Self-portraits – Elina Brotherus

It is not clear why the author of the course notes picked two nude self-portraits of Elina Brotherus as illustrations. While most of her work (Brotherus, 2016) includes the photographer as her own model, she is fully-clothed for the majority of it.

Elina Brotherus (b 1972) is a Finnish photographer, now based in Finland and France.  “I was left with this idea of what adults do,” she says. “They do chemistry and if that doesn’t work, they study art. So that’s what I did.” (quoted by Sherwin, 2010). In this she is modest, having gained both an MSc in chemistry and an MA in photography. At the time of Sherwin’s Guardian article, she was best known for her landscape and figure-in-landscape. Her autobiographical photography came later and reflects an earlier period, including the ‘Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe’ and the Model Studies series.

There are differences between Brotherus’ work and that of Francesca Woodman. With Brotherus, I get a much stronger impression of narrative, within individual images and in the series. And, of course, Woodman denied herself the opportunity to mature as a photographer.

The link between Brotherus’ early and late periods of autobiographical work is illustrated in the series ‘12 ans après (12 Years Later) made in 1999 and 2011-13. During a period as artist-in-residence to the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, she made the series ‘Suites françaises’ showing herself learning French with the aid of Post-it notes stuck to parts of her guesthouse rooms. Returning to teach a workshop in 2011, she stayed in the same guesthouse and recorded many of the same places and scenes; the two sets of images creating a dialogue across the years.

Unlike, say, Cindy Sherman whose self-portraits have an air of artifice and glamour, Brotherus is brutally honest about herself and her emotions. Probably the most personal series is ‘Annonciation‘, made between 2009 and 2013, dealing with five years of unsuccessful infertility treatment and her final acceptance of involuntary childlessness.

Annonciation 9, She would go to Anne-Sophie’s school

Annonciation 9, She would go to Anne-Sophie’s school (source: elinabrotherus.com)

Broken up into years by facsimile diary pages, the series charts a progress through hope, despair and tears to a form of acceptance, a female figure with her back to camera in the middle of a snowy landscape.

As a sort of follow-up, ‘Carpe Fucking Diem‘ (2011-15) “ is an attempt to reconstruct the meaning of life for a future that is not what I imagined it to be”. Shot partly in parallel with ‘Annonciation‘ and partly in the two years afterward, the series takes Brotherus from those depths to a new surreal view of things around her. In her own words, “I don’t have children so I don’t need to adopt any preconceived role of an adult. I can give normality the finger. Carpe Fucking Diem is also about inventing strange games for the playground of the camera.”

Reference

Asbæk, M (s.d.) Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <http://www.martinasbaek.com/Artists/Elina-Brotherus&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Brotherus, E (2016) Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <http://www.elinabrotherus.com&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Sherwin, S (2010) Artist of the week 104: Elina Brotherus [online] Available at <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/sep/08/artist-week-elina-brotherus-photography&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

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Self-portraits – Francesca Woodman

Francesca Woodman committed suicide in 1981, at the tragically young age of 22, having failed a suicide attempt the previous year (Wikipedia, 2017). There, I’ve said it – as has pretty much every reviewer of her work that I have read; most use it as their starting point, or even as the central theme for discussing Woodman’s work. I find myself questioning the standard analysis (that her photography indicated a troubled mind and foreshadowed her suicide) as being just to trite, too ‘easy’. She had, after all, been photographing since the age of 13 – almost half of her short lifetime, and I doubt that she was suicidal for all that time.

Indeed, some recent commentaries (Gumport 2011, Salter 2012, Keiffer 2016) suggest that Woodman was self-aware and ambitious, with depression only entering the story around 1980 as a result of lack of recognition, refusal of funding, and a failed relationship.

I also wonder about discussing Woodman’s work as a completed oeuvre. Clearly, it is ‘complete’ in the sense that there will be no more of it but a majority of the images I have found online are from her high school and student days (up to late 1978) and have the look of student experiment, cutting loose with subject matter and camera techniques. I suggest that we are looking at the juvenilia of a potentially great artist, tragically unrealised.

