Tag Archives: Erin O’Keefe

Assignment 1 – The Non-Familiar

The brief:

Your first assignment is to make five portraits of five different people from your local area who were previously unknown to you.

Due to work constraints and other personal issues happening in my life during the past few weeks, I decided to do this assignment while I was on holiday, where hopefully I would have more clarity of thought. While vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, I decided to photograph the hotel staff that I met for this project. The photographs were only taken after having some interesting dialogue with each of the subjects. All photos were taken in situ where the subjects worked. With the exception of the room attendant (fig 5), all photos were taken in one of the many restaurants on the premises. The room attendant’s photo was taken in the hotel room. Those of the servers and restaurant manager were taken at the end of the meal and I remained seated in my seat to take the photo as I wanted to convey their attendant stature. I gave no instructions other than to indicate where they should stand on the opposite side of the table. I allowed the subjects to pose themselves and their facial expressions. As they were all busy working, I had to work quickly and only managed to fire off about three shots for each subject.

What I really like about this set of images is the pride that is evident on all the subjects’ faces, as well as the pleasure of being asked for their portrait. This series is all about recognition. How often do the restaurant staff and room attendants just meld into the background of one’s experiences unnoticed when one is out enjoying oneself? Berger (2013: 140) states that “between people there is no such thing as unilateral one-way knowledge.” An exchange is always required, be it either verbal or for instance in a foreign country by means of various gestures in order to make oneself understood. Each person that I have photographed here is a unique individual. Sure they are identified by their uniforms and badges (signs), but these are all man-made items and don’t serve to reflect their personalities. They only aid to tell us ‘what’ they are, but not ‘who’. In conversations with some of these people it appears that they are not highly paid at all – approximately 80 pesos per day (just a little over CAD $5 per day) so providing excellent service for tips is a huge part of their daily routine.

The close-up is the opposite of a statistic. … What first matters is recognition. Recognition. The word appears to make no claim and to sound poor. Yet that perhaps is how it should be.

(Berger, 2013: 142)

The clothing, gestures, and facial expressions all contribute to the semiological system of reading the photograph.  There is a coherence of appearances in the series below. As Berger (2013: 71) states:

Appearances also cohere within the mind as perceptions. … To recognize an appearance requires the memory of other appearances. And these memories, often projected as expectations, continue to qualify the seen long after the stage of primary recognition. … One image interpentrates another.

Fig 1. Martin - Server
Fig 1. Martin – Server at Casa Grande
Fig 2. Oscar - Server
Fig 2. Oscar – Server at BlaZe
Fig 3. Saul - Server
Fig 3. Saul – Server at PureZa
Fig 4. Oscar - Restaurant Manager
Fig 4. Oscar – Restaurant Manager at MelanZane
Fig 5. Adriana - Room attendant
Fig 5. Adriana – Room attendant

 

ASSESSMENT CRITERIA

Demonstration of technical and visual skills (materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills)

I used my Nikon D7200, together with a  50 mm f1.8 lens so that I could blur the backgrounds. My primary focus was on the eye closest to me and I am happy that all the eyes are nice and sharp. I had to use my camera’s pop up flash on a few occasions and this enhanced the specular highlights on the faces of the subjects in fig. 1 and 4 who were sweating due to the heat. The choice for background was rather limited in the indoor restaurants while the outdoor restaurants provided a more interesting background in terms of thatch texture and vegetation. Also the headboard of the bed in fig 5 was quite spectacular so I was extremely pleased to include that as the background. The only issue I had with fig 5, and unfortunately I only noticed this when uploading the photos after returning home, was the hint of red cushion behind the subject on the bed. I tried to remove it in Photoshop but I am very rusty with Photoshop so decided rather to leave it in than make a mess. I need to upgrade my PS skills.

Quality of Outcome (content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas)

My work was largely influenced by August Sander from exercise 1.2, Hans Eijkelboom and Paul Matzner. I am fairly happy with the outcome of the photographs which I shot under very difficulty circumstances, as my mother had passed away while I was on holiday. Sontag in her essay “Photographic Evangels” writes that ‘every portrait of another person is a “self-portrait” of the photographer’ (1977: 122). Each portrait that I made was a stepping stone to celebrating my mother’s life, and in a way each portrait was serving as my mask in hiding my sorrow.

