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.

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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-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.

Assignment 3 – more first drafts

Today, I shot ‘The Building Surveyor’ and ‘The Sailor’. Same set-up as before. Here are the contact sheets.

As before, the first group of images is about getting the lighting and framing right. After that, I am The Building Surveyor (the day job) with jacket, clipboard, compact camera and damp meter. The final set are The Sailor, wearing a drysuit and buoyancy aid. After the first few, dry, images I went and sprayed myself in the shower for a bit of verisimilitude (then went back and stood in among a lot of mains-powered flash units!)

These are my shortlist.

And here is the updated set of Avedonians

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One more obvious image to add will be ‘The Friday Night Curry Chef’. Beyond that, things become trickier (The Husband and The Father are defined by reference to other people, not by clothing or props) so I might cheat and stop at a set of six.

However

I put these images forward for peer review on the OCA Discuss forum and on the OCA student Facebook pages, and one of my coursemates, Kate Aston (Kate513940) suggested going in for much closer detail, using only small parts of me and the props, for example this crop from The Saxophonist:

unnamed

This is an idea with potential, and I am going to have to work something up and then decide whether to make a change of direction. I suspect that all images will either be hand(s) or partial faces. The only one that might work with feet would be The Sailor (wearing wetboots). Also some decisions on presentation – will high-contrast mono still be appropriate, or should I do something softer and in colour?

Watch this space.

Assignment 3 – some first drafts

And one man in his time plays many parts. (As You Like It: 2,VII)

I have made a start on Assignment 3, the self-portrait exercise, with three of my ‘roles’, photographer, camera collector and saxophonist. Lighting, camera position and settings will be held constant over the series, so pretty much the only variables will be clothing and props. My idea is to keep it deadpan and to emulate the Richard Avedon ‘nowhere for the subject to hide’ look, with contrasty mono and a plain background.

I am working in a very tight space with three lights. Main light is slightly high (30˚ or thereabouts above my eyeline, and slightly left of centre). Fill light is a big soft box on the floor at my feet. I found I got some nasty shadows on the background wall, so I also placed an open-tube light behind my shoulders to illuminate the wall.

Here are the contact sheets.

The first group of images are pilots to sort out lighting and framing. Framing, in particular is ‘interesting’ because the K-1 does not have a fully reversible screen, so I was using it on a tripod, with the self-timer, on a trial and error basis. I eventually left the framing a bit ‘loose’ so that there was room to tidy it up in the final crop. (I know Avedon used the full frame and printed the film rebates, but he had the luxury of being able to frame each subject precisely.)

After that, I have two sets as ‘the photographer’ (with and without the leather jacket) holding the RB67 as naturally as possible. Although some are posed as if taking a photograph, I eventually did not use them because it looks contrived and may be confused with having taken a mirror selfie. I picked up two other cameras for ‘the camera collector but only took two frames. Finally, I was ‘the saxophonist’. I decided against an ‘action shot’ in favour of holding the instrument in a relaxed way – partly, this was instinct and partly a knowledge (from my pub gig photography) that blowing a wind instrument can distort faces.

I selected these images as a shortlist, all cropped to 5×4 proportions and all similarly framed (belt and upwards). The only Lightroom manipulation has been to open up the shadows (move shadows slider well to the right).

Finally, I made my selections, one for each role and made a contrasty mono conversion in Lightroom (increased clarity and contrast, increased luminance in the flesh tones, general tweaking) which I have saved as a user preset titled “Avedon”

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