Lukas Kuzma is a Czech photographer, currently studying for his BA (Hons) at the University of Chester in the UK.
Like Walker Evans, he has a body of work which was taken on trains, inside and outside stations in London. We see the familiar “blank” stares and the “caught up in own thoughts” expressions that are evident in Evans and DiCorcia’s work. I was particularly drawn to his images of people going up or down the escalators. The inquisitive glances at fellow passengers behind as they descend into the bowels of the earth and the bored stare of a little boy looking at people behind him, probably going in the opposite direction. But we also see people grimacing as they stare at something out of frame and I am intrigued as to what they are looking at. Is it a station busker like we have here in Vancouver, or is it something unpleasant?
My favourite image in this set would have to be the one with the mother, cell phone in hand, bending over a toddler who is intent on throwing a tantrum on the platform floor, while another woman stands to one side watching the mother, her fist clenched into her sleeve, and a little girl holds out her arms as if she is clapping, her eyes squeezed shut. I can almost hear the poor mother threatening the little boy that she is going to take a photograph of his screaming face if he doesn’t stop his nonsense and get up and behave himself.
Kuzma’s images feel more real to me than those of Walker Evans. It is probably due to the fact that they are obviously more modern than Evans’ work, but also I feel more empathy with these images having been in similar scenarios myself. There is also a sense of the hustle and bustle that one finds in these types of places. Kuzma’s photographs also show more movement and actions.
I researched Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s method of working while doing Context and Narrative (posting can be seen here) so I will only be adding a few points here that I may have missed back then.
As DiCorcia explains in his short video below, when making his Heads oevre, he made use of scaffolding on a sidewalk in Times Square. He mounted two flash guns on the scaffolding which he triggered wirelessly. He used a telephoto lens on his camera and did not particularly conceal himself. Having set up his “stage” he would then wait for an interesting character to walk into the lighting zone where his flashes were set up and make his photograph. He took over 3,000 images to obtain the 17 that makes up the body of work. At no time did he ask permission from any of his subjects. He did not converse with them at all. Years later he was taken to court by one of the subjects who stated misuse for commercial and advertising gains, but the judge ruled in DiCorcia’s favour stating that one could not expect any level of privacy in a public place (especially nowadays with all the surveillance cameras that abound).
As seen on the video DiCorcia’s subjects all appear to be emerging from darkness into the light – beautiful chiaroscuro so reminiscent of the Renaissance painters like Carvaggio and Gerrit van Honthorst (see below). The subjects are caught up in their own thoughts, flickers of various emotions crossing their faces. Not much can be gleaned from the background. We now know that the photos were ‘staged’ inside a scaffolding tunnel and as such can hunt for further clues to collaborate this and we do find a few: the out of focus strip neon lighting overhead in a few of the photos; the condensed crush of bodies in others and of course the all encompassing darkness in all of the frames. Any one of the subjects that passed through DiCorcia’s zone of light could be one of us. Recognition is triggered by looking at their expressions.
Tate Modern (2010). Philip-Lorca diCorcia – “Heads” (2010) [user-generated content online]. Tate Modern. 15 September, 2010. 4 mins 41 secs. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpawWn1nXJo [Accessed 23 July, 2016]
Bharti Kher was born in England in the 1960’s and received a B. A. Fine Arts-Painting from Newcastle Polytechnic in 1991. In 1993 she moved to India and currently lives in New Delhi. Bharti Kher’s exhibition Matter is her first major exhibition in North America. The exhibition is very varied featuring sculptures, painting and photography. The Vancouver Art Gallery blurb on Kher talks about her ‘iconic bindi paintings’ and even after looking at her works I still hadn’t a clue what ‘bindi’ was. So I turned to Wikipedia for a quick reference.
Bindi is the small red dot that Hindu and Jain women wear on their foreheads. It is considered the point at which creation begins and is also likened to the third eye. The bindi is a motif that Kher uses throughout her work.
The sculpture below consists of a sturdy display cabinet especially built for historical anthropological displays which is counterbalanced by the expressive bindis and wax markings below the surface of the glass. The shattered glass of the display cabinet represents a break with tradition. There were four such installations, each with differing contents, but dazzlingly beautiful.
