I have taken my tutor’s advice and redone assignment 1. I started off grumbling about having to redo it, but now I’m glad I’ve taken the time to hit the streets in search of my subjects. I decided to go for a totally different theme than the hotel workers that I had initially done. Mainly because reshooting in Vancouver hotels would have been rather tricky. I struggled a bit to come up with a good workable concept, but had a bit of a brain wave at work the other day when receiving fire warden training for our building. The fireman providing the training insisted that we all wear high-visibility clothing when doing fire drills and emergency evacuations and I thought to myself – why not that?
So I’m putting out my images, which I need to reduce to 5 for some peer commentary.
My tutor suggested in her tutor report for Assignment 1, that I take a look at a journal by Julian Stallabrass, namely What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography. After much sleuthing on the internet I was able to track down a copy of this journal. Unfortunately the university where I work does not have MIT Press Journals in its database stable. I really wish OCA could get us online library privileges. The journal leaves one with much to think about and I am just making brief notes on my reading and understanding of it here.
A distinct strand of portrait photography has emerged that can be likened to ethnographic photography. There doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut definition of ethnographic photography, so from my readings I understand it to be photography that serves a social purpose, is the study of cultures and is used to study customs, beliefs and daily life. According to Mary Warner Marien (2014: 35) “ethonographers concoted a standard, “styleless” style to connote truth.” A certain visual vocabulary is present: subjects posed either face-on or from the side; neutral expressions of the subjects and plain backgrounds. This type of photography was used widely by anthropologists and during European colonisation in third world countries.
Photographers who shoot in this particular mode are: Rineke Dijkstra, Jitka Hanzlova, Marie-Jo Lafontaine, Gillian Wearing, thomas Ruff, Celine van Balen. Included to some extent in this list are also Joel Sternfeld, Adam Broomberg, Tina Barney and Hellen van Meene.
Ethnographic photography has been heavily criticized for its power relations in regard to surveillance and racial classification.
This brings us to questions around the representation of difference and identity. Objective or subjective?
The success of the deadpan aesthetic is largely linked to the “political view of the subject under neoliberalism” (Stallabrass, 2007: 72).
Deadpan aesthetic: “a cool, detached and keenly sharp type of photography. …emotional detachment and command on the part of the photographers. The adoption of a deadpan aesthetic moves art photography outside the hyperbolic, sentimental and subjective” (Cotton, 2009 :81)
Neoliberalism: “Neoliberalism is a policy model of social studies and economics that transfers control of economic factors to the private sector from the public sector. … Neoliberalism has been used by various scholars, critics and analysts, mainly referring to an upspring of 19th century ideas connected to economic liberalism that began in the 1970s and 1980s. …This approach has most famously been connected to various economic policies introduced in the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher and in the United States by Ronald Reagan.” (Investopedia, online)
These photographs are the direct opposite of the usual red-carpet photos seen in magazines. The subjects depict no style, no overly remarkable characteristics. They seem anonymous. The viewer does not participate with their gaze. They appear to look past (or through) us, aloof. The only participation that is allowed is that of “self-presentation before the camera” (Stallabrass, 2007:84).
Most successful of these ethnographic photographers is Rineke Dijkstra. Her photos are straightforward, with hardly any intervention or composition. Her best know series is that of youths on a beach in Poland (see image above). She places her camera at a standard distance from her subjects and positions her camera low at waist level so that the subject is looking down slightly and thus dropping the horizon line down. This gives her subjects appear taller or larger than they are actually. She makes use of fill-in flash to illuminate her subjects thereby giving greater separation from the background. Her goal is to “get at the essential, human aspect” of her subjects (Stallabrass, 2007: 86).
Dijkstra’s work was heavily influenced by August Sander, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Thomas Ruff.
Irving Penn took breaks from fashion photography at various stages in his career to photograph “with simple means and simple people” (Stallabrass, 2007: 76). He used a twin reflex camera, natural northern light and a plain backdrop against which to frame his subjects. According to Penn his subjects took on “a seriousness of self-presentation that would not have been expected of simple people” (Stallabrass, 2007: 76).
Penn actively arranged the position of his subjects, preferring front on poses, unlike Dijkstra. He also favoured placing his subjects in the centre of the frame.
Like Penn, Avedon also took breaks from his fashion photography and toured western America looking for “others”, the very opposite of what he photographed every day.
Avedon would put up a white paper background and shoot in diffused natural light, preferring flat light.
Not all of Avedeon’s subjects appear to be centrally positioned and this is because Avedon stood beside his view camera while causing his subjects to revert their gaze from the camera to him. The slight off centre positioning hinted at marginality, instability (both social and mental) and disaffection. He varied his distances from his subjects and also used reflectors to bounce light. Avedon also directed his subjects.
