Friday, 31 December 2010

Street Photography week 13: Look closer to home

Doh! Missed the deadline for this week again (I got my days confused and thought today was the final day for submission). Must do better next week/year! I've spent some time considering which picture I would submit this week, and although I've missed the deadline I've decided to record my thought process for development purposes.

I had decided that I would probably take the instruction literally and use some of my Christmas pictures. I wondered if these, being taken indoors in a home setting could be considered 'street' but on reflection I can't see why not. The term Street Photography normally refers to pictures taken in street situations, but the term doesn't include any picture taken in the streets, or always exclude pictures taken elsewhere. The most satisfactory definition I've found to date is in the opening chapter to 'Street Photography Now' by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren, who speak of "the impulse to take candid pictures in the stream of everyday life". They quote Nick Turpin, who explains that: "It is important to me that my personal pictures don't have to "do" anything. They don't have to sell in a gallery or sit well beside the ads in a magazine. I don't have to make pictures that are easily categorised. They are not reportage, there is no subject, they are not art, there is no great technical craft or aesthetic beauty. They are just pictures about life."

The aspects of 'street' that I'm channelling in these pictures is that random stream of everyday interactions.

This was my first possible picture for the selection. I like the fact that the Disney Princess dress is in focus and the faces blurred. In some ways it's a very generic girly Christmas image, which I'm sure many would recognise and identify with on some level. The colours and the very feminine nature of the present leaves some room for other thoughts - the messages we give our kids, the roles of the sexes, the commercialisation of dreams and so on, without making any too obvious single point.

This was another thought. I liked the two separate groups, each preoccupied with their own interactions. What are the men talking about? What's the little girl thinking of? I think the picture is quite an interesting one. It captures the randomness or a big family event with breakaway groups and a variety of interactions.

This is the one I would have submitted to the pool if I had got my act together in time. It's candid and unposed, as the others are. Of the three I felt that this was the most ambiguous. The look between father and son may be benign or may betray some irritation, or something different. You can't see what father and daughter are bending over. The composition and angle of the photograph are off balance adding an extra level of unresolved tension. And this element of tension and ambiguity was why I thought it fitted best into the street category.

Winter trees

It's been this kind of day for me today. Woke up with a fuzzy headache and haven't quite managed to lift the heaviness. Maybe my New Year resolution should be to try again at sorting out my sleep problem. In the meantime I thought I'd let the winter trees talk for me.

On love and laughter, and memory

I had a lovely Christmas break at my friend's house. Naturally I took pictures. Here are a few of my favourites. The theme of this selection is love and laughter and the camera's ability to capture events and turn them into a visual memory or record. These kind of pictures are very much my photographic roots: I took over the family instamatic at a relatively young age, driven by a very Celtic sense that time was passing and that I wanted to record the moments before they went forever (and also by a certainty that fewer heads would be cut off if they let me do it). Looking at old snapshots I find that the pictures fix moments in time and become part of the memories in themselves, as they replace or at least fix the original memory of the event. A subject for further thought as the year goes on. But in the meantime, a few snaps:

A heavenly choir

Father and daughter

There were quieter moments too, as people contemplated Christmasses past...

Or dreamt of faraway places...

Some found quiet corners to get away from it all, but the all-seeing camera found them out.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Inspiration: Jay Maisel

"It's all about light, and colour, and gesture." The pure joy of looking at the world and seeing what it has to offer fills this video. Well worth watching for inspiration on a slow day (or at any time).

Jay Maisel's website here.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Omo people

I tried to embed this video before and it didn't work. Hopefully it will this time. With many thanks to Jill who first drew my attention to the Omo people.

PS: there is some nudity in this video. Please don't click on it if you are likely to be offended by that.

Pretty colourful

Rudbeckia at Mount Ephraim. And a shot of colour and beauty to brighten the day.

Student protests: different perspectives

It was interesting to have a bird's eye view of the student protests. I work near Parliament Square - this is the view from an office window. We watched the marchers come into the square. The first people we saw were a group or maybe 20 youngish lads (they looked to be schoolkids in their mid-teens) running along in front of the main body of students. Many of these boys had covered their faces and most were carrying sticks and other things I couldn't see so clearly. They were visibly pumped up - full of energy - looking for something to hit with their sticks. I had the strong impression that these boys and other similar groups I saw as the day went on had watched reports of previous demos on the telly and come along ready for some action.

As with the first march, the vast majority of people I saw were protesting quietly and sensibly. They were well-behaved and keen to get their point across. there were some very good banners - my favourite was 'We haven't got a Clegg to stand on'. Look at my picture above, which shows the scene shortly before the protesting broke through the barriers and swarmed onto Parliament Green. You can see a mass of people behaving relatively well. And a flare, showing the pockets of people who had come prepared for violence. What you can't see from this is the incredible noise - drums, chants, sound systems - or the smell of smoke which became increasingly strong as the day went on.