Much of Kher’s work explores spirituality and the role of femininity in society. I found her photography very unsettling. There were a series of images in which she was addressing identity where she had combined the forms of woman and animal. Personally while I found the photographs interesting technique-wise, I found them rather grotesque and disturbing. Take the image below: a female form holding a tray of cupcakes strategically positioned in front of her breasts (reminds me of the Calendar Girls movie). The face half human half animal (either a pig’s snout or a dog/wolf’s nose), one human leg, the other an elegant horse’s front leg. Kher’s interpretation is below the photograph, but I’m still having trouble with it. Perhaps over the course of time I may change my opinion, but for now I’m sticking with my original reaction – disturbing.
The Hybrids were amorphous creatures who were part woman, part animal—you don’t know which is more animal or more woman—multi-dimensional, multi-faceted: she is the goddess, the housewife, the mother, the whore, the mistress, the lover, the sister… everything. She is at one state extremely powerful but kind of fragile in some imperfect way. It was very clear that the background of the works was an inside space; this is a domestic space and so within their own realm they were: all seeing, all knowing, all speaking, all powerful and yet not.
Bharti Kher (2013)
Of all her work on display, I least liked her photography. Her sculptures were well crafted and thought provoking.
The sculptures of the Six Women above are plaster casts made of six sex trade workers in Kolkata. Appartently Kolkata is home to India’s largest brothel based industries. The women represent the aging female body as a counterpoint to the “forever 21” scenario which plays out in society today. I found this installation quite moving. The women are probably all outcasts from their own communities, forced to take up sex-trade work in order to survive. So sad!
The installation below speaks to me of servitude, about the way women are treated in some cultures – no more than a chattel. The removal of the head, which has turned into a skull (signifying decay) and the substitution of branches in place of the head could speak to way women are ignored (relegated to blend into the background). The top of the skull is covered with bindi sperm dots, perhaps signifying the cycle of life.
Gerry Badger1 describes Martin Parr as “not quite an out-and-out modernist, not quite a postmodernist.” Parr is someone who is a successful photojournalist, who also works conceptually and exhibits in galleries and museums. He is comfortable working in all facets of life, in all cultures, but is probably best known for his tongue-in-cheek photography about modern culture. When Parr switched from doing black and white photography to making colour photos in the 1980s his vision changed from “gritty romanticism to hyaline realism2.”
Martin may deploy humor, in a typically English, somewhat mordant fashion, but at root he is commenting upon modern mores, from a sharp, edgy, ironic, critical, yet consistent political point of view.
Badger, Gerry3 (2010 :9)
Parr is a critical observer of consumer culture which he uses to playfully and ironically depict his subjects.
In his series Japanese Commuters which the course material points us to, we can see that Parr has photographed all his subjects unaware. The fact is they are all asleep. The set of images is a humorous typology of Japanese commuters on a train, all but one, almost doubled over in their sleep, as if deep in prayer. They are definitely not flattering portraits: the subjects’ vulnerabilities on show for all to see. We notice the thinning hair on some, noses that appear distorted or even almost non-existent. Only a few of the subjects have visible mouths.
How often have I not sat on the bus watching my fellow Asian travellers take a seat and within a minute of the bus moving off from the stop find them nodding off into oblivion. Or be in the unlucky position (or seat) of having such a person sitting next to me and have him/her nodding off on my shoulder! Take it from me – it is not a pleasant experience! So in my mind’s eye I am watching Parr’s subjects for clues as to which way they are going to lean when the train changes direction around a curve or comes to a halt at the station.
What a difference in style from Walker Evans’ subway portraits to Martin Parr’s Japanese commuters! As Geoff Dyer4 (2007: 7) states in The Ongoing Moment“To see if style could be identified in and by … content. The only way to do this was to see how different people photographed the same thing.” Evans shows us engaged passengers or passengers deep in thought in their own private world in the context of the carriage. Parr shows us obscure angles of people’s heads, rendering them almost featureless and totally anonymous, completing overflowing the frame. The lone figure in Parr’s set who is not doubled over in sleep is sitting upright, but we cannot see his face. Parr has cut off his head at mid neck level and all we see is the gold knot of his silk tie, the pinstripes of his dark suit and white shirt. He becomes even more anonymous than his sleeping counterparts. We can make out no context whatsoever in Parr’s images and have to rely on his captions to anchor the context of his images.
At the level the literal image, the text replies … to the question: what is it? The text helps to identify purely and simply the elements of the scene and the scene itself: it is a matter of a denoted description of the image … the caption helps me choose the correct level of perception …
I was pretty excited to see that a photographic exhibition on Harry Callahan’s work was scheduled for the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG) at the beginning of the year and doubly so when I received my course materials for Identity and Place and saw that he was one of the referenced photographers to study in Part 2. This is definitely a first for me.
