Gursky at the Hayward

Charlotte Cotton (2014, 83) regards Andreas Gursky as “the figurehead of contemporary deadpan photography”. This makes his photography an ideal subject for the reopening of the Hayward Gallery, one of London’s more deadpan buildings.

The first thing to be said about Gursky’s work is that there is no substitute for seeing it in the flesh. Most of the exhibits are massive prints (typically 2 metres tall) and no reproduction in a book or on the web is going to do them justice.

Not only are the prints large but so, in most cases, are the subjects as Susan Bright commented (2011, 66)

Scale is vital to Gursky’s work – not only in his choice of subject and the way he depicts the scene but also in the use of giant format prints. These allow the viewer almost to fall into the scene and to experience it as the artist did when he photographed it.

‘Falling into the scene’ was my experience. Standing on the marked line (or inside it if there was no attendant watching), the image fills a large part of ones visual field and the experience is immersive. This seemed to be the experience of most viewers, who would alternate between the close view and retreating a couple of metres.

Gursky is one of the Düsseldorf School, having studied under Berndt and Hille Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in the 1980s. Therefore, it is unsurprising that he has adopted their deadpan approach which is fascinating (for a while) but also rather disturbing to a viewer used to the conventions of HCB’s ‘decisive moment’ and of having a focal point and a way through the image. In most of the prints displayed, Gursky aims to fill the entire image area with equal amounts of interest (or banality in some cases). In this, he has been likened to Bruegel (Hayward gallery wall notes) but I would also cite the ‘Where’s Wally’ books of Martin Handford.

His early work is fairly conventional large-format treatments of his subjects, developing to a long-lens detached view. It was in one of these, Klausen Pass (1984), originally taken as a holiday snap, that he noted the arrangement of people in the image as a ‘perfect constellation’ and started using the distanced view as a way of exploring the relationship between people and their environments. His images of trading floors fall into this category (as well as the ‘Where’s Wally’ category) as does this one, Nha Trang (2004) where the level of detail can be seen in the larger image below. The women are making furniture for IKEA; they are wearing orange uniforms at Gursky’s request to unify the image.

Until visiting this exhibition, I had naively assumed that Gursky’s images were straight representations of what was in front of him, whether produced as a single negative or stitched together. I now know that they are composites, shot from a variety of viewpoints and manipulated in post-processing to emphasise or unify elements and, sometimes, to alter the essential truth of the image. For instance, in ‘F1 Pit Stop I’ (2007), not only has he greatly augmented the number of pit crew around each car, but the two teams are shot in different cities and only brought together in post-production (Hayward exhibition guide book)

And, in ‘Rhine II’ (1999), notoriously the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction ($4.34m in 2011) he has achieved the minimalist look by editing out significant details – such as a power station on the opposite bank. This raises some difficult questions about the nature or reality and it representation. In my opinion, it is fundamentally dishonest and negates the point of the deadpan approach. Gursky’s view is that “Reality can only be shown by constructing it … montage and manipulation paradoxically bring us closer to the truth” (Hayward exhibition guide book)

There are some individual images that I enjoyed. ‘Turner Collection’ (1995) is an image of three paintings on a gallery wall. Gursky has produce a picture of pictures at an exhibition. Does that mean that I have a picture of a picture of pictures at an exhibition at an exhibition? I also rather enjoyed the viewers of the image of flight information boards at Düsseldorf airport, looking as if they are reading the boards ‘live’.

Overall, I have mixed feelings about the  exhibition. I was impressed by individual giant prints but, about three-quarters of the way round, I found myself feeling Gursky’d-out and the phrase ‘one-trick pony’ came to mind, possibly unfairly. Maybe the Hayward should issue season tickets to allow the exhibition to be viewed in multiple sessions.

References

Bright, S. (2011) Art Photography Now.. revised edn. London, UK: Thames & Hudson.

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. Third edn. London: Thames and Hudson.

Advertisements

Assignment 5 – starting to mind map

This is an exercise in using mind-mapping to explore and explain the creative process. Here is the mind-map so far.

Constructed Image mindmap 1

The bad news is that I have no idea branches for ‘subject’ yet.