Woodman’s photographs (and some surviving video) are varied and fascinating. Almost all feature human figures, herself or other young models/students and in many of them, the use of long exposures has blurred the body almost out of recognition. A large proportion feature nudity (so public display of anything pre-1976 is problematic) or vintage costume, both of which contribute to a timeless (or outside-of-time) quality.

According to Kate Salter, Woodman says the reason for taking so many self portraits was ‘It’s a matter of convenience – I am always available.’ (quoted in Salter 2012)

It is Woodman’s blurred images (examples here and here) that have attracted most comment – probably because of the association with self-effacement, disappearance and her eventual suicide. However, her sharper images in which she gazes direct to camera seem (to me) to say more about the artist herself. ‘Me and My Roomate, Boulder, Colorado is straight cheesecake, a reminder of happy student days. An untitled image from the ‘Polka Dots‘ collection, and the well-known Providence, Rhode Island ,1976 show a wary, slightly haunted expression in images with surreal elements. In contrast, in ‘From a Series on Angels, Rome, Italy 1977she wears a rather stern and slightly intimidating expression.

Overall, a complex character and a great loss of potential, but interpreting her work as presaging her suicide is just too simplistic.

References

Gumport, E  (2011) The Long Exposure of Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2011/01/24/long-exposure-francesca-woodman/&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Keiffer, M (2016) Haunted Genius: The Tragic Life and Death of Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/new-york/articles/haunted-genius-the-tragic-life-and-death-of-francesca-woodman/&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Salter, K (2102) Blurred genius: the photographs of Francesca Woodman  [online] Available at <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-news/9279676/Blurred-genius-the-photographs-of-Francesca-Woodman.html&gt; [Accessed 30/9/2017].

Wikipedia (2017) Francesca Woodman [online] Available at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesca_Woodman&gt; [Accessed 13/9/17].

Photographing the Unseen – tutor feedback and response

I have now received formative feedback from Garry, my tutor.  Full document here. Edited feedback and responses below. Garry’s notes in blue, my responses in black.

Overall Comments

Very well presented work on the unseen Roadside Memorials (and inclusion of prints is a plus). Responded well to the ‘unseen’ effect and context of public remembering and private ‘memorials’. A subject that has been done before in the aftermath theme by many others (Simon Norfolk, Richard Misrach, Joel Sternfeld and as you highlight Paul Seawright ) but you approached in a more constructed way.

Thank you. I was aware of the Paul Seawright and Richard Misrach works, and I know of other work by Joel Sternfeld – worth researching further. I suppose I ‘do’ constructed work; it is part of my science/engineering background and Garry has made similar comments before.

Your inclusion of text and the subtle ways text and image can interact and play off each other is well formed. Particularly noteworthy is the presentation: prints on a kind of parchment type paper which (whether intentionally or not) has associations of an archival document – presented in a presentation box for viewing. This has all the hallmarks of a classifying system and you should delve deeper into this idea – from the nineteenth century onwards which creates a tension between the personal and familial memories of the loved ones left behind as memorial and the larger ‘collective memory’ of public reminders of tragedy viewed by anonymous mourners.

Interesting. I made a point of using a matt ‘art paper’ (Permajet Portrait White) because that seems to be what is expected (and I like the finish) but the ‘presentation box’ is actually just an A4 paper box, which I used to protect the prints for posting. I will take this as a cue and, at assessment time, I will make up either a box or a folder cover.

I’m not sure about ‘classifying’ but I can understand that producing a dedicated container give the impression of a ‘set’ in a way that a bunch of loose prints doesn’t. Is this the appeal of the family photograph album, compared with the shoebox full of Boots envelopes?

Text is well expressed but could do with some defining of terms earlier on, centred around aftermath and memory themes. Don’t presume you are talking to the same knowledgable viewer so signal your intent, as well as a more visual ‘showing what you are showing’ in regards particularly in regard to the contact prints. Show the process of decision making visually and reflect on it in the blog / leaning log.