I did take photographs in the gallery, but due to the strong lighting there was just too much reflection, so I bought the exhibition catalogue and make the photographs from there, so please excuse my wonky perspective lines. I have straightened them out as far as I can in LightRoom.
The exhibition at the VAG is quite extensive. The VAG acquired almost 600 Callahan photographs through the generosity of the Rossy Family Foundation in 2013 and the collection is representative of the full chronology of Callahan’s career and themes that he worked on, from nature studies to portraits of his wife and daughter, to street photography in the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Providence and Cairo. The actual exhibition features more than 120 photographs of urban environment, beginning with his multi-exposure images in the 1940s and concludes with the multi-panel images of Peachtree Street in Atlanta made in the 1980s and 1990s.
Callahan did not adhere to the idea of previsualization that Adams and the Group f/64 advocated at that time and his ideas of self-expression were contrary to the idea of merging functionality with aesthetics as projected by Moholy-Nagy as well. Throughout his career he used experimental techniques.
The above image of Detroit is a multiple exposure using eight or more frames to create an intricate layered image of the city life. To me it represents the chaos, hustle and bustle of the streets in a large city. The image is filled with details, no one specific point to lock focus on, compelling the viewer to scan the image in all directions, almost as if one is trying to cross a busy street. Diagonal lines abound in this image lending credence to the movement that is happening in the various layers.
… the dynamism of the picture’s formal structure, which seems to sweep the viewer along with the crowd, counters the profound sense of alienation embodied in most of Callahan’s later images of urban space.
Grant Arnold (2016: 14)
The exhibition catalogue describes this image as having a “gloomy tonality” (p.14) and while I can see that the overall middle gray tone might appear gloomy, I find myself very intrigued by this image. It almost has a Dickensian feel to it and scenes of the workhouse and child labour spring to mind. I suppose that is rather gloomy! Yet still I feel the need to peel away the individual layers to see more.
Callahan’s series of women’s faces on the street were made using a telephoto lens and the women were all unaware of their portraits being taken. No background details are visible. There is a sense of intrusion into their private lives in all these images. We see glimpses of women lost in thought, frowning in pain, tired and chatting to an unseen companion, isolated in the city life. The compositions are so tight that the tops of their heads are cut off or their mouth and chin. So close that we are forced to look at the individual features of each woman’s face, thereby putting us in an intimate posture with the women. Nevertheless, the viewer is left asking the question – who are these women and what is their story. Callahan leaves the answer to that question to us.
Another trope that Callahan used when making photographs of people on the street was to photograph in dark shadows “in which the chasm-like darkness of the street is alleviated by only the occasional shaft of light that penetrates the shadows of the surrounding towers, briefly illuminating a pedestrian on the sidewalk” (Arnold, 2016: 14). These photographs are very dark and mysterious, the subjects only partially touched by light depicting the ominous, dangerous places that every city has.
The third image in the gallery above of La Salle Street, was created by running roll film through the camera twice. This resulted in pictures where only the darkest areas show up in the prints (Pultz, 2016: 29).
Callahan’s street photography style was different when photographing his wife, Eleanor and daughter, Barbara. He photographed them snapshot style on the streets posing at well know sites in Chicago. In all the photographs Eleanor and Barbara small (almost dwarfed) by their surroundings.
In Chicago, Fall 1958 (first in gallery above) we again see Callahan’s method of catching pedestrians in bright light before dark forms and shadows. His “vantage point seems to immerse the subject in a sea of impenetrably dark tones, making the scene seem distant, as if a memory recalled in a moment of reverie, rather than lived experience” (Pultz, 2016: 30)
Abigail Solomon-Godeau ( (2007) says of Callahan’s photos the opposition between Callahan’s vision of the city – alienated, inhospitable, antisocial and oppressive – and his depiction of women subjects begins to reveal the oppositional structure of domestic of ‘natural space’ versus public space; spouse versus stranger; elemental, sexualized body versus objectified alien body” (Grant 2016: 19). The second photo in the gallery above bears out Solomon-Godeau’s statement, making a broad reference to female objectification with the pornographic pose superimposed above the woman walking in the street.
