For some or other reason, I just can’t get motivated to do this assignment. I’m experiencing a total mental block and I can’t fathom why. I mean, I have no problem walking up to strangers and asking them if I can take their portrait. I did a similar exercise when I took a documentary photography class here in Vancouver and we set up shop on the disused steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, strung up a sheet and asked passers by to step up to have their portrait taken, Richard Avedon style. But that was four years ago and I’m a little out of practice with street photography these days.
While doing research for this assignment I’ve been rather inspired by Hans Eijkelboom and his method of shooting on the street. Paul Matzner’s work also appeals greatly to me. So I think I’ve found my methodology about how to go about creating a good series for this assignment, yet I still continue to have this feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. I’m not sure if it is related to work pressures or the really bad weather we’ve been having here lately or the worries I’ve been having about my mother’s health. It’s really tough when you are so far from family and they become ill. I was hoping to have this assignment all wrapped up before I go on vacation, but that is not going to happen, so I will try and work on it there, while doing the touristy stroll along the Malecon in Puerto Vallarta.
E. J. Bellocq was a New Orleanian commercial photographer who photographed for the local shipyards. Bellocq’s work only became known when Lee Friedlander bought 89 gelatin dry plate negatives from an antique dealer and had them printed. The negatives were portraits of prostitutes from Storyville, New Orleans. Bellocq was a misshapen man, according to rumours (Bowman, 2002) he had a pyramid shaped head and was dwarfish in stature. He was given the nickname “papa” because of his heavy French accent.
Bellocq’s work was exhibited with Lee Friedlander’s collection alongside that of Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand in the New Objects Exhibition at MOMA. John Szarkowski states in a MOMA press release of 1970 that “we are persuaded that he [Bellocq] had knowledge of other human beings.” Szarkowski further speculates that Bellocq made this body of work as a result of personal adventure and not for assignment, stating that the photographs “possess a sense of leisure in the making and a variety of conception not typical of photographic jobs done at the customer’s request.” Bowman (2002) contends that it was because of Bellocq’s odd appearance that the prostitutes felt comfortable posing for him. They themselves were social outcasts.
For the most part, the women appear relaxed and at ease in front of the photographer, their attitudes contrasting sharply with the controversial subject of the “fallen women” of that era (Sontag).
That they are part of a series is what gives the photographs their integrity, their depth, their meaning. Each individual picture is informed by the meaning that attaches to the whole group.
It is clear that many of the women regarded the posing as something fun to do. Some of the portraits are more formal, taken with a backdrop, but in a rather amateurish style, as in one photograph washing on a line is seen off to the side of the backdrop. In some of the photos, women pose with their dogs, as seen above. In others they are photographed in very formal clothing or none at all. Sontag concludes her remarks on Bellocq’s oevre stating that she admires “the beauty and forthright presence of many of the women, photographed in homely circumstances that affirm both sensuality and domestic case, and the tangibleness of their vanished world. How touching, good natured, and respectful these pictures are.” I am inclined to agree with her. There is nothing lewd about Bellocq’s photographs at all, even those where the women are posed nude.
Kozloff (2007) states that “the animation of their faces and his [Bellocq’s] positive tone have a straightforwardness about them, innocent of judgement on the low-budget setting – at once a home and a place of business.” In his inexperience with professional salon photography Bellocq unconsciously smooths away the boundaries between the social identity of the prostitute and the person, revealing an intimacy between the sitter and the photographer, which is quite discernible to the viewer.
Look through your own family archive and try to discover a series of portraits that have existed within this archive, but have never been placed together before … whichever way you wish to tackle this exercise, there must be a reason or justification for your choices. What message are you trying to get across about these portraits?
… you are physically bringing together portraits that have never been viewed as a series prior to your intervention. Therefore, you need to think really clearly about what your choices are and who you decide to select.
This exercise has been far more challenging that I thought possible. I spent two days sifting through family photographs from both my side of the family and my husband’s. At first I thought of creating a family tree of the men in our family: my father, father-in-law, husband and two sons and I played around with some options for this. But this would be quite a big project, so I’ll shelve that for a later date. It will definitely be interesting to expand that idea.
