Tag Archives: Rineke Dijkstra

The Pose: Its Troubles and Pleasures by Susanne Holschbach

One of the essays in the exhibition catalogue of Street & Studio An Urban History of Photography is of particular relevance to this section of the course. Whether one makes a street portrait or a portrait in the studio, the essence comes down to the posing.

The history of the pose dates back to the 1850s where the purpose of portrait photography was for “self-representation or remembrance” (Holschbach p. 171) and later on for the purposes of identification. Due to the slow exposure speeds of cameras back then, subjects were usually seated when they had their photographs made, sometimes their heads were put into some sort of vice to keep them still. Alan Trachtenberg’s observation was that “sitters were encouraged to will themselves into the desired self-expression … creating a role and a mask” (cited in Warner Marien 2014).

On left: Carl Durheim, Joseph Ackerman, 37 Jahre alt 1852-3. On right: Emile Tourtin, Theodore de Banville, in Galerie Contemporaine, 1876-80
On left: Carl Durheim, Joseph Ackerman, 37 Jahre alt 1852-3. On right: Emile Tourtin, Theodore de Banville, in Galerie Contemporaine, 1876-80

Holschbach’s essay refers to the two images above at the “contrary poles of the photographic portrait in the nineteenth century” (p 171). Both photographs reveal something about the subjects’ self-perceptions and social standing. There are subtle differences in their poses. The gentleman on the left is sitting very awkwardly on the chair, his hands crossed over on his lap  rather tensely. His clothes are rather worn. His hat is perched on the studio table beside him. The subject stares directly at the camera. In contrast, the gentleman on the right is well dressed and sits in a rather relaxed fashion enveloping the chair (there is only a sliver of it visible on the right). His hands are clasped comfortably across his stomach and he looks off into the distant, making no eye contact with the photographer. One gets the sense that there was more direction from the photographer on the left than the one on the right. The nervousness of the subject on the left is quite tangible, while the gentleman on the right exudes confidence as if he has done this many times.

“… the pose is at once a conscious attitude and an involuntary expression of psychic dispositions and social norms. It can intimate the conditions under which the portrait was created, and it can bear signs of agreement as well as resistance.”

Holschbach (p 172)

The statement above is of particular relevance to the photograph of the gentleman on the left. The Swiss government proceeded to document all traveling salespeople, other itinerants and homeless people in an attempt to curtail their movements and to force them to lead more settled lives. Photographs taken for these identification purposes could later be used for warrant posters if the person strayed from his/her designated area of abode (Warner Marien, p 68).

One of the definitions  of the verb “to pose” is “to claim or pretend to be somebody/something”. The very nature of this means that subjects deliver themselves to the camera in a manner that they would like to be seen, whether it is a true rendition of themselves or not. Aspiring middle class people would have their portraits taken with backgrounds depicting sumptuous rooms or surroundings in an effort to relay how far they had brought themselves up in the world.

“… once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”

Barthes (1981, p 10)

Subjects have learned to emulate postures and expressions. Children do this in their play copying and teenagers experiment with various seductive expressions in front of the mirror trying to mimic their favourite film star. Adults learn to alter their expressions and body language to fit to conform within the work place. Philippe Halsman developed a strategy when photographing his subjects. He would end the session by asking them to jump. His rationale was that a person cannot control an expression, facial muscles and limb muscles at the same time. During this transient state (the jump) the mask falls and there is a glimmer of the real person (Holschbach  p 173).

Philippe Halsman, Edward Steichen, 1959
Philippe Halsman, Edward Steichen, 1959

“Posing is an act that is both active and passive” (Holschbach p 174). Rineke Dijkstra’s series of young prepubescent girls in nightclubs shows how they mimic their popstar idols in poses and gestures. This copycat behaviour also happens on the street. “It is a fundamental mechanism of intersubjectivity (a shared understanding that helps us to relate one situation to another): in order to be perceived and recognised as a person at all” (Holschbach p 174). Personally, I think a lot of this behaviour is down to consumerism. We are constantly bombarded by images on the internet and glossy magazine advertisements that young women especially turn to in order to determine how to “act”. Fashion photography no longer sells clothes, but sells sex, extravagance, and temperaments, as well as the perfect, ideal (yet impossible) body that every woman is urged to strive for.

With the arrival of handheld cameras, photography moved out into the streets and was no longer hampered by the confines of the studio. “The snapshot came to substitute the staged photograph, the ideal of being natural replacing that of being representative” (Holschbach p 176). A resurgence in the popularity of the studio portrait happened in Africa. Numerous photographers spring to mind here: Malik Sidibe, who photographed young people in their latest nightclub attire in a very minimalist studio space, while Philip Kwame photographed people against elaborately painted backdrops of cityscapes, airports, offices, and exotic locations, sometimes proudly displaying their latest acquisition. The clients’ “poses are emblematic gestures through which the subject associates himself with his surroundings, seeing his ambitions fulfilled in the very photograph” Holschbach p 177).

Photograph by Philip Kwame
Photograph by Philip Kwame

The studio can be both a site of control but it can also be a place where fictional characters or identities are created. According to Holschbach (p 177) the “playful potential of the pose” only truly comes into being when the photographer engages in self-portraiture, when he/she is alone in the studio, with no observers as can be seen in Cindy Sherman’s works.

Reference List

Barthes, Roland (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.