Avedon found his subjects at country fairs, gas stations. Kozloff states: “he wants to portray the whole American West as a blighted culture that spews out casualties by the bucket: misfits, drifters, degenerates, crackups, and prisoners-entrapped, either literally or by debasing work” (Kozloff: American Suburb X).
Both Avedon and Penn’s non-fashion work are the very antithesis of their fashion photography. As Kozloff points out in his article, fashion photography requires the viewer (and the photographer) to admire the beautiful model/clothes. There is an element of narcissism involved and probably a sense of adoration too. There is not of that involved in their “other” work. Here the facts are presented coldly, almost brutally with no artifice whatsoever. No adoration is involved. There is more a question of “them” and “us”.
It is clear that most ethographic photographs are printed very large at a high resolution and the details revealed in the portraits help to compensate for the lack of expression and artistic freedom, relying on the immense data to overwhelm the viewer.
In these ethnographic photographs the viewer might see his/her own faults and flaws in our efforts to conform with society’s expectations. We just have to look at Hans Eijelboom’s work to see examples of this.
In the past ethnographic photography applied more to the “other” – those not like us, where people were photographed in order to show their ‘strangeness’ to the world. One thinks of Diane Arbus and her freaks, Edward Sheriff Curtis and his work on the Native Americans.
Now this deadpan aesthetic is used on subjects who are not “other”. In this globalized society that we live in today, who is the stranger among us, who is the odd one out. I have only to look at my own city to see how complex this issue of identity can be. Here we have so many nationalities represented, all of whom have become Canadian citizens. Past identities merge with new ones as a person grows from child to teenager to student to father to immigrant to citizen to grandfather … The permutations are quite endless. Identity is an unstable state.
Class is after all written deep in these apparently postclass images. They bear the mark of fundamental deficiencies in democracy, that permit the general population to be plausibly viewed through an ethnographic lens, and above all the disregard of democracy that lies at the heart of neoliberalism.
Stallabrass (2007: 90)
Cotton, C. (2009). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson
Just happened to come across this Facebook posting today on Paul Matzner’s facebook page. He was kind enough to leave a comment on my blog on my review of his work, but I would never have expected him to link back to it. Super chuffed!!
In this exercise, you’ll build on your ‘Background as context’ exercise (ex 1.2) by taking the relationship between your subject and their surroundings a step further. The objective here is to try to create a link between the two components of your image, i.e. the subject and their surroundings.
Make three different portraits using three different subjects. Prior to shooting your portraits, engage with your subjects and agree three different specific locations which have some relevance or significance to them individually … go one step further and negotiate a specific physical location where you’ll photograph your subject. This can either be inside or on location, but the key to this portrait is the interaction you’ve had with your subject in identifying a place that has specific meaning to them.
Each portrait should be accompanied by a very short piece of text explaining the choice of location or venue … Present all three images together as a series and reflect upon how successful this exercise was in your learning log or blog. Write around 500 words.
For this exercise I relied on my family members.
My youngest son, Nick, is a very keen vegetable gardener and plants tomatoes and beans every year. He chose to be photographed relaxing in front of his crops.
My eldest son, Robert is a keen mountain biker, so decided to have his portrait taken in the garden on his bike. Dinner was almost ready otherwise he may have decided to do the photoshoot in the forest.
My husband Nick is so used to being at the other end of my lens but on this day he agreed to being photographed while barbequing. This is something that he does throughout the summer in our back yard, and is quite representative of him.
I think as a whole the series works well together. All the photographs were made outside in natural light. I used a 18mm – 140mm zoom lens, but might have had better results if I had used my 50mm lens. Fig 3 may appear a little darker than the other two images, but I did try and photograph from the house towards the garden, but the background was just too messy, what with vegetable installations, umbrellas and building material. In hindsight I should have remember to use my reflector to bounce a little more light into my husband’s face and I could have stepped back a little more to include a bit more of the barbeque itself.
I was quite pleased with the light in Fig 2. There is enough light coming into the shaded area to allow for muscle definition on my son’s arms. If I had to do this over again, I would have him lose the helmet which is obscuring his leg.
I rather like the slight dappled light on the left arm and body and the Rembrandt lighting on the face in Fig 1. I had to bring the exposure down a bit on the leg that is stretched out in front and also had to clone out a distracting red sprinkler that was among the beans.
I have to admit that doing full length, three-quarter or even half length portraits is rather new to me as I do so much head shot work where I work that it almost feels like a different genre. I do prefer working up close as I feel I’m closer to the personality of that person, even if I am using a zoom lens.
While shooting this exercise I also included close ups of my family which are below.
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.