Equipment choices should become clearer once the subject and general treatment emerge. The one decision made is the use of digital rather than film cameras. I enjoy film and have used it for both OCA and camera club work (and some images in my LRPS panel were made with a 1934-vintage Ikonta) but I will be going digital for radical reasons – the facility for immediate review, amendment and re-shooting will be vital.

The technique branch is sketchy. I should also draw a sub-branch for location shooting, but I am unlikely to adopt it because of the lack of control of pictorial elements and lighting. The alternatives are ‘stage set’ (constructing the contextual background in front of the camera) or montage (constructing it in post-production). I am happier with my Photoshop skills than my large-scale construction skills, so I will probably go for montage.

In the context branch, I am torn between a realistic setting or an imaginary one. Imaginary will be more fun’ realistic will be easier.

Remember the Killing Fields

This is a self-directed small project, used in a camera club ‘panel of prints’ competition, presented here because it fits with parts one and two of the C&N course.

The images were taken at the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre, just outside Phnom Penh. Visiting at least one ‘Killing Fields’ memorial is an essential part of visiting Cambodia – remember to take tissues. The place has a beautiful setting with an ‘untended park’ vibe, dotted with features and reminders such as the sites of mass graves and a central stupa, four storeys tall and filled with skulls and some other bones. This was my take in six  images.

Hanging plan killingfields

The prints were displayed in black window mounts, 50x40cm, tight butted together to show a black background. The two central images and the skulls are from the main stupa (the top row centre image is taken from just inside that door in the lower centre image). The top left image is a detail of personal memorials on the fencing around one of the mass graves. The flowers at the bottom right were outside the stupa. I spent some time in Lightroom balancing colour and contrast between images. The colour ‘look’ comes from boosting vibrance while reducing saturation.

Overall, I hope I did justice to the place. The set was well-received by club colleagues and the judge.

Assignment 3 – camera club epilogue

So far, I have kept my OCA work and my camera club (Invicta PC) images separate. It is a bit like introducing your friends to your family, or vice versa, and hoping each set doesn’t embarass you in front of the other. The two worlds are very different, and I have noticed a bit of scorn poured in both directions.

Camera club image judging is very much about the aesthetics and the formal and technical elements of the image, almost entirely ignoring context. However, in my opinion, the best of club work is better composed and of higher technical quality than I have seen in some ‘art world’ exhibitions. They are different and I hope to learn from the best of both.

With that in mind, I entered five of my assignment 3 images in Invicta’s ‘panel of prints’ competition last night. I left out ‘the camera collector’ because it is too similar to ‘the photographer’. They were displayed in a single row of five prints.

Hanging plan selfies

In addition to the expected ‘he looks like a dodgy character’ comments, I had several members telling me how much they liked the set (and one on Facebook telling me I had missed out the police mugshot).

The judge’s comments were interesting. He started with the assumption that the panel was entered as humour. This could be a rare example of external context entering the judging – I was present and well known to everybody. He also picked up on the overall narrative of the set, that we all play many parts, and liked that I had put ‘the day job’ in the centre of the panel (which was pure happenstance). His treatment of formal elements went much beyond my intentions, commenting on things like the similarity of hand positions in images 2 and 4, and 1 and 5.

Altogether a positive experience and something I will do again. I’m not sure how my ‘roadside memorial’ set (assignment 2) would go down, though.

Elliott Erwitt at Beetles+Huxley

I always enjoy a visit to the Beetles+Huxley gallery. The intimate space is ideal for a display of 30-50 domestic-size photographs and the catalogue is always good value at £10. The current exhibition shows prints by Elliott Erwitt to celebrate his 90th birthday, portrait and journalistic work and his private ‘snaps’.

Erwitt1

The least satisfactory are the studio portraits. OK, they are workmanlike but not up to a Karsh standard – and that look with the head tilted back to catch the light might work with Marilyn Monroe but looks really odd on Che Guevara. Erwitt is better in ambient light as his portraits of JFK and Arthur Miller demonstrate.

With his wider journalistic work and particularly with ‘snaps’ we see the element of humour that Erwitt is famous for. Here, Nixon seems to be getting his point across to Kruzchev.

Elsewhere, we see a group staring at an empty picture frame, a woman apparently startled by a shop-window mannequin looking back at her, and boys dangling off an anchor rope in Tahiti.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be an Erwitt show without the doggy pictures.

