Thursday, 15 August 2013

Assignment Five - Progress Report 2

I got a supportive e-mail from my tutor during the visit to Arles, which was good news.  I am encouraged to carry on "off piste" with the assignment and he likes the "simple cut and paste aesthetic".  There is, I think, a challenge in trying to retain some of that whilst also looking to achieve 'professional standards' in the final image/print - a challenge but not unachievable.  One thing has become very clear to me over the last ten days (and it was no great surprise) - I am never going to get to the standard of finish that I want with my D80 camera.  it has some serious limitations (pixel count; noise in low light; old DX sensor) and is in serious need of a sensor clean.  So - one very significant piece of progress since last week is illustrated in this image.

I am now the proud owner of a NIKON D800.  I am not a kit freak and I resist wholeheartedly the temptation to always have the latest gadget - but there comes a time!  I also bought an Interfit 3-head studio lighting kit a few weeks ago - so, here we see the simple set-up that I have been using to start making some images for the assignment.

Turning to the images themselves, I have moved the two originals on from the 'sketches' included in the last post.  In the following version, all images in the compilation have been processed more carefully for colour, tonal balance etc (though they remain somewhat basic, being, in several cases, cut-outs from books or small downloaded images), and have been printed on photographic paper (and subsequently cut out with a craft knife).

It feels more like a 'quality' image but there is some loss of the 'cut and paste' aesthetic.  I even curled the edges of some of the images a little to introduce some shadow and depth.  The images are quite crudely fixed to the backing paper, so that there is shadow and depth to the foreground 'painting', for example.  The new version of my other 'original' actually combines photo paper and plain paper.

The black and white scene in the very centre (from the Bodyline Ashes series in the 1930s) is printed on plain paper and has curled more under the lights.  It helps achieve the 'transparency' of process that I have referred to elsewhere, and is close to the Letinsky aesthetic, too.

I also have a third image now - where I have varied the scale.

I'm quite pleased with this one, as it has a crude simplicity about it - something like a 'still life' image - but manages to combine all sorts of elements of image-making.  The background, for example, is a cropped screen-grab from the internet site, Cricinfo, showing the 'Hawk-Eye' presentation of a ball with which England bowler, Graeme Swann, dismissed Australian batsman, Rogers, in the Fourth Test of this summer.  But that very 21st century 'aesthetic' (if that's an appropriate word!) is being linked to Jim Laker's polite appeal to an umpire in the 1950s, as he seems to bowl to a 1940s Don Bradman.  This is the kind of combination which, if processed and printed at a suitable quality level, would, I hope, interest the viewer but also raise questions about what exactly I've done and, maybe, why?

I have other ideas to work on - an image based around a television view of the game, for example, and I might even have a go at a 'portrait'. - and all images will, eventually, be subject to more 'processing'.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Les Rencontres d'Arles - Part Two

Rue de la Calade, Arles

Back home and reflecting on the week in Arles, I come to the conclusion that the experience must provide a series of starting points from which I might pursue further research and exploration, as a when.  That's a pragmatic thought.  Even with a high level of selectivity, I seem to have seen so much that attempting to go beyond an initial, personal response would take an enormous amount of time.  I notice, for example, that last week, a series of videos have appeared on the Rencontres d'Arles blog - here.  They are mostly of use to those who have good French, of course, but there is a great deal of material for further exploration - quite apart from the temptation to go off and do further research via the regular routes.  So this post will just summarise my own reactions to several of the other exhibitions visited, not necessarily supported, at this stage, by further research.  In no particular order ...

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Japanese photography is something of a 'thin' area in my own knowledge & experience, so I was keen to take the opportunity to look at the two Sugimoto shows.  His colour show - Couleurs d'Ombre - is a commercially supported work, in collaboration with the Hermès brand.  Colour Polaroid images, created by Sugimoto with a prism to refract the natural sunlight and a mirror to focus on the particular hues, are printed onto silk scarves.  The presentation, in the Église Saint-Blaise, a small, disused chapel, where the scarves are suspended either side of the knave, reminded me of heraldic banners.  They are beautifully printed and presented, but I couldn't seem to get far beyond the notion of brand positioning and the commercial realties of what was on show.

