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.

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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.

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.

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.