Holschbach Susanne (2008) ‘The Pose: Its Troubles and Pleasures’ In: Eskildsen, U; Ebner, F; Kaufmann, B (eds.) Street & Studio An Urban History of Photography. London: Tate Modern

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1989) (4th edition): Oxford: Oxford University Press

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th edition). London: Laurence King.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Advertisements

Face On: Photography as Social Exchange

One of the books my tutor recommended that I read is Face On, which is edited by Mark Durden and Craig Richardson. Face On sets out the history of documentary photography, but more importantly examines the relationship between photographer and subject. The book is divided into four essays:

  • Negotiating Power
  • Empathy and Engagement: The Subjective Documentary
  • Reality Gaps, Assumed and Declared
  • Contractualities of the Eye

The photograph is revealed as a tightly focused space of negotiation within which the politics of looking and posing … is played out.

Joanna Lowry (p. 11)

The first essay deals with the relationship between the photographer and subject and Lowry illustrates this power struggle by referencing Tracey Moffatt’s video Heaven which was shot on Bondi Beach where young men parade their bodies, strip down and change next to their cars and pose with their surfboards. Lowry (p. 13) makes the point that a social relationship exists between the photographer and subject when the subject poses in front of the camera. “Within the cultural economy of the image the pose represents the point at which value is set. This is the moment of transaction when the deal has finally been struck” (Lowry p 13). This in turn, is an act of communication in which the identities of both the photographer and the subject are formed.

face-onMikhail Baktin, a Russian philospher developed the idea of ‘dialogical text’ building upon the work of Saussure. He looked at language as an act of communication.

The utterance that was always, … bound into a relationship between two people: that was always from somebody, always directed towards an addressee, and always anticipated a response.

Lowry (p. 15)

Within dialogical text are a variety of structures of power and authority, however the binary opposite of the dialogical is the monological where there is no opportunity for response, where the speaker is in total control of the language/image. Steve Edwards, professor of art history at the Open University puts forward that the photographer’s studio is the place where the final power resides with the photographer and thus is a monological site. This is the essential binarism between street and studio. Lowry goes on to discuss Jurgen Teller’s Go-See’s project, comparing it to Rineke Dijkstra’s The Buzzclub project and then moves on to discuss the implications of when the subject is paid to pose as in Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s and Boris Mikhailov’s works. All of these photographers’ works can be categorised as have dialogical relationships. There is an ongoing struggle of power between the photographer and the subject.

The second essay deals with social documentary, concentrating quite a bit on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Durden, author of this essay states (p. 27) that Walker Evans used to shoot his subjects “face on, upstanding, composed and commanding respect … Evans himself never shows his face”. As Evans himself stated his style was one of “the non-appearance of author, the non-subjectivity” (Durden p. 27). The quandry between documentary and aesthestics is discussed in James Agee’s writings for Let us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee finding this ‘ethically troubling’ (p. 30). This work is then contrasted by Richard Billingham’s and Tom Hunter’s portraits of working class families in which their economic struggles are portrayed.

Documentary negotiates difference and the ways in which this difference is negotiated determine its political effectivity.

Durden (p 36)

Chapter three deals with assumed identities as in the series Front by Trish Morrissey (which I commented on in my Context and Narrative module) and Jennifer Bornstein’s Interventions which are also self-portraits of Bornstein posing as siblings or family members of complete strangers. “here is the deliberate removal of identity and it’s replacement with a sequence of false alliances and friendships (Richardson p 47). These staged intimacies and constructed social communities serve to “highlight the false construct of objectivity in documentary photographic practice” (Richardson p 40). Other photographers work mentioned in this essay are Philip-Lorca diCorcia (Hustlers); Mierle Laderman Ukeles (Touch Sanitation: Handshake Ritual); Roderick Buchanan (Me and my neighbours).

The most important aspect of the photograph is its exchange of interest with the viewer, but the agreement made with the subject is nonetheless indicative of the kind of society in which it is made.

(Hunt, p 53)

The final chapter is written by Ian Hunt and deals with the work of Boris Mikhailov (Case Histories). The series is about the homeless in Kharkov, Ukraine. All the subjects were paid and photographed naked or very scantily clothed. There is a very strong sense of deprivation running through his images, but also one of a mutual contract having been agreed upon, albeit that the subjects are openly manipulated into posing. Jennifer Bornstein’s work mentioned above contrasts this in that the subjects are not paid, but willingly take part in the constructed community. “Bornstein’s authorship is to be found in what cannot be regulated in the fleeting encouters as well as in the enabling architecture of those encounters she has set up” (Hunt p 60).

There is much to learn from the old ways as they renew themselves and adapt and are reinvented against new opponents …

(Hunt p 66)

Reference List

Durden, M and Richardson, C. (2000) Face On: Photography as Social Exchange London: Black Dog Publishing Limited

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography

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)
Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992 © Rineke Dijkstra Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper
Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992 © Rineke Dijkstra
Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper
  • 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.

 

Cuzco Children, 1948 by Irving Penn
Cuzco Children, 1948 by Irving Penn

 

  • 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)

Reference List

Cotton, C. (2009). The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames & Hudson

Kozloff, M. (2011) Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’ [online] American Suburb X. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/01/richard-avedon-richard-avedons-in.html [Accessed 29 July, 2016]

Neoliberalism Definition [online]. Investopedia. Available at http://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/neoliberalism.asp#ixzz4FlxnxJMV
[Accessed 28 July, 2016]

Stallabrass, Julian (2007). What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography’. In: October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Fall 2007, No. 122, Pages 71-90. Available at: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/octo.2007.122.1.71?journalCode=octo#.V5mhQDXvn-V [Accessed 27 July, 2016]

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th edition). London: Laurence King

Images

Dijkstra, R (1992) Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992. Photograph, colour, Chromogenic print, on paper. Tate. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dijkstra-kolobrzeg-poland-july-23-1992-p78329 [Accessed 27 July 2016]

Penn, I. (1948) Cuzco Children. Platinum/palladium print online. Available at: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.125440.html#relatedpages [Accessed 28 July, 2016]

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save