Felix, Gladys and Rover

We are asked to comment on the formal structure of Elliott Erwitt’s image ‘Felix, Gladys and Rover. New York, USA. 1974’, and whether the structure contributes to the meaning of the image.

I recall that, when I first saw this image, my attention was first drawn to the woman’s (Gladys?) booted legs and the chihuahua, which are the darkest and highest-contrast parts of the image. I saw the second pair of larger legs en passant but concentrated first on the chihuahua which appeared to be the main subject and the focus of humour. It has an odd expression (wall-eyed) and is clothed in a knitted wooden hat and jacket – suggesting a cold day, as reinforced by the woman’s overcoat and boots.

I noticed the legs at the left of the frame but, on my first viewing, assumed they were human and uninteresting. It is only on a longer examination that we realise that the second pair of legs belong to a very tall dog, probably a Great Dane. This is the element of Barthesian punctum, or what Michael Freeman calls ‘the reveal’. This double-take realisation forces us to re-evaluate the picture and the relationships between its three subjects, particularly the size difference between the dogs which we assume are both owned by Gladys. We might speculate about details of their day-to-day life; are there two different sized dog-baskets (or kennels, or food dishes) for instance? Certainly, there must be practical differences in the exercise regime.

This is not a conventional rule-of-thirds picture. Gladys is centrally located and the chihuahua (is he Felix or Rover, by the way?) is entirely within the right-hand third. OK, the left-hand vertical third line coincides with Dane’s left leg and it is possible to draw a weak lower horizontal third through the ankles of the four longer legs and the belly of the chihuahua, but I do not see those as major elements. To me, the main organising elements are the expressed vertical lines (four long legs, the lead and the secondary elements of the tree to the left and gazebo to the right) and the implied horizontals (hemline of the coat, bottoms of the feet, and a weak central horizon line), giving an overall grid to the image. The even spacing of the main elements contributes to the impression of an ordered grid.

This is not an HCB ‘decisive moment’ grab shot, but something more considered. I do not know whether we are looking at models or a group that Erwitt has met by chance  and persuaded to pose, but he has taken time and trouble to arrange the elements properly. By getting himself (or at least his camera lens) down to chihuahua eye level, we are able to get an idea of its viewpoint and to emphasise with it; nearly everything in its world must be taller. If this were a grab shot as the subjects were walking toward the photographer, all four Great Dane legs would be in frame and the element of punctum would be lost. Instead, the Dane has been posed side-on so that its rear legs are out of frame to the left. (Well, nearly so. The Magnum image above shows part of a thigh in the top left corner, which has been cropped out from the version presented in the course notes).

Erwitt clearly loves dogs. At least four of his books (Son of Bitch, To the Dogs, Dog Dogs and Woof) are devoted to them, and his doggy images have elements of anthropomorphism and humour. Felix, Gladys and Rover is no exception. Although the chihuahua is part of the image, we feel that we see the world from its viewpoint, emphasised by the low camera angle and the decision to crop the other two subjects at knee level. Its expression and clothing inject the sense of humour, but we also know that it is cared for to the extent of keeping it warm on a cold day. I also get a feeling of closeness, love and/or friendship between the three subjects, emphasised by the grid structure and their physical closeness.

[according to WordPress, that was 683 words – which is a good indication of the level of detail that will be required to produce 1000 words on a single image in assignment 4]

Advertisements

A Philistine’s progress – on re-reading Terry Barrett

I am currently reading Terry Barrett’s ‘Criticizing Photographs‘ as a prelude to making a serious start on Part Four (Reading Photographs). I will blog a review when I finish it, but I am already finding scope for a bit of personal reflection.

Actually, I am re-reading the book and this is the second copy that I have owned. I originally bought it in 2010 when I had just joined a camera club and was hoping to get some insight into how judges evaluate images on competition nights. I found it useless for that purpose, full of irrelevant and off-topic material and promoting a view of ‘art’ that  I did not recognise, so I disposed of it.

Now, seven years on and two years into the OCA degree course, I have a second copy which I am re-reading with different eyes and finding it quite fascinating. It is dealing with topics that I recognise, and I am now familiar with (or at least have heard of) many of the photographers, critics and photographs that he references.

The point of this post is a realisation that my horizons have broadened since starting this course. I am not knocking camera club judges (and I have seen some snobbish comments about camera clubs on the OCA Facebook and forum pages) but I recognise that there are different ways of looking at photographs. The club approach looks at images in a formal, technical and aesthetic way but does not look behind them at the meaning. Judges will often say that they are only interested in the image as presented, not in the process by which it was made. On the other hand, the technical quality and composition of club competition images is superior to many of the examples that the OCA course promotes. I hope that, by immersing myself into both cultures, I can become a photographer encapsulating the best of both worlds.

Null photographs

This is a brief posting in response to a question posed in the introduction to part four (C&N, p92). The thesis is that photography is much like a language, although expressed in imagery rather than words. In most photography, the goal is to communicate or express something. We are challenged to think of photographs that are not used as a means of expression or communication.