You can see how many more protesters there were than police. We were close to one of the containment points and I must say that I thought the police who held those lines were both very brave and extremely restrained in the face of a good deal of deliberate provocation. I was very tempted to go out and take some close up snaps - that red flare was particularly tempting. But I needed to get on with my work. I never felt personally threatened at any time by what was going on. Although people at the very front of the battle lines did get hurt I had no doubt that I could mingle in with the crowd without getting hurt as long as I was sensible. Young lads with a lust for violence and a target can be very dangerous and I don't mean to downplay what happened or condone the damage. But anyone who has ever seen or heard a mob with real bitterness in their heart would I think be struck by the feeling that there was a good deal of play acting here.

You can find some close-up pictures of the scene on this link.

The square was remarkably clean the next morning, with all the debris cleared away and most of the graffiti already almost invisible (the stonework had been steam-cleaned). Business as usual really.

The doors of the Supreme Court building were one of the few instances where graffiti was still visible (I don't think the oak doors would have responded well to a steam-clean).

I rarely see anyone making a call from these phone boxes: they are mostly full of tourists taking souvenir pictures of themselves. That morning they had an extra level of interest for the tourist snaps.

 And of course the ever-present media were, well, present everywhere you looked.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Brighton Photo Biennial 2010

Where to start? This is a note of a packed day spent at the Brighton Photo Biennial with OCA staff and fellow students. It's almost a month to the day since the visit, so this is something of a late blog. The delay is partly because I've been busy but also in no small part due to the fact that we saw so much and there was a lot to think about and almost too much to say. This may be a bit of a long blog but will try to keep it manageable by concentrating on a few of the main exhibitions.

The event was curated by Martin Parr and his interest in the kitsch and the positively bizarre was evident everywhere. There were some serious and even beautiful explorations but these were outweighed by the sheer number of the odder ones (Goya's Firing Squad reproduced in vegetables anyone?). My overall impression of the event was of the sheer number and variety of pictures, and an overall aesthetic which contrived to give the appearance of carelessness.

This picture was part of a series of prints of Queer Brighton by Molly Landreth.One of my favourite exhibits, Molly's lovely large portraits seemed to let the people in them speak for themselves. I didn't have a sense that she was displaying them as exotic specimens for ridicule as I sometimes did in other parts of the Biennial (and in M Parr's own work). I felt that I was looking at real people looking back. Their strengths and vulnerabilities were visible, and the portraits felt respectful and celebratory. I took a snap of this one for a number of reasons: it's a good example of overall gallery etiquette (see below for more on that) but one of my first thoughts on looking at the picture was that I'd have wanted to make a little less of the boy's spots. And maybe comb his hair. But of course without his spots he'd have looked older and less vulnerable and the picture would have been very close to a fashion image. My reaction to the picture brought me up short as it made me realise just how insidious the pressure is to tidy things up in pictures. Just to smooth reality a bit. I rationalise this kind of tweaking to myself on the grounds that the camera is often unkind and brings out spots and blemishes that one wouldn't see in real life. In respsone to this Clive W one of the OCA tutors, pointed out that helping us see things we might otherwise have missed is part of what photography is all about. Removing his spots would have made this a less interesting and less 'real' picture. I don't disagree - that realisation is what had made me look at it so hard at it to start with. But perhaps one could just make them a bit less obvious, a little voice says to me, just to be kind... I expect to return to this dilemma from time to time over the next months and indeed years.

Display aesthetics and semiotics
The print is clearly not framed and looks as though it is roughly pinned to the wall. I was prepared to be impressed by this apparently cavalier treatment of Big Expensive Prints but closer inspection revealed that the 'pin' is in fact a magnet. Another magnetic element is screwed to the wall and the picture is non-destructively held in place by them. All the pictures, everywhere we went, were unframed and fixed in the same way, which was one of the linking aspects of the exhibition. Do you put a fine border round the edges of your prints? I was told that this marks you out as a modernist: post-modernists don't have borders (the exhibition was post-modern, clearly). All part of the study of semiotics - every sign and every signal that surrounds an artwork is significant in its own way. Interesting, isn't it, these signals and codes that people use - do these art world etiquettes help distinguish between U and non-U perhaps, or am I being a bit uncharitable?

The House of Vernacular

A series showing the interiors of African dictators' private jets, including pictures taken by Nick Gleis

The House of Vernacular was an installation of dreamlike architecture in which a variety of collections of vernacular photography were displayed. This space, as you can hopefully see, was a long narrow space like the inside of a plane in which were displayed a series of images shwing the astonshing luxury of the plane interiors. I found it an effective and interesting presentation (though perhaps a bit of an easy target).