Entering the space where his second show - Revolution - takes place also feels akin to a religious experience.  Tall black and white prints, getting on for 3 metres high and of immaculate quality, line each side of a long room - maybe 5 or 6 each side, I didn't count them; and there are two smaller prints, one at each end.  The lights are relatively dim - with a strong spot on each image - and the room is air-conditioned, which adds to the sense that one has entered a special (sacred?) space.  Perhaps, thinking back, one is immediately led to consider form and presentation, and into a mood of contemplation, meditation and detachment.  Sugimoto's intro notes discuss out-of-body experiences and dream-like sensations - so there is a very clear intention behind this very careful staging.  It seems almost irrelevant to discuss the subject matter and content of the images.  They are from some older negatives of his - seascapes, mainly, often long exposures that show the track of the moon or stars in a night sky; and the exact locations are available in some separate notes, if you want them and can read them in the dim light.  But the images, originally in a panoramic framing, have been stood on their ends ('revolved' through 90 degrees) and printed on this monumental scale to produce huge monochromatic abstracts that reminded me of Rothko's 'black' paintings that I saw some years ago.  (Then I discover that there was a joint show last year - (from the Guardian) - and that Sugimoto acknowledges a Rothko exhibition of 1978 as a major influence, so no great surprise!)  Sugimoto also refers to humans of the future looking back at the limitations of our 'geocentric' thinking and, despite the scale and the abstraction, I feel something strongly humanistic about the experience (a slight qualification of my reference to religion, perhaps).  And, reflecting afterwards, I make a link to another exhibition seen elsewhere - the British Museum's presentation of art from 20-40,000 years ago ... a continuum, maybe.  It seems, though, to be form that matters here - abstract forms; immaculate prints; muted, moody, monochromes ('yes' - black and white is relevant today, in answer to the Rencontres' overall question); carefully staged presentation - there is a lot to take away and think about here.

Jacques Henri Lartigue - Bibi
Lartigue Show, Église des Trinitaires

Another large exhibition in a church, the show comprises prints of Lartigue's photos from 1918-30, mainly featuring his first wife - Bibi.  They are accompanied by some limited text quoting his written feelings about her and some more detailed curatorial and contextual boards.  It is a visual narrative of his life, at a time when very few, if any, were doing such a thing.  Often, these are intimate shots and family photos - but all to a very high standard of composition and framing that is characteristic of Lartigue.  There is also plenty of evidence of his remarkable ability to capture movement with superb timing (can't help feeling that he must have wasted a lot of film practising ... though the truth is probably that he was just very, very good).  In this context, one has to respect his vision in being able to see what might be possible, let alone his ability to carry it off.  At another level, of course, one has to be aware of the privileged young man who can have the time, the equipment and opportunity to mess around with his camera; and the back-story of the relationship with Bibi, for whom he claimed to feel so much and yet let her down and cheated, so that she eventually left him.  It is, though, a privilege to have the chance to see the original work of a very talented and innovative photographer.

Viviane Sassen - In and out of fashion

In this video, Vivianne Sassen says that the show is of her fashion work, not her personal work, and that it is fashion, not art.  She is very best person to make that judgement - so, it is not art!  I did enjoy her show, particularly the light show/installation in the final room, which I tried to capture a little of in these two photographs.


It combines projection, angled mirrors, a white floor and walls, a slideshow, and more mirrors - very 'fashion', I guess, but certainly an experience.  She is surreal; she is edgy; she is also funny and provocative; and I enjoyed the show - yet another contrast with so much else.  There is one question that lingers - largely emerging from subsequent discussion with John U and with my wife.  How would some of her work be viewed if it had been shot by a male photographer?  Does it, and should it, make any difference?  There was, of course, a lengthy discussion in a not dissimilar vein on the OCA's WeAreOCA blog - a hugely complicated, and at times delicate, issue that I'm not going to explore further here.
John Davies - France England
The exhibition spans two rooms - one containing the familiar landscape images of England - mostly changing urban environments, photographed from 1980s to early 2000s; and the other, images from Northern France, also about changing environments, but this time more rural and relating to the arrival of the A26 Autoroute.  The prints are all black & white, characteristically large scale, and typical of Davies' 'stand-back', non-committed, democratic view.  There is, on the whole, a clear difference of 'scale' between the complex UK urban pictures, usually shot from an elevated position, and the more intimate, less complex, and not always elevated views of France.  In the context of the Rencontres' question about black & white imagery, i do wonder whether Davies' work has a dated feel about it.  The photographs from the 1980s have a very definite feeling of their time; but then, when one comes across a photograph of Sheffield in the 2000s, in the same style, it can be confusing.  Of course, Davies is, I assume, seeking consistency, but I feel less comfortable with the more contemporary views.

