Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Photographing the public/private threshold

Based on the previous research I have done here on a number of photographers, there are some themes that I am interested in picking up and pursuing original research on. Themes which I am most interested in are privacy, voyeurism, intimacy, the way that people respond to and inhabit the built environment, and the ubiquity of the photographed world and people’s consciousness and reaction to photography in the public realm. These are themes which have been explored and risen particularly in relation to the work of Michael Wolf and Doug Rickard.

Michael Wolf - tcd051


Doug Rickard - 39.259736, Baltimore MD (2008), 2011

 I also propose to make a series of images which reflect on thresholds between the public and the private. I am interested in how people occupy space in ways which show they register it as either public or private, and when slippages might occur. What is it about certain public spaces which make them acceptable for private moments? What architectural features denote transitions between public and more private, and how do people respond to these? What private spaces are visible from public space?

One image which comes to mind which particularly illustrates this idea is Children with Masks by Helen Levitt. It is an interesting study in the transition from the private self getting ready to enter the wider world, stepping into it, and adopting the public self projecting confidence out to the world.

Helen Levitt - New York, Children with Masks, c1942

In a similar vein to the way that Alec Soth works, it is a series of images that speak together as a unified whole which I am interested in making. I am also drawn to the way that photography functions not only as a document of a particular time and place, but can also be a kind of archetype which speaks far beyond its specificity. A similar idea occurs in Doug Rickard’s streetview images, of which he says, “the subjects then are really symbols or icons, and not individuals”. Alec Soth has shied away from calling his work social documentary for, I think, this same reason: maintaining a poetic quality that allows images to be read as having a wider resonance, and not weighed down by the need to be exhaustive or truly accurate in a representative sense.

When researching Alec Soth’s work I came across some projects he had run on Flickr. To coincide with his Walker Art Center retrospective and his book From Here to There: Alec Soth’s America, he invited people to complete a series of photographic challenges. He then selected a winner of each challenge. There were 4 assignments he set up in 2010, and one further challenge at the end of 2011. These included photographing a list of items; photographing a stranger and getting them to show you something, then making more photographs based on what they show you; double portraits, one by you of a non-photographer, and one of you by your subject; and documenting an encounter with photographs and text. The 2011 challenge was to recreate an iconic photograph.

The assignments he set are based on working methods he actually uses himself, or came out of the responses which people had to the assignments themselves. In the spirit of these assignments, I have created an initial list of things to photograph, which I will look for, as a starting point:
     Thresholds - doorways, gates, entrances etc.
     People doing private things in public
     People in public without shoes
     People working in public space
     People looking back at me photographing
     Glimpses through windows (nighttime)

Again, as in Soth’s assignments, I see this as the beginning of an open process which encourages looking at things that might otherwise be missed, and not simply a list to be found as is. I am also interested in how double images and the addition of some text might further the ideas that I am exploring.

In the essay, I wish to reflect on the images taken and the process of photographing them. Whilst street photography has a long tradition, the social environment for street photography has changed now, as more people are now wary and suspicious of photographers in public. Does the use of streetview possibly allow private moments to be captured more easily than a photographer on the street can? I will also look further at the work of Michael Wolf, Doug Rickard, and to a lesser extent Philip Lorca diCorcia, as it relates to thresholds between the public and the private realm.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Night Scenes

I am particularly interested in photography of the late 1920’s & 1930’s, an era that held the Great Depression , World War 2 and also the glamorous Art Deco movement. 

We rely on writers, painters and Photographers for their evidential records to allow many of us to build up an image of the what these times where like. For example when I think of the social landscape of the 1930’s, I think Art deco, glamorous buildings, elegant clothes and cars etc., but with this glamour brings the darker side of the social realm, the gangster, the criminal and the detective, this is the social landscape I want to delve more into.

It has become apparent to me through the researching process of looking into the social aspects of the 1930’s, the photographer became the investigator/ detective, taking shots of the hidden elements of society that a city would prefer to hide from its counterparts.

It is the night time shots by Brassaï, Bill Brandt and Weegee that captured my attention. Whether their dark night time shots were pre composed or not did not make a difference to me.  They were still able to share that sense that the streets were alive at night. The cast of shadow and light helped create the atmosphere of intrigue, mystery and suspense, some shots are like scenes out of a movie, e.g  The Third Man, Carol Reed 1949.
Brassaï a Hungarian photographer, famous for his book ‘Paris by Night’ (1933), illustrates Paris’s romantic, calm and unpopulated streetscape at night. It was the images that were not able to be published became the most interesting. These images were later published in ‘The Secret Paris of the Thirties’ (1934), these show a more interesting side to Paris at night.
‘The Secret of Paris in the Thirties’ allows one enter the nocturnal world of Paris. Brassaï gets acquainted with the intimate side of Paris, taking shots of inside clubs, brothels and prostitutes on the street. This erotic portrayal of Paris at Night was not published until 1976.