Hmmm… maybe a bit of inconsistency within OCA here. My target audience is knowledgeable (tutor and assessors) so I did not feel the need to define terms that have been presented to me in the course materials. If writing or presenting to a different audience (for instance, if describing an OCA course to camera club members) I would use different language and start from a lower level of presumed knowledge.

“Show your working” is something that Garry has fed back before, and something that I must try harder to do.

Feedback on assignment and supporting work

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

• Introduce this notion of ‘unseen’ as being central to questioning one of the basic tenets of photography (its ‘indexicality’) and the difference between objective documentary ‘realism’ and how artists using photography might ‘express’ themselves. How do we photograph things that are essentially invisible (like feelings, memory etc).

Noted for the assessment rework. There will be an introductory paragraph.

• Would be useful to summarise your ‘examples of the unseen’ with the theme and approach that they use – for example your comments on ‘snapshot aesthetic’ of senses. You could apply the same method of description to empty buildings (aftermath theme) and roadside memories (personal / collective memory and aftermath theme)

Noted for the assessment rework. My first blog posting was an attempt at classification, although subsequent postings and the printed assignment notes became simply a list of ideas. Worth grouping and classifying again.

Technical and visual

Well executed. Excellent print quality (love the matt document effect). You could consider perhaps:

• was that time of day appropriate (direction of sun falling on flowers and given depth of field to the scene – a preliminary recce with an iPhone is good idea for this as is using web sites such as weather underground or apps such as photographers’ ephemeris to plan ahead (see – Readings)

OK, I confess. I only made one visit to each site, and dealt with whatever conditions I found there. I was uncomfortable about being there at all and wanted to get ‘in and out’ without being challenged. I then relied on software to produce useable images.

I know and have used The Photographers’ Ephemeris before, usually on holiday when planning a revisit to a scene.

Shutter speed. A personal preference but don’t pictures taken at a fairly high shutter speed of passing cars make them look like they are parked? Perhaps a little blur – experimenting with shutter from 8th to 60th to see the extent would have been stronger. It would also imply the ‘compassion fatigue’ of general public as cars pass by the memorial of a tragedy that is once removed from their own lives.

Looking back at the EXIF data, I see that all images were taken in aperture-priority automatic on a compact (Canon G-1X) with a smallish sensor. Shutter speeds were between 1/60 and 1/800. This is my ‘snapshot default’ setting and it may be that the images would have benefitted from something more considered.

Depth of Field/focus

As last assignment feedback: outline your process here and in the blog. Could you do some tests and include them?

• This kind of work probably needs maximum depth of field on most of them (Christopher Wakeman, Stuart Wikens, Philip Baker, Lenne sad Marie, Jane Hobbs, Leane Culver) less so for Mark Whalley (which is kind of abstracted) and Osvaldas Mimsa (where you show the attention to the written scrawls on the post).

My inclination is in the other direction. The photograph used in my blog posting introducing the idea has a very shallow depth of field, and isolates the memorial from the surrounding scene and traffic that way.

• Of course you can adopt a variety of approaches and understand that some of these you are drawing attention to the flowers as memorials but they can be done by making the viewer work and slowing down the viewer’s gaze (which maximum d.o.f does – as the viewer tends to consider the whole internal context of the image rather than being led by the imposition of the photographer. This is the difference between gaze and glance and the strategies employed – in differing ways by Frank and Evans (see Papageorge in – assignment 1 – Readings)

Hmmm…. I quite like leading the viewer’s gaze (which I do using contrast and exposure tricks in this set). Is this a ‘camera club influence’ that needs exorcising? Certainly, it is a dominant theme of camera club judges’ comments. “Gaze versus glance” is a topic for a future blog posting.

Creativity

Justify your approach. So for example “Many were taken in harsh sunshine” say why. Forensic Gaze? As you could have chosen a different time of day to firstly avoid post production as well as link with the ‘metaphor’. This is why recce first shoot research and notation on contacts is a good move for this kind of work (its not an ‘event’ that you can’t come back to the following day and revise.

Valid point. Personal discomfort/unease triumphing over due consideration.