John Stezaker - Working from the collection
This is the first time I have seen Stezaker's work 'in the flesh', and I enjoyed it very much.  There were plenty of the 'familiar' 2-image split collages - portraits; some B-movie stills; some replacing the direction of gaze with a 'cut-out' looking like a blank projection screen (note the Jaar image mentioned in my previous post) - and a fascinating series of tiny 'cut-outs' of people walking, looking, standing, all of them details from what must have been much larger images that we will never see, plus a video comprising rapidly changing images of horses, over 3000 of them collected over several years.  Not only have I not seen much of his work, but I haven't research too much background either - so a book is 'on order' to put that right.  The use of found images is helpful in informing what I' trying to do with Assignment Five, and I note the significance of 'line' in his collage combinations.  The human eye seems to look for some link or line between the images - often, in Stezaker's portraits, an eyebrow or a hairline - which is then 'challenged' by the disparity elsewhere in the images.  I note the high quality aesthetic at work - the quality of the original images, the precision and care in the cutting and matching.  As I say, more research needed here, to get a better understanding of his process and intention.
Sergio Larrain - Retrospective
This was another new name, to me, very much in the mould of Cartier-Bresson, Brandt, Bravo etc, a sensitive and artistic street documentary style, familiar but also with some differences.  I found some of his framing and compositional choices interesting.  He had no problem with breaking the rules - leaving things outside the frame for the viewer to imagine, whilst presenting a detail that hinted at what lay beyond.  Interesting, also, that he chose to 'drop out' of the world of art photography, choosing from the late 1970s to live in isolation in his native Chile, and only, it seems, agreeing late in his life to the principle of a retrospective such as the one on show here.  I'm glad to have seen it.
Christina de Middel - Afronauts
I missed the OCA study visit to the Deutsche Bourse finalists, so this was a chance to see de Middel's nominated series.  The context is the unlikely, but apparently factual, premise of the 1964 Zambian space mission, combined with her interest in challenging the "veracity of photography as a document" (exhibition notes) and turning a 50 year old fact into a photographic history.  The presentation worked well for me - some 'blow-ups' of what purported to be contemporaneous black and white 'evidence'; images of mistyped letters, echoing and older, slower form of communication that might just have allowed this idea to develop; big prints with rounded corners on the framing, that seemed to refer back to 1960/70s transparencies or a TV screen; images hung on boards covered in silver foil, a historic signifier of 'space' suits and reflective materials.  There was a gentle humour about the whole thing - though I could see how it might be read as somewhat patronising to Africa/Africans.  Then again, is that deliberate?  More a reflection on the delusions and extravagance of some African leaders? I'm not sure, and I haven't had the opportunity to follow through with further research/reading - but it's an interesting project.  Worthy of a nomination for a major photographic prize? That's open to some question, I think.
Marion Gronier - The Glorious Ones
This is a BMW supported project, in conjunction with the Musée Nicéphore-Niépce, in which Marion Gronier photographs circus performers just after they have come out of the ring, following their performance.  The slightly odd-ball nature of the somewhat motley crew of performers and the presence of vast amounts of make-up with bright costumes, together with perspiration and tiredness, make for interesting portraits.  They are all head-&-shoulders,  in full colour, large square-shaped prints, mainly mounted before framing, but some not.  There is an accompanying video in which there is some discussion between Gronier and the Musée curator about framing, prior to the first showing of these images at Paris Photo.  She seems to prefer no mounts, but the BMW-backed curator holds sway!  He also wrote the accompanying notes, which are here.  Far be it from me to question the validity of his comments - and it is clearly a translation from the French, which may not help, but good as the work is, his hyperbole seems to me to go a little way over the top!  Watching the video, one can empathise with Gronier and the moment she is trying to capture.  It is interesting to see her at work and I like the outcome - but this seems to me to be one of those occasions when the curator's words don't provide a great deal of help to either artist or viewer.  But it might just be me?  Seeing her working did take me back to some portraits I did for People & Place and made me wonder whether it would be interesting to return to 'people' at Level Three - something to think about.
We did see several other exhibitions - Eric Kessels interesting exploration of the family album; Stéphane Coutourier's intriguing montage of stage-preparations for the Avignon Festival; the SFR Emerging Talents series, with a theme of 'Manipulation', notably Vincent Fillon's beautiful and intricate merging of pairs of 'before and after' images of the same interior during demolition/construction; Antoine Gonin's 'abstract landscapes'; and so on.  Arles has been a really positive and inspiring experience, with so much to take away and consider, too much to document fully.  I hope I get the chance to do it again another year.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Les Rencontres d'Arles - Part One