The third image in the gallery above is another example of Callahan’s multiple exposures. We see images from a large electronic billboard or TV, probably from a soap opera superimposed over the facade of a building that looks very much like a law court. In the foreground two figures walk hand in hand into superimposed text. Perhaps a play on the dramas that play out in law courts, likening them to soap operas?
Of all Callahan’s photos on display at the exhibition, I would have to say that his multiple exposure work caught my attention the most. Ever since working on Assignment 2 in Context and Narrative, I have found myself drawn to this type of work, and hopefully I will have more opportunities to experiment with this technique myself.
Arnold, Grant (2016) Harry Callahan: The Street In Harry Callahan | The Street. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery.
Pultz, John (2016) Harry Callahan’s Modernist Photography and the Street in the Cold War Era In Harry Callahan | The Street. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery.
Our course material refers us to an interview between Conor Risch and Quentin Bajac, Chief Curator of Photography at MOMA. I am just going to make brief bullet points on the points that Bajac mentioned which interested me the most.
“Depending on the time period, context, and the individual motivations (commercial, artistic, scientific) and sensibilities of the photographer, the studio may be a stage, a laboratory, or a playground.”
Currently there is a huge interest in experimental photography: materiality of the image; a resurgence of darkroom techniques; fashion and advertising
Exhibition explains this current interest by looking at the history of photography done in the studio: neo-pictorialist.
History of photography tends to repeat itself, just using new technology and techniques. Pretty much everything was invented in the first 30 years.
In the 60’s and 70’s curators did not have as much access to images. Now in the age of the internet, there is a plethora of images but curators need to find ways to connect to the online photographic world, e.g. digital museums.
In 80’s and 90’s photographers were more orientated to exhibiting their work. Today’s generation is more geared to online expression.
Should be more open to popular culture. The delineation between artistic and vernacular work is often fuzzy.
Photographers need to give themselves time to develop, learn to edit their work, stand back and evaluate.
Photographers start with the camera and edit; artists conceives an idea and tries to convey this through the medium of photography.
Need to remember that the studio is a “world”. It can be used as a set or stage.
Walker Evans was born in 1903 and was recruited to work in the Farm Security Administration during the Depression years producing some of his best-know work. He later became a professor of photography at Yale University. Between 1938 and 1941 Evans made a series of portraits of passengers which he shot on various subways. The series was called “Many are Called”.
Evans used a concealed camera and ran a remote shutter release down the sleeve of his coat into his hand. He was literally shooting blind. Often fellow photographer, Helen Levitt would accompany him on the subways.
Dyer (2007 p. 19) states:
The idea, … was to affirm that certain people ‘had come along and, without knowing it, placed themselves in front of a fixed and impersonal apparatus for a given time, and that all these individuals, … were photographed without the slightest human intervention at the moment the shutter clicked’.
All the subjects were oblivious to the fact that they were being photographed and Evans noticed that, alone in a crowded rail carriage, people tended to drop their guard. I have observed similar expressions when taking public transit. It is as if people think they have an invisible barrier around themselves that no one can penetrate. The blank stare at the person sitting opposite where one does not really see the person: one is simply so lost in thought that one doesn’t realise one is staring.
Evans also captured tiny dramas – little interactions between passengers. Two people sharing a joke or reading a newspaper together. Dyer (2007 p 20) states that “it is precisely this detached quality of their conception and composition that gives Evans’s subway pictures their intense human appeal.”
Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Jeff Rosenheim reflects on Evan’s subway portraits here.
Evans’ subway portraits give credence to Barthes’ notion in Death of the Author where he dispels the idea that the author’s identity and views dictate the meaning of the text.
… the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now.
Barthes (1977 p. 145)
Evans was shooting blind – he had no way of knowing what he was capturing until he developed his film. The only control Evans’ had over his image was when to press his shutter release and then hope for the best. The absence of any directional prompts is something that is central to traditional documentary photography.
Evans stated that the roles of “seer” and “the seen” were reversed in his portraits. The photographer or viewer (us) is being observed by the subway passengers and and has to give up control. As Jonathan Schroeder in Daniel Chandler’s Notes on the Gaze states: ‘to gaze implies more than to look at – it signifies a psychological relationship of power, in which the gazer is superior to the object of the gaze’.
Now who would be the gazer in this photograph? Clearly the couple is looking directly at the photograph, totally unaware they are being photographed. Their gaze is quite direct and compelling. When I look at the photograph I have the distinctive feeling that they are looking at me.
Barthes, Roland (1977). Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press