Contact Sheets

The contact sheet again lacks notation. Difficult to do I understand. You have shown in some sense a variety of approaches (IMG_8653) as a contextual view then (IMG-8654) as a more ‘illustrative’ strait document. This conceptual thinking is proving useful, although the main body of exploration presents alternatives of essentially the same composition and visual stance. Could have in this process (as I think response in the blog by peers suggests) offered yourself alternative visual stances (such as the views of memorials you have decided on and a more front facing ‘forensic’ view whilst you are on the same location. I think your response works (you justify it) but seem to have made those decisions a priori before exploring them with your camera. At this stage use the idea of contact prints as a visual recce (which may include having to re-shoot one you have mulled over the edit). Its leaning the visual approaches and documenting them through process.

In my film/darkroom days, I did use contact sheets a lot more, and marked them up with ‘select’ and rough crops. However, that is not the way that I work in digital; I make decisions based on on-screen grids of images (grid views in Lightroom and Bridge) which are the electronic, and ephemeral, analogues of contact sheets. Producing marked-up printouts seems artificial; not so much “show your working” as “construct a post-hoc version of your working”.

‘Exploring with the camera’ is pretty much standard practice (it is embarrassing to see the image count sometimes) but I do like to do some editing before pressing the button (Garry’s ‘a priori decisions’)

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

Context

Well written proposal on memorials, metaphor and ‘the nature of remembrance and its tokens’

Thank you.

• When describing this work in text do define key terms (such as Anchorage and Relay) briefly. I understand its a response to the course material but see the write up or ‘statement of intent’ that you would send to an editor or curator as separate document where key theoretical terms should be defined first.

I’m probably influenced here by the EYV course notes, which set maximum word-counts, therefore requiring some economy in writing. If I am assuming a more ‘lay’ reader than hitherto, and if there is no strict word limit (apart from a personal preference not to be prolix) then I will define key terms.

• The ‘open’ text is strong as it leave the viewer to make interpretations without illustration. As you say in the blog: “The viewer is an integral part of the subject/ photographer/image/viewer sequence and will extract his/her own meaning from the image”

• As above, the blog needs a little reworking to show the summary of your research. Such ‘insights’ as your re-addressing of Terry Barrett could possibly be summarised at the top (or in a separate ‘learning log’ menu. In other words use the blog as a ‘repository’ off found material research and responses to eh exercises then summarise. This means reviewing what you have found and making judgments on it which are used to ‘inspire’ or contextualise your practice work. That’s reflective leaning. Many students see ‘research’ as simply collating information without the analysis. Its on it sway but could do with ‘signalling’ so that assessors can quickly see your ‘journey’.

I assume this means short-form write-ups under the ‘Research & Reflection’ menu heading, possibly sub-dividing the ‘Other notes’ sub-heading.

Valid suggestion. I tend to read something, say “OK, that was interesting” and then move on. A bit of retrospection would be valuable.

• Peer review in OCA forums is good. Take what you need from this but of course use your own judgment and justify your approach (which you have done). I agree that a front facing ‘forensic’ gas might have been useful. Do not however negate the approach you have taken. Try both and make judgements in the contact editing stage with a view to revising and updating. This kind of work should be re-visited as you progress.

My standard approach to feedback, whether peer review, camera club judge or tutor, is to spend a bit of time with it, try out the suggestions, then make my own decisions.

Suggested reading/viewing

Edited out of this posting, but added to my reading list.

Pointers for the next assignment

• Make more of the developmental and critical choices you make when working with a ‘contact sheet’ study examples (above). Make the contact sheet show the process of decision making and mark making from the different viewpoints

Artificial, but I will try.

Critical analysis of images (as above).

Important. I do try it with individual images in blog postings, but I need to do it more.

 

Gregory Crewdson – Cathedral of the Pines

For the first time ever, the Photographers’ Gallery have turned over all three principal gallery spaces to a single exhibition, Cathedral of the Pines by Gregory Crewdson. I visited on the first day, in June, and it has taken me two months to shake off my writer’s block and blog something about it. There are multiple threads to discussing a Crewdson project, so let’s just dive in and have a go (in no particular order).