Place de la Republique, Arles
'Arles in Black' is the theme for the 2013 Arles' Rencontres.  It should perhaps be 'Arles in Black & White', and even that might not be strictly accurate, since there is plenty of colour around, but that's about the extent of the significant criticism I would make of what is a marvellous and extensive celebration of photographic art.  Located partly in a variety of sites around the delightful and historic city itself - all within ten minutes walk of each other, even in mid-30 degree heat - and partly in the Parc des Ateliers - a collection of disused and partly derelict factories, within five minutes walk of the city - the festival must offer the best concentration of photographic exhibitions anywhere in the world.  And these are not small exhibitions.  That is one aspect that surprised and pleased me most.  Exhibition Space 12 at the Parc des Ateliers, for example, has sizeable shows of John Davies, John Stezaker, Antoine Gonin, Michel Vanden Eeckhoudt, as well as a collection of prints of Hollywood personalities.  It wouldn't be difficult to spend two or three hours at this location alone.
Parc des Ateliers, Arles

Therein lies one of the challenges!  With over fifty exhibitions in total, it is impossible to attend all of them within any reasonable amount of time.  And we were there on holiday, so there was no likelihood of spending an entire week at photographic exhibitions.  So, I had already consulted the official website - Les Rencontres d'Arles - and read some reviews, including Sean O'Hagan in the Observer, of whom more later.  I had decided that I definitely wanted to see Davis and Stezaker, plus Hiroshi Sugimoto, Wolfgang Tillmans, Christina De Middel, Jacques Henri Lartigue and Gilbert Garcin; and also, following O'Hagan's powerful recommendation, Alfredo Jaar.  We managed to take in all of those, plus a reasonably serious look at four or five others and a fairly casual 'skim' of another four or five.  I don't think I could have coped with many more than that - so planning and selectivity were crucial.

Recording reactions to all of that is another challenge!  I kept a notebook of initial thoughts, which largely informs what follows, together with subsequent reflection, a little bit of further research, and the chance, during the week in Arles, to have some discussion with one fellow student - John U.  I'm going to start, in this first post, with three exhibitions that produced strong, but quite different responses in me.

Wolfgang Tillmans - Neue Welt

I mentioned 'big' exhibitions; this one is really 'big' - large spaces, a lot of images, and some very big prints (some so large that they were actually made up of two prints joined together, which seems a pity, given the obvious expense behind the whole show).  It is also in colour - high colour, intense and saturated - and it is 'digital' - shot on digital cameras and, at times, printed to a level of intense detail that seems well beyond 'reality'.  Tillmans is asking himself "... whether the world can be seen 'anew' in an era characterised by a deluge of media images ..." says the accompanying text (from the Rencontres website).  I noted afterwards that this is an exhibition likely to produce mixed reactions.  Certainly, it feels to be as much or more about process and photography as it is about subject matter or the world - a 'New World' of photography rather than a genuinely 'New World'.  The subjects of the images, be they a toucan, car headlight, Ethiopian market or digital monitor screen, (and that short list gives a flavour of the eclectic range on offer) seem almost irrelevant to the splendour of their representation.  In that respect - and I think this is why I liked it and enjoyed it - it is a totally 'Second Decade of the 21st Century' exhibition, totally 'now'.  Tillmans pushes the digital capability and explores how the world can be represented, is being presented, in the digital age; pushing it past what the 'normal' human eye might see, into something 'ultra-real'.  The outcome isn't necessarily pleasing from an aesthetic viewpoint, and it seems to overwhelm any documentary context for the subject matter, which is why it may not appeal to everyone.  It could almost come across as a 'hyper' version of the camera club print competition - but I sense that this is the point.  It is asking questions - as the above quote suggests - and should certainly provoke discussion.  Is the "deluge of images" in this neue welt, splendid and overwhelming as it might be, telling us anything new about the world?  Or might it be so overwhelming that it drowns 'reality'?