Demonstration of Creativity (imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice)

By choosing to do headshots I might have limited my creativity a bit. However, I felt that headshots would best allow for an element of ambiguity that I wanted to introduce to the portraits in that their occupations are not immediately evident until one reads the caption. My 50mm lens allowed for some interesting blurred backgrounds.

Context (reflection, research, critical thinking)

I am finding that portraiture is quite a difficult topic, more so than I initially envisioned. In particular the semiology of reading faces is quite daunting. It is perhaps more akin to analysing a close-up than a wide-angle photograph. One has to be more in tuned to very subtle nuances.

In preparation for my assignment I looked at the following photographers (my details remarks can be found on their pages):

  • Juergen Teller – I particularly liked the semiology of framing his subjects in that no-man’s land on a doorstep, highlighting their transition between their ordinary life and professional life; their youth and innocence about to be discarded on the pavement outside the studio.
  • Paul Matzner – the typology of people on certain streets in various US cities. Paul Matzner also stopped by my review and left a comment.
  • Hans Eijkelboom – the typologies of fashion found on various locations around the world revealing a social anthropology and society’s reliance on consumerism – the identity of fitting in.

I have also decided to study one of the visual culture textbooks on the side, with the hope that this will help improve my critical analysis. As I go along I will make brief notes on my exploration. Thus far I have covered:

I was really lucky to attend quite a few exhibitions. The annual Capture Photography festival brought quite a few unknown photographers to my attention. My detailed notes are on the relevant exhibition pages linked below:

Reference List

Berger, John (2013) Understanding a Photograph. New York: Aperture.

Sontag, Susan (1977) On Photography. New York: Picador.

Bibliography

Angier, R. (2015) Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography (2nd edition). London: Bloomsbury.

Kozloff, M. (2007) The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press

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Erin O’Keefe at Gallery Jones

Another photographer who is featured during the month long Capture Photography Festival here in Vancouver is Erin O’Keefe. Her exhibition Things as They Are is on exhibit at the Gallery Jones.

I was first introduced to Erin O’Keefe’s work while I was doing the The Art of Photography module. O’Keefe is a visual artist based in New York and New Brunswick, Canada and has a background in architecture. This background in architecture informs a lot of her work which has to do with spatial perception.

Erin O'Keefe - Things as they are | The Flatness Series #30 & The Flatness Series #12
Erin O’Keefe – Things as they are | The Flatness Series #30 & The Flatness Series #12

All her work is very colourful and vibrant, exuding a cheerful atmosphere. One can’t walk away from her work without feeling lighter in spirit and refreshed from the rich vibrancy.

In her Flatness Series (see above) she builds a still life from painted plywood boards, photographic prints of Photoshop gradient patterns and photographs. O’Keefe states:

I am interested in the tension between the compressed space of the image and the visual clues that allude to the dimensionality of the still life. The camera is the agent of uncertainty that invites seeing as both an intimate and critical exercise.

(Gallery Jones, 2016)

One is impelled to look deeply at her work, trying to figure out how she has created these still lifes. Her work consists of strong geometric shapes, vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines and curves which all contribute towards the dynamics of each photograph. In Flatness Series #30 our eye is tricked into thinking that the photograph could very well just be paper shapes laid down flat on a surface, until we see the shadow of the diagonally placed dowel stick. It is the shadow that gives the photograph its dimensionality and changes our perceptions.

She goes even further in her illusory effects in the Natural Disasters series. In this series she also makes use of pipe cleaners, tape, mirrors, string and fabric.

Erin O'Keefe - Natural Disasters - Bullseye
Erin O’Keefe – Natural Disasters – Bullseye

The mise-en-scene is elaborately constructed, almost like a stage set. Again dimensionality is achieved through shadows, but also in the way the string intersects the various components in the frame. Is it passing behind the object or through it? In a way the photo above makes me think back to my childhood when children would raid their mothers’ cupboards for sheets and other paraphernalia and build a fort in the back yard, or living room if the weather was bad. There is definitely a sense of joie de vivre in O’Keefe’s work. For me it’s the kind of abstract work that one will not easily tire from. Every time one looks at the photograph something else is revealed.

Reference List

Gallery Jones. (2016) Erin O’Keefe | Things as they are. Vancouver. Gallery Jones.