‘I was eager to penetrate this other world.’

‘this fringe world, the secret sinister world of mobsters, outcasts, toughs, pimps, whores, addicts, inverts.’

Bill Brandt, adopted as a British photographer, famous for ‘The English Home’ (1936) portrayed the upper class of the South and the working industrial class of the North.

Brandt later brought out ‘A Night in London’ (1938). This document of images portrays a more darker and mysterious Brandt. Examples of these are;

‘Footsteps coming Nearer’ (1936),
‘Street Scene’ (1936)
‘ Alley off East India Dock Road’ (1937)
Influenced by Brassaï , Brandt uses the man as a haunting figure approaching the woman, whereby in Brassaï’s case the men in the image do not seem to have that looming presence that Brandt represents in his.
Another Photographer of this time was Arthur Fellig, aka Weegee. Like Brassaï and Brandt, Weegee was a nocturnal freelance photographer based in New York City. His main attention was following drama, i.e . the latest police chase or ambulance query. He made sure he was first on the scene to grab a photograph for the next breaking news story, selling his shots to newspapers. He took images ranging from a social occasion at the opera, to tenement buildings on fire to the latest mob member being shot. Weegee brought out a documentary book of his work, Nakend City (1945).
                                                                     The Critic, 1943
The Tenement Fire
                                                                    Park Avenue 1938
                                                Body of Dominic Didato, Elizabeth Street 1936
Weegee’s shots are more raw/ violent, especially where a murder was concerned.
I hope to explore deeper into Brassaï, Brandt and Weegee’s technique of photography. Each focusing on different lighting, Brassaï's over exposure of the street light, to Brandt's calm moonlight and Weegee's flash. I hope to try and create something of a similar effect to see how difficult it may be to create the perfect picture that captures the right amount of shadow and light through natural light and how the manipulation of Artificial light can be advantageous to a shot. 

The subject matter I would like to investigate is the work of Swedish photographer Jacob Felländer, with particular reference to technique, composition and subject matter.  His work greatly interests me, specifically the sense of movement he encapsulates through the composition of his work, alongside the great variety of tone and colour produced through his process of development in the darkroom.  His favoured method of multiple exposures of course is not unique to Felländer as is demonstrated by the work of others such as Idris Khan, known particularly in the architectural realm for his representation of the industrial typology studies of the Behcers.  Jacob Felländer's method is more appealing to me however as his images are composed sporadically on location (in contrast to Khan who photographs or scans from secondary sources).

 Gas Holders; Germany, Britain and France (1963-1997)  -  Bernd & Hilla Becher

                  Homage to Benrd Becher (2004)  -  Idris Khan

     Cityscapes 6 - Jacob Felländer
A recent Jacob Felländer project of particular interest to me, involved the photographer completing a twelve day worldwide photographic trip, something not immediately unique in the world of photography.  His process however differs from his predecessors, including the Bechers, who choose to compose each frame carefully and methodically with a resultant output of a series of images documenting industrial built typologies. Felländer’s process documented a panorama of each city he visited on a single film, his final image unregulated or revisable until it’s development at the end of his process.  While Felländer’s images are bursting with “visual noise” pierced only by subtle details, the Becher typology images are very clearly defined pieces of work that Khan's reinterpretations serve only to reproduce as an overlay of multiple images.

     Los Angeles - Hong Kong - Bombay  -  Jacob Felländer
The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher is undisputably powerful and will serve only as a reference in this essay.  The writing will focus on the work of Jacob Felländer’s considered but unsystematic use of an inexpensive modified analogue camera, wound forward to expose the film piece by piece to capture his distinctive panoramic frames.  This contrasts heavily with Khan's process and indeed that of the Bechers – reinterpretation of a large 8 x 10 inch view camera objectively positioned relative to the subject, shot only on overcast days and early in the morning.  Another contrast between both photographers is the expression of activity.  Felländer’s images portray the passage of time, “space and perspective drift within a frame” to create a panoramic image filled with movement, colour and tonal variation.  Becher images typically freeze one particular moment, devoid of people or activity, producing something very different. 