First, there is the image quality. No reproduction on a website or in a book is going to come close. These are large-format images, presented slightly larger than 900x1200mm and with pretty much front-to-back sharpness. Lighting appears natural (if slightly cool) although it is really very tightly controlled.

Second, there is the size of the production team. Many photographers are used to working alone, or having a very small team – an assistant or two to move lights around, a make-up artist and/or stylist for the model – but Crewdson works with a group of about 15 (video interview played at the exhibition), looking more like the production team of a small movie. I find I am asking myself questions about authorship; is it correct to name Crewdson alone, or would it be more honest to have something like movie end-credits displayed somewhere. My questions could be exemplified and summarised in one, “Why does a photographer need a Director of Photography?”

Third, and by no means least, there are the images themselves. We find ourselves in the small town of Beckett, Massachusetts and its surrounding pine forests. The cast of actors (a better word than ‘models’ given the filmic, big production style) show us a version of rural American life, but distinctly surreal or dream-like; Indeed, the amount of nudity reflects a classic dream trope. The actors seem isolated, slightly awkward, and universally deadpan in expression. (Crewdson says his frequent instruction is “give me less”)

I am intrigued by my own changing reaction to this work. At the gallery, I was dismissive, asking myself “Why bother with a big production to shoot what are essentially snapshots?” However, over the past few weeks I have been mentally revisiting (and looking at my photographs – above – taken of the images) and reassessing. These images all have a narrative – there is a sense of a story before and after – and an attention to detail that is not, at first, apparent. I will be returning before the exhibition closes in October.

References

Photographers’ Gallery (2017) Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines [online] Available at <http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/content/gregory-crewdson-cathedral-pines&gt; [Accessed 24/8/2017].

Joel Meyerowitz at B+H

The Beetles+Huxley exhibition Joel Meyerowitz: Towards Colour 1962-1978 presented a very different view of Meyerowitz’ work from the large-format Ground Zero images discussed previously. Unsurprisingly, given that the exhibition was mounted in conjunction with Leica, it deals with his 35mm early work before he bought his 8×10 in 1976.meyerowitzBH

Meyerowitz’ photography is largely self-taught having been inspired to pick up a camera when, as a junior art director, he was briefed to ‘supervise’ Robert Frank on a photoshoot. Being self-taught, and therefore unladen with the baggage of art-world received wisdom, he was attracted to colour from the start. As a matter of practicality, however, he carried a camera loaded with monochrome film as well as one loaded with colour, and much of his early published work is in mono.

There seem to be two threads as we look at the work chronologically. First, the move from predominantly monochrome into exclusively colour work. Meyerowitz regarded a European road trip in 1966 as his coming-of-age as an artist, and had excluded mono from his work by 1972.

Colour describes more things – more radiance, more wavelengths, more sensation. (Meyerowitz, concatenation of two quotes from the exhibition catalogue)

Second, there is a move away from the traditional ‘decisive moment’ images (epitomised by the ‘Kiss Me Stupid’ image above) to something more decentralised or non-hierarchical in which everything, including the colours, contributed equally to the image.

I was trying to unlock photography from the aesthetic of ‘the decisive moment’ – a difficult thing to give up – and to bring the photograph closer to the experience itself, which is inchoate and unresolved in ways that I had been reluctant to deal with before. (Meyerowitz, exhibition catalogue)

Although I have enjoyed Meyerowitz’ later large-format colour work, I found that my preferences in this exhibition were towards the earlier work, mono and colour. Analysing my own reaction, I believe it is because I am reluctant to let go of the concept of the decisive moment.

As always with B+H exhibitions, they make good use of a fairly small space – the photographs are close together but never feel crowded – and the catalogue is excellent value at £10.

Burning with Desire – The Conception of Photography

I bought this book, Geoffrey Batchen’s 1997 alternative take on the history of photography, based on a footnote in the EYV course notes which promised ‘a fascinating account of the origins of photography’. I eventually read it as part of my procrastination over assignment 2 of C&N.