I finally decided today to create an archive of my father. My father is going on for 91 and not in the best of health, so in a way, this is a tribute to him. It is an archive about the passing of time. I have used the photographs in their original state and not convert the two colour photos to monochrome. Ulrich Baer (2008, p. 54), in his essay, ‘Deep in the Archive’ poses the question in his opening statement “What belongs in an archive?” An historian would probably provide a very concise answer to this question. “Everything that someone does not wish to forget and everything that someone believes will hold the key to the future”, states Baer (2008, p. 54). We should bear in mind that whatever we place in an archive, be it photographs, letters, or documents, can take on a new life retroactively.
Archives bestow legitimacy and preserve certain forms of knowledge. The also transmit culturally and historically specific modes of remembrance, and they produce knowledge in their own right by rendering permanent things that fit within available and accepted modes of storage, capacity for iteration, and retrieval.
My father was born in South Africa in 1925. His mother, Lourenza, was a dedicated school teacher and taught primary school until she was about 75 years old. I have a particular fond memory of her using various teaching aids that she had created to teach my tables. I believe my grandfather, Lambertus Petrus worked in insurance. My father is the oldest of three children, all with a gap of seven years between each sibling. Both my uncles passed away in their early sixties. My father and his brothers all attended Grey College, which is the third oldest school in South Africa and can boast of many international rugby and cricketers amongst its alumni.
My father dreamt of becoming a medical doctor and went to the University of Stellenbosch to study. However, money was very tight during the war years and he had to leave university after only one year. He then joined the Royal Dutch Shell company in South Africa, where he remained for the rest of his working life, starting out in the mailroom and ending his successful career there as Marketing Director.
The photos I have put together for this archive represent my father from the age of three through to the age of eighty-five. The first image of my father standing on a chair, aged three, is a photo that was sent to his aunt. I have no idea what the origin of the strange outfit is that he is wearing – there might be a backstory to that, I will probably never know. The following image is a group family photo featuring my father, his brothers, mother and father, taken one year after the birth of my father’s youngest brother. The third photo in the first gallery is my father proudly showing off his new born daughter (me). In the second gallery, the first photo is another group family photo (same subjects as in the second photo in the first gallery), with the inclusion of me, the first grandchild. The image in the middle of the second gallery features four generations of the Zaayman clan/descendants: my grandmother, father, step-mother, myself and my children. The final image is of my father sitting in his wheelchair in his garden gazing pensively out at the mountains in the distance.
Stood alone, these photographs are all just happy snaps and not very good quality ones at that either, but combined into a sequence they take on more depth, more context. All but one bear the marks and wear and tear of time past. One overlooks the imperfections and pays attention to the narrative running through the series. Its a story of family, a sense of belonging, heritage and identity. We can see the various identities that my father assumed at the stages in his life: young toddler, teenage schoolboy, new father, family man, retiree and finally an octogenarian. This archive represents life to me. The passage of time where new lives come into being, growth and the inevitable passing away of loved ones – the cycle of life – my dad’s life.
Finally Baer (2008) reminds us that “the question of what enters an archive is never as important as what will find its way back out into the light.”
In response to Sander’s work, try to create a photographic portraiture typology which attempts to bring together a collection of types. Think carefully about how you wish to classify these images; don’t make the series too literal and obvious.
Once completed, post these portraits on your blog or in your learning log, with a written statement contextualising the work.
In studying August Sander’s portraits, I found myself rather drawn to the portraits that he made of couples, such as the images of young siblings below.
I work at a university that is staffed by a large international population so I persuaded some of my colleagues, faculty and students to pose in pairs for me. This work is a spin-off from the Context and Narrative’s assignment 3 in which my self-portrait assignment concentrated on immigration. My only criteria was that both people in the photograph should be from the same country and that they shouldn’t smile. Locations were chosen in and outside the campus. I followed Sander’s posing methods, having my subjects stand close together in a similar fashion to the images above. I relied on natural lighting outdoors and used my flash indoors. My subjects found it rather difficult to keep a detached expression on their faces. I decided to convert all the images to black and white to further introduce some ambiguity into the images. Skin tones and hair colouring are a little misleading in black and white images. With their somewhat deadpan expressions and static poses, my subjects draw the viewer into the frame in search of something familiar he/she might recognize. I found that, by removing my subjects from their place of work i.e. desk, or classroom, and photographing them in other surroundings, their indexicality was reinforced. At the same time the two grids below depict a microcosm of the multiculturalism that exists in Vancouver.
My ethnicity typologies in Vancouver are below.
The individual photos can be accessed below.
Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg
Jeffrey, Ian (2008) How to Read a Photograph | Lessons from Master Photographers. New York: Abrams
Kozloff, M. (2007) The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900. London: Phaidon Press
In preparation for Part 4 of this module we are asked to take a look at the work of Douglas Huebler, entitled Variable Piece No. 101. For this work Huebler make a series of portraits of Bernd Becher, using typologies that correspond almost directly to that used by August Sander (Hughes, 2007). Huebler asked Becher to pose in the following order to depict these types: “a priest, a criminal, a lover, an old man, a policeman, an artists, Bernd Becher, a philosopher, a spy and a nice guy” (Hughes, 2007).
After a few months had passed Huebler sent a differently ordered list and copies of the prints in no particular order to Becher and asked him to match the prints with the captions. Becher’s returned list came back as: “1. Bernd Becher; 2. Nice Guy; 3. Spy; 4. Old Man; 5. Artist; 6. Policeman; 7. Priest; 8. Philosopher; 9. Criminal; 10. Lover” (Hughes, 2007).
This explanation together with the prints, in the order that Becher returned them to Huebler, form the Variable Piece #101, which was exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art in 1995-96 in the exhibition Reconsidering the Object of Art and also at another exhibition in Limoges, France in 1992-93. However, in neither of the exhibitions is the original order of prints revealed. The Limoges prints, though, are numbered and seem to correspond to Becher’s associations. But we can see that the set of images are not quite the same. The first and the third images in both sets are different, creating a further complication in reading the images. Normally one would expect a caption to illustrate truthfully what the image is, but in Huebler’s work, this is confused.
For in the fight for “final form: between the photographs and the statement – a fight the statement clearly loses – Huebler signals exactly that which his photographic portraits undermine with exacting precision: the attempt to fix the work, and the person depicted therein onto a static and invariable ground. It is not just the “final form” of Variable Piece #101 that is simultaneously asserted and denied, in other words: it is also the “final form” of Bernd Becher.
By placing his portraits of Becher in a grid pattern, Huebler is paying homage to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers were made “flatly, objectively, and systematically, devoid of subjective depth and physiognomic resonance” (Hughes, 2007). But at the same time, he is also presenting us with images that are the exact opposite of Becher’s work. The portraits are depicting different personalities; Becher is distorting his face into a variety of strange expressions, eliciting some type of emotion from the viewer, what Hughes (2007) refers to as “the overly expressive, near-histrionic emotionalism of New York School photography à la Arbus, Avedon, et alia.” Huebler effectively cancels out both methods by mixing them together.
Shuffling the order of his images is something that Huebler employs in the majority of his work. In an interview in 1992 he states: “I have always scrambled my photographic presentations so that ‘time’ would not be read through a series of sequential events but rather as an all-over field … which translates the particular into unity” (Hughes, 2007).
We notice in Huebler’s Variable #101 that he plays around with semiotics. His signifier does not match up to the signified, he has reordered the meanings and the sign is now confused.
A portrait does not reveal the identity of a person in its entirety. As Barthes (1981, p. 10) so aptly states: “Once i feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes; I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing.’ I instantly make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” In Huebler’s Variable Piece #101 Hughes (2007) reflects that it “programmatically conceals the (already) concealed relation between identity and its representation” … and “is personified in his portraits of Becher.”
Huebler’s work effectively turns the tables onto Becher himself. Becher’s photographic practice was one of photographing architectural structures, devoid of any subjective content, or people, employing August Sander’s methods of dispassionate photography. By displaying his photos in a grid he was inviting comparisons in the similarity of the structures. He also collaborated with his wife and this created an anonymous body of work effectively suppressing the author’s individuality. Huebler “voids Sander’s typological categories as Becher makes faces for the camera” (Hughes, 2007).
Huebler’s Variable Piece #101 collapses the connection between image and text and thereby creates more mystery around the identity of Bernd Becher. Even Becher himself seems to be confused about his own identity. Indeed, there is no way we can guess which set of images and captions is correct unless we are privy to the original sequence, to which we are denied access. As Hughes (2007) sums up: “But like Bernd Becher, we can only guess who is who, never knowing when we are right and when we are wrong.”
Barthes, Roland (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Hughes, Gordon (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Art Journal, 66 (4), 52-69.
Jason Evans is not a photographer I have come across before. He worked under the pseudonym ‘Travis’ and his work first appeared in fashion and lifestyle magazines.