    Chenai - Jacob Felländer

Common Colour

I propose to investigate the role of colour in showing the vitality in the banality of everyday life in America with particular focus on the work of the “new colour” photographers of the 1970s. 

Hot Sauce, William Eggleston

In an effort to explore the above, I have identified the themes below as potential areas of interest to explore further.  These themes could then be further supported and augmented by primary research in the form of a series of photographic projects investigating the applications of colour on everyday subject matter.

Acceptance. Investigate the change of attitude towards the use of colour in photography in the 1970s. Although invented in 1907, it took until the 1970s for colour photography to be accepted seriously into the photographic world. 

Black & White are the colours of photography – Robert Frank

Once upon a time there were jobs, Robert Frank, 1955

What were the underlying barriers to its acceptance? What was the tipping point (or points) that leads to its acceptance? What was the role of art movements such as abstract expressionism and pop-art, in its renaissance?

Advocates. William Eggleston was the first proponent of colour photography to be truly accepted by the art world when John Szarkowski showed his work at MOMA in 1976. The publication, William Eggleston's Guide, in which Szarkowski called Eggleston's photographs "perfect," focus on everyday, umdane and trivial subjects.

William Eggleston's Guide, 1976

Perfect? Perfectly banal, maybe…perfectly boring, certainly  Hilton Kramer, New York art critic 

The research aims to focus on Eggleston’s work as well as the other  “new color” photographers of the 70s and 80s such as Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld.

Ginger Shore, Stephen Shore, 1977

Uncommon Places, Stephen Shore, 1982

Uncommon Places, Stephen Shore, 1982

Joel Sternfeld

Application. What tangible attributes does colour bring to a photo (life, focus, emphasis, energy etc.)? What were the various processes used and why? (e.g. Eggleston’s discovery of the dye-transfer process in 1973) What meaning (psychological) can be attributed to the use of colour in photography?

Subject. What effect did the application of colour have on the representation of daily life in America?  How did it change the perception of everyday life in America? 

William Eggleston

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Los Alamos

Los Alamos is a collection of images taken by William Eggleston between 1965 and 1974 as he traveled through Southern and Western America.  The book, first published in 2003 to accompany an exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Germany, presents a selection of prints from a collection of some 2,200 negatives produced by Eggleston during this period.

Los Alamos provides us with further evidence of Eggleston innate attentiveness in capturing the life of the ordinary.  He photographed everyday life, objects and environments, recording them in their richness and unadorned states. 

These images of life never feel like they are studies but more like extended glances into the familiar.  The mundane and ordinary subject matter make the images accessible and understandable.  We’ve seen these things, these people before but maybe not like this. 

Untitled, 1965

This accessibility is further enhanced by the lack of depth and narrow perspective used by Eggleston.  He provides us with a human viewpoint. They are glimpses that we may have made ourselves but now we question whether we really ever saw what was there.  He reminds us that the ordinary is not so ordinary and that there is much vibrancy in the everyday.

Untitled, 1971 

It is this vibrancy and intensity that sets these images apart.  And it is Eggleston’s use of colour that achieves this.  Eggleston used colour at a time when it was only considered suitable for amateur photos or glossy commercial advertisements. It was at a time when "professional" photographers only took pictures in black-and-white. 

Black & White are the colours of photography – Robert Frank

Colour photography allowed Eggleston to use and control colour like a painter may.  Photography, for him, was always an extension of his love for the visual arts.  In 1973 Eggleston had discovered the now out-dated dye-transfer process.  It was a process predominantly used in the advertising industry during the 50s and 60s. The process resulted in giving specific colour’s enhanced saturation and increased intensity. With colour photography and his new found process Eggleston now had the tools to bring the ordinary and mundane to life. 

He shoots like a shutterbug and executes like a painter – Peter Schjeldahl

Eggleston draws us into his frames with his focused, targeted use of primary colour.  We are never left in doubt what or whom the subject of the photo is.  
Untitled [and] Untitled

The sky is used often like a curtain backdrop helping to contrast the show in front.  The intensity of the blue providing us with a frame for his subject matter.

Untitled, 1971

The intensity of Eggleton’s colours are rarely matched by the intensity of life underneath.  There are always signs of deterioration of wear and tear, whether it is a car, a sign, a face.  We are reminded of the fragility of ordinary life.  There are always cracks on the surface but maybe we sometime don’t notice them.  Eggleston ensures that we never bore of the mundane and the ordinary and reminds us that is such vibrancy and intensity to what we see everyday.

Untitled, 1965-1968