 These were part of a slideshow of images shot for the German Ministry of the Interior during the cold war. The slides were projected in a dark room onto a screen which was suspended over a pool of water, into which people had thrown coins, as in a wishing well. The slides trainsitioned vertically and were reflected in the dark pool, with interesting effects. The whole thing was quite strange and alienating. Jose, another OCA tutor, felt that in many of these displays we were being invited to laugh at the individuals and find them strange. By showing pictures taken out of context it is easy to make people look a bit ridiculous. I largely agree with him about the displays in this building though I found this one quite compelling. I find the slightly nervous expressions of the two men uncomfortable and unsettling.

Another slide from the pool room. Something strange happened to the colours captured by the sensor when the slides were changing. the real picture is quite a flat-toned image. I don't understand what made them look like this. 

New Ways of Looking
The former Co-op Department Store housed a vast number of exhibits spread over a number of chilly floors.
I think she's spotted me!
Among the works displayed were a selection from Dhruv Malhotra's Sleepers series. These are wonderful large format pictures of people sleeping outside in urban India. Dhruv talks about the pictures here and I won't rehearse what he says. For me the pictures stood out because of their curious quality of silence amid the bustle of the streets. they had an atmosphere that it's hard to put your finger on. the sleepers were at once vulnerable and safe. Poor enough not to have a roof over their head yet looking often oddly at peace. Perhaps a moment of rest from their difficult days. Who knows what they dream of? The overall effect of the series was complex: the pictures were beautiful. They don't trivialise the lives of these people and they don't sentimentalise them, exaggerating their poverty for effect. They just observe, record, and pass on. There's a tremendous feeling of common humanity - I think many of us viewers could see ourselves in these places in another life.

This was one of my favourite images. Excluded from the brightly lit hoems in the distance he neverthelss looks so peaceful and has recreated some home comforts with his bedding and mosquito net and bottle of water.

Other exhibits which left a mark in my memory were Suzanne Opton's Soldier and Many Wars series. These were huge prints of US veterens of current or earlier conflicts. The prints either showed just their head or a three-quarter body shot with the soldier draped in a piece of material which obscured their clothing. The overall effect was powerful but also unsettling. People's faces were very clearly shown so you could say their individuality was recognised but the pictures had the effect of making it hard to see them as people. They seemed to be both celebrated and anonymised. The standing pictures with the drapes reminded me both of statues of heroic figures and also 19th century photographs of native Americans (e.g. Chief Sitting Bull) in their ceremonial cloaks. I had quite a strong emotional reaction to the pictures in that I wanted her to let the subjects alone and be themselves and wear their own clothes and pose how they liked. But I suspect that is her point - and that the pictures are in part about how solders are both celebrated as heroic figures and dehumanised. Some pictures were accompanied by short pieces of text where the sitters told part of their story. Each was individual yet they've all blurred into one for me. I didn't really like the pictures (possibly I wasn't meant to) but they have got under my skin in some way.

Strange and familiar: Three View of Brighton
Last but not least, this was one of the headline exhibits. Three artists (Alex Soth, Rinko Kawauchi and Stephen Gill) had been invited to spend some time in Brighton capturing their sense of the town.

Of those the works by Stephen Gill and Rinko Kawauchi struck me most (Alex Soth was prevented form fulfilling his brief fully by not having applied for a work permit in time). Kawauchi had made a number of trips and produced a variety of different images. Those that spoke most to me were called 'Murmuration' and showed flocks of starlings at Brighton Pier. The resultant pictures were large prints with deep blue evening skies and flocks of birds captured in mesmerising swirling clouds. She did a series also showing people moving through the town, in continuance of the theme of movement and pattern, but I found this less successful. It just didn't quite work, and certainly didn't have the power of the starling images.

Stephen Gill did one of the most interesting bodies of work. I was particularly impressed by the gentleness and openness of his approach. He felt that he didn't want to wander around Brighton taking pictures and imposing his view on the town but wanted instead to find a way to let the place come to him. He had the idea of adapting a medium format film camera so that the film plate sat horizontally (a mirror at right angle to the film allowed a picture to be taken facing forward). He had a plate on top of the film plane and onto that he dropped bits and pieces that he found either in the vicinity where he was taking a picture or within the local area. Sometimes he selected the items and placed them carefully. Sometimes he asked passers by to choose what should be included, and sometimes he shook the camera to ensure a random arrangement. What you end up with is a picture which includes a standard view with tiny objects effectively on top of the film and recorded as either dark shapes or lighter ones depending on their transparency.