This is equivalent to voicing a semantically null sentence. While individual words in sentences can be semantically null (‘do’ or ‘that’ can be used to improve the flow of a sentence without adding to its meaning, as can the caricature teenager’s ‘like’) it is difficult to frame an entire sentence entirely without meaning. Similarly with photographs; almost all have some message, even if only as simple as “This is what [subject] looks like” or “This happened in front of my camera at the moment I pressed the shutter button”

It may be a matter of intent. The simple message may not be the goal of the photograph, just a byproduct. However, meaning exists.

A photograph may not have a goal at all, simply a random pressing of the shutter (accidental or otherwise). Those photographers who rebel against HCB’s concept of the ‘decisive moment’ can fall into this category, which may explain why I find it difficult to enjoy (or even take seriously) their work.

At the other end of the scale, an image might have been taken deliberately but the subject has been deliberately distorted or obscured to the extent that the image becomes completely abstract and potentially meaningless.

Assignment 4 – first thoughts

This is a ‘naive first thoughts’ posting on assignment 4, in advance of reading any of the course notes for part 4. For the first time, an assignment is not expecting images as its ‘deliverable’ but a written piece.

It is good to see that OCA are sticking with the traditional exchange rate (1 picture = 1000 words). How tricky will that be? My ‘day job’ building survey reports run to 4000-5000 words and are based on a form of research; my survey is a fact-gathering exercise and the report requires me to organise my thoughts and express them in a concise and clear way. The differences are that when looking at a building, I am dealing with very familiar territory and I have evolved a template for reporting in a logical sequence.

In my previous journeys through the groves of academe, I have encountered coursework exercises requiring 1000-3000 words. However, these have typically been in answer to a set question. The present exercise is very broad and it appears that the first task will be to identify the questions that I will eventually answer.

Actually, the first task will be to identify a photograph to work with. An easy option is to use one of the ‘standards’, such as HCB’s Behind the Gare St. Lazare or Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl, both of which have had thousands of words written already; the downside is the difficulty of coming up with anything new to say about either. I have a favourite photograph, by Sergio Larrain, of a girl standing on a lion at the base of Nelson’s Column which may offer the opposite problem, a difficulty in finding enough words at all.

I have personal reading list, in addition to the course notes. I read Judith Williamson’s Decoding Advertisments and Richard Salkeld’s Reading Photographs when I started C&N, and will now revisit them. I also want to re-read Terry Barrett’s Criticising Photographs, which I first read eight years ago and didn’t ‘get’ (because I had a different motivation at the time). I also have Sylvan Barnet’s A Short Guide to Writing about Art, but that seems to be more about writing style than about photography.

 

Self-portrait exercise – submission and reflection

After spending far too much time ‘stalled’ in Part 3, Assignment Three the self-portrait exercise is now completed and ready to go off to my tutor. This is the final image set.

The changes from the images presented previously are the use of the dodge tool to eliminate the dark patch of background at the top left of each image and (of course) adding the text caption. I chose a rounded version of Arial font as being an appropriate balance between formality and informality (artificial handwriting fonts such as Comic Sans do not ‘work’ for me) and it is a font that does not draw attention to itself and away from the image.

Here are the contact sheets (submitted versions are marked up in manuscript)

… and here are the assignment notes

Reflection against assessment criteria

Technical and visual skills

Again, I am generally happy with my technical and visual skills. This was an interesting exercise in using studio lighting without being able to see how the light falls. Assessment and adjustments were made on viewing the results on the camera back screen. Post-processing was appropriate to the effect that I wanted.

Quality of outcome

The images fulfil both the project brief and my personal brief. I believe the basic idea (Shakespeare’s “one man in his time plays many parts”) is presented clearly and coherently.

Creativity

Tricky. The basic idea has been done before (but then how many haven’t?) and the style is modelled on well-known images. However, I had to work out my own lighting and camera styles (owning neither an 8×10 nor a big north-lit studio)

Self-portraiture is a new area for me, a bit outside the comfort zone. I am not particularly uncomfortable on the opposite side of somebody else’s camera, but the exercise felt self-indulgent.

As always, the question of ‘personal voice’ is one for the viewer.

Context

Mixed. The diary part of the exercise generated considerable self-reflection but the subject, by its nature (me) did not require a great deal of research. Similarly, I did not do a great deal of research on alternative treatments. Although there was no ‘light-bulb moment’ I have to say that the Avedon influence suggested itself to me very early and was self-evidently (to me at least) the right way to go.

Self-absented portraiture (examples)

The course notes give four examples of photographers who are said to be using self-absented portraiture to ‘tell the viewer something of who they are’ (p83). I find myself disagreeing with this assessment in all but one case. I also suggest that these are not the best examples that could have been chosen.

Maria Kapajeva’s series Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman can be seen on her website. It is a set of environmental portraits of young women (probably Kapajeva’s contemporaries) who, with one exception (the woman in the garden appears nervous), appear strong, self-confident and challenging the camera. This is borne out by the artist’s notes (course notes p84, a drop-down box on her website, and in several other places) which make it clear that she is interested in portraying the women as themselves. However, I do not see them as saying anything about Kapajeva herself (or at least no more than any photograph says about its photographer).