Erwitt2

Felix, Gladys and Rover are there, as is the dog excavating the beach at East Hampton and a sequence of an old Parisian man greeting a small dog.

Nothing gritty or challenging here (but who wants to be challenged all the time), just a delightful way of spending half an hour.

Reference

Gregory, T., and Huxley-Parlour, G. (2018) Elliott Erwitt. London: Beetles+Huxley.

The ‘Goodfellas’ long take

We are invited to watch a YouTube clip from the 1990 film ‘Goodfellas’ and comment without reading-forward. Specifically, we are asked what the scene tells us about the main character (Henry Hill, played by Ray Liotta) and how it does so.

This is my first viewing of the clip (having not watched the film before), although I viewed it several times in order to make the comments below.

This is a long single take (3 minutes: 4 seconds), following (literally) the main character and a female companion from parking his car to taking their seats in a nightclub, via the back door, kitchens and service corridors, finishing with a pan to the stage and the start of a performance.

Our man (Henry) is important, well-known , and probably powerful, at least in the world of the nightclub, its staff and patrons. He is confident in that power and accepts it as of right. The normal ‘rules’ do not apply to him if he finds them inconvenient. He is wealthy and confident in using and displaying his wealth. He expects to impress his companion, but does not go out of his way to do so.

The clues to his wealth are in his costume, a well-made dark suit, choice of entertainment venue and the way that he distributes tips (which we are told are $20 each) to staff for quite minor services such as parking his car or holding a door open.

We see him breaking conventional rules by leaving his car outside the nightclub rather than parking it elsewhere and walking, by avoiding the queue at the main door and entering via the back door and kitchens, and by having a table set-up especially for him in front of the stage, queue-jumping other customers waiting to be seated.

That he is well-known to the staff is indicated by his informal greetings to, and getting responses from, everybody that he meets or bumps into. Although his route is convoluted, he follows it correctly without backtracking; he has been here, and by this route many times before.

The clues to his power or importance are everybody’s acceptance of his conduct, the manner in which the maitré-d immediately instructs the setting-up of the new table, and the gift of drinks from “Mr Tony” (presumably similarly important because his party also has a front-row table. His acceptance of power is indicated by the way in which everything happens for him without asking (the word “please” is entirely missing, although there are two conventional “thank-yous” – to the maitre-d and “Mr Tony”).

The woman has not known him long; she is surprised by his leaving the car and his entrance through the back door (I suspect that this is an expositional device, allowing him to make off-hand comments for the benefit of the cinema audience) and she allows him to direct her through the kitchen; she starts to take a wrong direction at one point. She appears to gain more confidence as she sees others’ reaction to him. Toward the end, she asks what he does, and is not convinced by his answer that he is ‘in construction’ (remarking on his soft hands). Rather than explaining this by saying he is in management, he claims to be a union delegate which appears to prompt a drum-roll and rimshot as if it were a comic punchline.

I have now read the subsequent paragraph in the course notes.

It appears that I correctly picked-up on the man’s importance and the clues to it. I did not pick up on the use of red to add a sense of mystery and/or danger. I am not convinced that the choice of music (“Then He Kissed Me” by The Crystals) hints at mystery or danger – although I agree about romantic allure. “Leader of the Pack” might have been a better choice in that respect – although maybe too obvious.

 

Assignment 5 – Initial thoughts

Gosh, I thought the brief for assignment 3 was open! This one is simply to construct a stand-alone image (or a series if I fancy it) of my choice.

On the one hand, this is a tremendously freeing brief (if it can be considered a brief at all). On the other, it is similar to the primary school English exercise of “Write a story – anything you like”, which used to fill me with dread and immediately drain my imagination.

OK, let’s look closer. The operative word is ‘construct’ and I note, in flicking through the pages of part 5 to get to the assignment brief, that I will be looking at the works of Crewdson, Wall and Sherman (among others) which sets up an expectation of producing a highly-controlled narrative in visual form.

“If the narrative is to be set in a different era…” means that we are not necessarily expected to produce something that looks modern or contemporary, so all of history together with science fiction and fantasy are available as backdrops. Pros and cons; a fantasy image would be fun to do but there is more work involved in getting costumes and settings right.

We are not told that the final image has to result from a single capture, so montage or composite images are fair game. I feel an attack of surrealism coming on, but won’t be making final decisions until part-way through studying part 5