Stephen had collected all the items he used in the series and arranged them in a display cabinet as part of teh exhibition so they were there in real as well as in the pictures. The pictures were really very interesting - more than you might think. I enjoyed looking at them very much but I liked his ideas and approach almost more. I'd like to try some similar ideas later within this course.

The overall effect was of course Brighton in a very close sense, but I was struck by the fact that you wouldn't necessarily have been able to recognise the town. A botanist looking at some of the items might have been able to place the specimens fairly closely to a particular geographical region and time. But you wouldn't look at them and think "Oh yes, I recognise that as Brighton". I was left wondering a bit about the nature of identity and the different ways in which we identify places and indeed people. I suspect these thoughts will go round in my head for a bit and come out in some pictures at some time.

Stephen's approach in this series chimes very well with the 'Shadow Catchers' exhibition I saw and wrote about yesterday. I wondered if these signal a sign of a trend in the art photography world to value less traditional and more direct approaches over the tide of digital manipulation. If there is a trend there might be at least two reasons for this: one is the desire of artists to do something different and innovative and interesting for it's own sake; more cynically the popularity of such work might be evidence of a desire to put clear water between 'high art' photography and commercial practice.

And finally...

It was a great day. Very stimulating and thoroughly exhausting. I was cream crackered at the end of it (this marathon blog leaves quiet a lot out) but I had the feeling that Gareth (OCA director, seen on the right here making arrangements) could have kept going. I'm very grateful for OCA for arranging this, and for the tea and cake and good company!

If you can face more, you'll find a much pithier and less wordy discussion of the day from some of the other attendees here.

Update: Some thoughts on the festival from Martin Parr here.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Catching shadows

"Photography is kind of tied up with death in many respects, in terms of you're looking at absent moments; they're no longer there. So it is quite a lot I think to do with loss as well as holding and showing.
Nothing is all in the state of coming into being, or in the state of dissolution out of being; it's always on the move, and I think that's my sense of trying  to deal with how it feels to be… there but in the process of change." - Susan Derges

Susan Derges - Summer

Some thoughts on the V and A Shadow Catchers Exhibition, which featured pictures taken without cameras.  Such pictures can be taken in a variety of ways, of which the most commonly used types are luminograms and photograms. The core of the process involves the use of light-sensitive material which is exposed directly to light to form an image or is otherwise manipulated. More about camera-less processes on this link.

Many of these works were a very pure form of photography with a very direct relationship between the photographic medium and the light. They were therefore fascinating for any lover of photographic in the purest sense of drawing with light. A major picture early in the exhibition is a life-size photogram of Lacock Abbey window, showing the link between these pictures and the processes used to create them and the start of photography.

Five artists were featured in the exhibition: Floris Neustiss, Pierre Cordier, Garry Fabian Miller, Susan Derges, and Adam Fuss. The exhibition itself is in a space with dark walls and limited light. This sets the pictures off very well, many of which have a glowing, luminous, quality. It is possibly also part of the process of conservation of some of the images, which are not fully fixed and so will change over time (byt hopefully won't fade too quickly). The dark background and subdued light contribute to the strong sense of an almost spiritual or mystical quality that comes from some of these images. That's not just me being fanciful: a good number of the works and artist videos have overt religious connotations. Pictures such as Adam Fuss's Shaker ladder and Garry Fabian Miller's Petworth Windows have clear religious symbolism (Jacob's Ladder, Cathedral Windows, the Crucifixion). Susan Derges also explores time, and the transitory nature of life, the sense of being here for just a little while.

With limited colour ranges the pictures are often remarkably powerful. Many are very beautiful, with deep glowing tones and colour and exquisite details and form. I very much had the sense that the exhibition contained samples of each artist's very best work I found some of  Pierre Cordier's work a little fussy, but other pieces were wonderfully simple. One picture consisted essentially of a deep grey square inside a another deep grey square with just a little line of light around them. I found it strangely compelling, for reasons I can't quite explain - like looking at a Rothko, for example.

Floris Neustiss's photogram's were fascinating. One piece that I found particularly interesting was an installation with a chair sitting on a piece of photographic paper. The chair had a real shadow, cast by the light in the room, and also had a photogram image on the paper, which a person sitting on it. It's hard to explain but the combination of the real chair, its real and photographic shadow and then the shape of the missing person was a fascinating play of light and shade and three and two dimensions.

Of all the artists I think Susan Derges's work struck the most immediate chord with me. Not only because of her exquisite series showing the four seasons but also her work with water echoes some of my own preoccupations. In the last year or two I've taken many many water pictures trying to catch that sense of light and shade and movement. The connection between death and photography is very real to me also: I began taking pictures as a child to capture the moments that I could feel passing. Her work is therefore particularly inspiring to me personally on many levels. There's much in this exhbition for me to think on and I expect to return to this at some time in my work. But enough for now I think.