The central part of the book is a post-modern take on what could be thought of as the pre-history of photography. Taking as his thesis the notion that Daguerre and Fox Talbot did not come up with the idea (of fixing the image of a camera obscura) from thin air, he looks back at philosophical thought and art in the 18th and early 19th centuries, to see the notions evolve. This is not something that started in one mind or one place; Batchen tracks down 24 people, who he dubs the ‘proto-photographers’, from eight countries, who expressed ‘the desire to photograph’ (although not in those words) before 1839. Beyond that, there is a cast of characters who have influenced or documented them.

The account is scholarly, picked-up in a lot of detail, well-referenced and difficult to summarise in review. Chapters 2, 3 and 4 carry the story and are worth reading. Chapters 1 and 5 are mainly postmodern theorist-speak and can be ignored if one is only after the history.

A final section, ‘Epitath’ (Batchen 1997: 204-216) echoes Delaroche’s ‘From today, painting is dead” with a prediction that digital imaging would be the death of photography as practiced for the previous 150 years. Like Mark Twain’s obituary, it was premature. While the popular use of film has fallen dramatically, it is enjoying a hipster revival. Of more concern is Batchen’s thesis that, with computer-generated imagery indistinguishable from in-camera digital imaging, photography would lose its privileged status as evidence of the real. With ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ very much to the fore at present, watch this space …

Reference

Batchen, G. (1997) Burning with Desire : The Conception of Photography. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Don McCullin – Unreasonable Behaviour

Sir Donald McCullin CBE HonFRPS is probably Britain’s greatest living documentary photographer. Known mainly as a war photographer, he has also covered poverty in Britain and abroad and the famines in Biafra (man-made) and Ethiopia (natural). In recent decades, he has reinvented himself as a landscape photographer, but that postdates this autobiography, first published in 1992. I read the 2002 edition, unchanged apart from a single-page preface.

The writing style is very direct and unflinching in its detail. This is not the work of a man showing off his education and erudition (McCullin is dyslexic and left school aged 15, on the death of his father) but one who has seen the worst that mankind can dish out and is trying to make sense of it for the general reader.

The early chapters cover his childhood in Finsbury Park, one of the poorer and rougher areas of London at the time, as a war child and occasional evacuee. He speaks first-hand of poverty and street gangs. He buys a camera during National Service, and afterward photographs Finsbury Park life and the street gangs. In 1959 a member of one of the gangs was arrested for killing a policeman and the Observer used one of McCullin’s photographs of the gang. An illustrious  career is started, with commissions to record poverty and street life elsewhere in Britain.

The main part of the book, however, deals with McCullin’s documentary work in pretty much every international trouble spot from the raising of the Berlin Wall, up to but not including the Falklands (McCullin is bitter about being excluded – too independent to toe the official propaganda line), in the Middle East, Vietnam, Africa and South America. He spent time in Idi Amin’s jail and has been wounded and caught malaria, in the course of pursuing his  stories.

In the context of this course (Context and Narrative) it is interesting to see how McCullin builds up his philosophy of what photojournalism and documentary mean to him. He pursues an individual course, even when on a commission, independently and honestly showing us what he sees. He deals with the question of voyeurism by concentrating on the ‘ordinary people’, civilians caught up in the horror, ‘other ranks’ soldiers etc. and bringing their story to the fore, and to the attention of readers (starvation in Biafra, for instance)

In the latter part of the book, it is clear that the work is taking its toll, and McCullin also charts the changing attitudes of newspaper owners and editors, looking for softer ‘lifestyle’ stories rather than the uncomfortable dramas he is used to recording. In the final chapters, he is obviously at a low ebb with rejection from the Falklands and the death of his first wife. The book was originally written as a form of therapy and ends on a low note. The 2002 preface tells us of a general upturn and his taking up landscape work.

I see that there has been a 2015 update, written to celebrate McCullin’s 80th birthday. It is on my Amazon wish-list.

Reference

McCullin, D. (2002) Unreasonable Behaviour London: Random House