It seems that his work was rather similar to Bill Cunningham in that he would go out and photograph fashion on the street. In his Strictly series, he has photographed a series of young black men in a variety of fashions out on the streets. His style is very much like that of August Sander. The subject stands unposed, looking directly at the camera with a dispassionate expression on the face. Evans shoots from a low vantage point thus seeming to give the subjects a sense of power as the viewer has to look up to them, a possible metaphor for the absent catwalk where viewers also have to look up to the models parading the latest fashions. Evans was intrigued by the nineteenth century dandy and this series of work portrays the contemporary dandy in his eyes.
Unlike Cunningham, however, Evans used a stylist in the production of this series. His stylist was responsible for putting the clothes together, doing location scouts and finding the models. The clothes worn by Evans’ contemporary dandies are a strange mix of British tailoring, preppy and sportswear and are very eclectic rather than fashionable. But the outfits would definitely not be out of place on the streets of New York, nor would they seem strange in a place where anything goes.
“The syntax of the clothes was completely upside down,” Evans said of the work. “It was a new vision of Britain. We were trying to break down stereotypes.”
(Evans quoted in Val Williams, Look at Me: Fashion and Photography 1960 to the Present, exhibition catalogue, British Council, London, 1998, p.113)
Although the work in this series was primarily for fashion photography, the photographs could very easily fit into other genres, such as street photography or documentary.
It is only a few months down the road that I did an exercise on Diane Arbus for the Context and Narrative module. My posting can be seen here.
Diane Arbus was born in 1923 in New York to Russian Jewish immigrants, David and Gertrude Nemerov. Her father owned a women’s clothing and fur store and she grew up in an affluent home, quite sheltered from the world. She went on to marry Allan Arbus and together they worked together in fashion photography. Together they achieve success, having their work published in magazines such as Glamour, Vogue and Seventeen. Diane Arbus tired of fashion photography and decided to study photography with Alexey Brodovitch. Not liking his workshops she signed up to study with Lizette Model who was her great influence. Arbus had six photos published in Esquire Magazine in 1960 and another five in Harper’s Bazaar in 1961. However, her big break came when John Szarkowski exhibited thirty two of her portraits alongside works by Garry Wingogrand and Lee Friedlander at MOMA in the New Documents exhibition. Arbus was labelled as ‘a photographer of “the margins of society”‘ by Newsweek (Lord p.113). She committed suicide in 1971.
Catherine Lord’s essay: ‘What Becomes a Legend Most: The Short, Sad Career of Diane Arbus’ (Bolton, 1992), discusses Patricia Bosworth’s unauthorized biography on Diane Arbus in great length, extrapolating large sections that are solely based on hyperbole and supposition. The book has no bibliography or footnotes whatsoever. It seems that much of the urban myths surrounding Arbus originate from this book. In a radio interview with Studs Terkel a couple of years before taking her own life, Arbus talks about the sheltered life she led and makes an interesting statement that reveals her ongoing problems with her self-confidence:
When I make money on a photo I assume it isn’t good.
Arbus approached her work like a journalist, but at the same time she was introspective. She was drawn lookalikes i.e. twins or people resembling celebrities. She was also drawn to people in marginalized societies and freaks.
It is the strained distance between the subjects of her photographs that grabs the viewer. Her work is “investigative, but far too personal to be documentary; it is portraiture, but with a super-abundance of narrative and allegory” (Kozloff, p. 197).
One can see all these elements in Fig. 1. The young man with a remarkable resemblance to Malcolm X sits on a park bench with his arm awkwardly hooked around the neck of his pregnant wife. She is wearing cat eye spectacles, that were very popular in the 60’s and has a large beehive piled on top of her head, in an Elizabeth Taylor fashion and looks older and more sophisticated than him. His head is leaning towards her’s, but her head is straining away. He does not sit close to her, there is a large gap between their torsos. Her arm is stretched out over the gap and held in place on his leg by his other hand. Both subjects look at the camera/viewer, his expression is one of defiance, her’s is one of embarrassment. This photo was taken during the American civil rights movement and this couple would have qualified as the marginalized people that Arbus was drawn to, as interracial marriages was only fully legalized in all the US States in 1967.
Kazloff, Max (2007). The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900. London: Phaidon Press. pp. 196-199
Lord, Catherine (n.d.) ‘What Becomes a Legend Most: The Short, Sad Career of Diane Arbus’ In: Bolton, Richard (ed.) The Context of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography: Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 111-123