as I did, and read them in the context of fine art genres; or read the environmental messages about man taking from the earth and from the landscape; or look at the historical context, the documenting of man’s industrial history and development.  Enjoyable – and it makes you think!