Alfredo Jaar - The Politics of the Image

As the title of this exhibition suggests, Alfredo Jaar is also asking questions.  The accompanying text states that he is "... questioning photography when it plays the role of the supposedly objective journalistic witness."  That alone might have been enough to entice my interest, even though I had no previous knowledge of Jaar's work, but Sean O'Hagan's article, to which I linked above, describes it as a 'must-see' show and says that, in his view, Jaar's "... dissection of the famous White House photograph in which President Obama, Hillary Clinton and their national security team supposedly watch the mission to kill Bin Laden live is alone worth making the trip to Arles".  I have to say that, had I followed his advice and gone to Arles just for that purpose, I might have been asking Sean for a contribution to my fare!  This exhibition underwhelmed me, I'm afraid; and O'Hagan's star attraction amounted to nothing more than a suggestion that the Presidential team might have been looking at nothing but a blank screen.  I imagine that many observers will have sensed, from the moment it first appeared, that this infamous image would have been staged.  Jaar's take on it is a valid and interesting one, but it hardly feels radical in the world of art photography in 2013 - not to me anyway (and Stezaker's collages from B-movie stills play with just the same idea).  And I think this was my problem with most of this exhibition.  There was nothing at all wrong with the message, nothing wrong with the questions being asked, and I certainly mean no disrespect to a well-established artist such as Alfredo Jaar, but I felt to be in a kind of 'time-shift' back to the eighties.  Whilst the Tillmans work was very definitely 'now', the Jaar exhibition feels like 'then', and as such, it lost some of its relevance and currency - to my view, at least.  Replacing a series of images of the Rwandan conflict with textual descriptions of the images and where they were taken - in French - is all very well, and makes a point, of course.  But I for one wasn't in a position to read them - having limited French - so it could just as effectively be making a point about the limitations of language as about the limitations of imagery.  Surely, also, the 'Politics of the Image' is a much more complex issue today, with the ever-increasing digital, internet-based imagery of the 'citizen journalist' with i-Phone, for example, and this exhibition seemed to be rooted in a slightly outdated question, with little or no reference to 'today'.  My reaction is, of course, partially derived from my sense that O'Hagan 'oversold' it - but I remain underwhelmed.

Could also be, I guess, that it was very, very hot that day, and there was no air-conditioning in the Eglise des Frères-Prêcheurs!!

Gilbert Garcin

Again, I had no knowledge of Garcin before my preparation and planning for the Arles visit, but I was immediately attracted to the prospect at a personal level.  He did not take up photography until he was 65, and he is now 84.  So - there is hope for all of us!!  Various publications and exhibitions have followed along the way, but this is a big exhibition, covering a large amount of his work from the last eighteen years.  His approach has been a relatively simple, but powerful one.  On a more or less weekly basis, he produces a photo-montage, black & white image, featuring himself (and sometimes his wife), as a character called 'Mister G', something akin to Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot, or Alfred Hitchcock appearing, briefly, as himself, in his own movies.  Here are the accompanying notes; and her is a link to his website -  This, to use a colloquialism, was 'right up my street'.  The montages involve all manner of ordinary objects - string, tape, ink, a dandelion - together with 'Mister G', manipulated into strange, imaginary scenes and landscapes, which, when combined with a thoughtful titles, present the viewer with wry comments or questions about life.  They are visually interesting, whimsical, sometimes 'laugh-out-loud' funny, but also strongly observational, thought-provoking, even philosophical - all in a very engagingly human and personal way.  If I have said that Tillmans exhibition felt like a 'now' and Jaar made me feel like 'then', Garcin is 'always'.  It is timeless.  The presentation is simple - smallish, framed prints, and lots of them - but the impact is strong, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The montage angle interested me, too, in the context of the direction I'm taking with Assignment Five, and (most unusually for me) I have to say that the black & white is perfect for these images, adding to the feeling of timelessness.

(More to follow.)