Anna Fox’s Cockroach Diary appears to fit better into Part 2 Project 2 (Image and Text) rather than this section. It is an example of narrative and describes a situation Fox has lived through, but I did not get any sense of a ‘portrait’ of her.

Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of Yourself’ has been discussed in a previous posting, also under the Image and Text heading, where it is a better fit.

Another photographer, and body of work, discussed earlier (Part 2 Project 3, Photographing the Unseen) is Peter Mansell. His series ‘Paralysis’ and ‘Check Up’, and the image ‘My Space’ deserve to be placed in this Self-Absented Portraiture section because of how much they tell about Mansell, his injuries and the detail of his daily life, coping with them.

Nigel Shafran (website here) is a British photographer, engaged on fashion and architecture work in the 1990s when he started on personal projects, collecting and sequencing photographs of daily life and his partner, Ruth. These became home-made books, then a calendar, and are the starting point for his current fine-art work (Jobey, 2008). ‘Washing Up, 2000‘, featured in the C&N course notes, stands alongside series on bookshelves, shopping on supermarket checkouts, and random people on the escalators at Paddington, among others.

Unfortunately, Shafran’s website does not caption or title any of the individual images, which is a pity. The Washing Up example image in the course notes is titled ‘Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants‘, presumably a description of the meals recently eaten which generated the washing up. This gives a glimpse of the mundane details of his daily life (most of the images feature  the same sink), and I am intrigued about the titles of the others. This is particularly so when there is a quirky extra detail, like tinsel around an electric flex, or a paintbrush.

Course-note questions

You may have noticed that Washing-up is the only piece of work in Part Three created by a man. It is also the only one with no human figures in it, although family members are referred to in the captions.

• Did it surprise you that this was taken by a man? Why?

I believe that there is a difference between men’s and women’s photography but I would be hard-pushed to define it in any way. I am intrigued as to why the author of the course-notes found it necessary to mention it or raise the question. Is there some gender-agenda about who does the washing up who or notices it more? (In our home, the rule is that the washing-up is done by the one who didn’t cook the meal)

We get a clue by considering Washing Up alongside some of Shafran’s other series, such as Bookshelves or Packages. These are typologies of the mundane – which put me in mind of the works of Ed Ruscha or Eric Tabuchi, which I looked at during EYV. (Unfortunately, Tabuchi’s website has lapsed in the interim). Typologies do appear to be a male preserve (notable exception, Hille Becher), probably driven by a male need to systematise.

I regard Washing Up as a typology series which tells me something about the Shafran household.

• In your opinion does gender contribute to the creation of an image?

As noted above, I believe there is a difference. This is something I first consciously noticed after a magazine ‘reader workshop’ that I took part in, in 2012 (Roberts and Clinch, 2012) at Dungeness. This is a rugged place that oozes testosterone (fishing, large power tools and stuff discarded and left lying around when it becomes redundant). The two male participants went ‘gritty’ and emphasised those features, while the woman found softer and more beautiful images. I see some of the same differences between male and female members of my camera club on competition nights.

• What does this series achieve by not including people?

To have included people, whether actively washing up or as ‘innocent bystanders’ would tell an entirely different story. The person would automatically become the point of interest. Presented as they are, we concentrate on what is around the sink, and what might have happened (cooking, decorating) to cause it to be there.

• Do you regard them as interesting ‘still life’ compositions?

At one level, yes. However, as Jobey points out, Shafran does not consciously arrange his subject matter, but finds the image in what is in front of him. The phrase ‘still life composition’ suggests deliberate arrangement.

References

Jobey, L. (2008) Photographer Nigel Shafran: domestic harmony [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/oct/23/nigel-shafran&gt; [Accessed 1/12/2017].

Roberts, E., and Clinch, T. (2012) ‘A day at Dungeness’. Black+White Photography  (134), pp.40-43.

Exercise – childhood memory

For this exercise, I am working with ‘found material’ from a family archive (literally). Some years ago I digitised my father’s collection of Kodachrome slides dating between Christmas 1958 and the mid-1970s. My starting point is an image from 1961, taken on my first day at school (despite the passage of 56 years, I can remember the day but not the photograph). It shows my father and his Ford Consul, with me sitting on the bonnet in my new school uniform.

I decided to use this exercise to explore the idea of memory when crystallised into physical form through photography. In particular, I was interested in the various forms it can take. A secondary influence is the ‘Drosté effect‘ where an image is recursively repeated within itself.

I made a print from the scan and photographed my hand holding it. This represents the photograph in its traditional physical form, a ‘hard copy memory’ as it were, such as we can see in countless family albums of the 20th century.

I then re-photographed the resulting image on my laptop computer screen. This represents the 21st century manifestation, where our memories are held in an insubstantial electronic form and viewed on a screen (computer, tablet or smartphone). Effectively, this is a memory of the way memories used to be kept.

childhoodmemory2a

Finally, I uploaded the resulting image to this blog. We now have a memory of a memory, distributed via (and discussed on) social media, which pretty much describes the prevailing current use of photography.