Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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Books roundup

Bookshelf

Bookshelf

Over the Art of Photography course there’s been a lot of books I’ve bought / borrowed / downloaded, many of which I haven’t specifically written about in the form of a book review. Some of these are theoretical/critical textbooks, some are more practical, some are photobooks on a single photographer/project, others are compendiums of the great and good.

What I want to do here is summarise what I’ve got out of each of these books so far – I expect to revisit some in more detail as they become more relevant on future modules of the degree. These are roughly grouped in the following order: photographic theory; photographers; compendiums.

By the way, this is long so no need for anyone to read it unless you really want to. I’m mainly writing it up for my own benefit!

1. The Photograph, Graham Clarke

The book that came with the course notes, and so the first one I had a go at reading. As with Sontag below, I struggled at first as I needed to get into the right frame of mind for the content to really start making sense. I made notes on my initial reaction here – ‘a mix of fascinating, obtuse and pretentious’ is a reasonable summary of that early review! But it bears re-reading, and sinks in more when you have a better grounding in the overall context of photographic history and practice. Re-reading at the end of the course is highly recommended – only very small portions of the text now look obtuse or pretentious!

2. A Short History of Photography (Walter Benjamin)

I found this quite interesting on three specific points, all I think relating to the maturity of photography at the time of writing (it was under 100 years old as a medium). Firstly, he identifies aspects of photography that I believe people take for granted now, such as the ability to see what the naked eye cannot discern; secondly, he compares photography to other art forms, not simply the obvious one, painting, but also to writing and even to music – and his conclusions make you think about the medium in quite a different way; and thirdly, he writes from a standpoint that photography has already peaked, clearly ignorant of the decades of innovation that would follow! So interesting but limited.

3. On Photography (Susan Sontag)

Like Clarke, this hurt my brain at first but on second and third reading it made more and more sense – not that I agreed with everything! But you do have to read it to learn which bits you disagree with… it made me think about a photograph and what it ‘means’ more than I ever had before – and gave me a few new insights that resonated with me. See review here.

4. Understanding a Photograph (John Berger)

I’m still working through this so will reserve full judgement. It’s a collection of essays, but in a more fragmented sense than On Photography is – more of them, written over a long timespan, with disconnected themes. Some of the essays I was quite indifferent to (such as the analyses of specific photos) but the chapters on ‘Appearances’ and ‘Stories’ and the way he dissected (diagrammatically!) how good photographs work… these really resonated with me. So far I’ve found his writing to be more analytical and revealing than Sontag’s. I can see myself revisiting the chapters I’ve read, and maybe selectively reading other of the essays as they become pertinent to my studies.

5. Photography: A Critical Introduction (Liz Wells, ed.)

This, I confess, I struggled with more than any other. Very, very dry and academic, and needs a level of critical theory understanding that I’m not sure I possess yet. I’m afraid I only made it through chapter 1. I must come back to this as my studies progress…

6. The Photographer’s Mind (Michael Freeman)

Having already having read and enjoyed The Photographer’s Eye before I started my studies, I gave a copy of this follow-up to a friend as a birthday present… which I then very cheekily borrowed back recently. I’m only partway through but already I’m appreciating new levels of insight. He’s very good on ‘what makes a good photo?’ – the concepts of aesthetic norms, and what kinds of images are generally held to be pleasing to the eye – or not, as the case may be. I need to continue with this.

7. The Mind’s Eye (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

A slim volume to begin with, and 90% of the content is padding! The 10% that remains (all in Part 1: The Camera As Sketchbook) is however very insightful, as it articulates Cartier-Bresson’s philosophy to taking pictures. It stresses the importance of respect for the subject, and the need for ‘harmony’; he talks about “putting one’s head, one’s eye, and one’s heart on the same axis” when taking a picture. The big thing I took away from his world view is how he talks about geometry; he prefers the term over ‘composition’ and muses on how photography can detect (rather than impose) the rhythms, patterns and lines that already exist in the real world – “if the shutter was released at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless”.

8. Scrapbook (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

By far the most expensive book in my collection! And to be very honest, I’m not sure it’s worth the couple of hundred pounds that it goes for! I mean, it’s great – basically Cartier-Bresson curated by Cartier-Bresson. It’s a real education to pore over his selected images, looking for the elements that he saw in the scenes before him – the harmony, the geometry. And it’s beautifully presented. I just wish it was a bit more accessible, price-wise. More people should own this, but it’s prohibitively priced.

9. Vivian Maier: Street Photographer (Vivian Maier, John Maloof)

Fascinating insight into world of a seemingly untutored street photographer who never showed her work to anyone. Blog post reviewing this can be found here.

10. The Last Resort (Martin Parr)

The first of two recommended photo essays for the Narrative & Illustration part of the course, and this one covering a subject that resonated with me – northern seaside holidays in the 1980s! My thoughts on it are here.

11. The Americans (Robert Frank)

The second recommendation for the Narrative & Illustration, and to be honest I didn’t see the big deal of this at first. Repeated viewings of the images – and a sense of the prevailing context and photographic norms – do however reveal why this has such a groundbreaking reputation. I reviewed it here.

12. The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Charlotte Cotton)

I really liked this! It gave me a brilliant insight into the huge range of activity happening under the very broad heading of ‘contemporary photography’. It works really well as a counterpart to the ‘usual’ photography book, full of revered black-and-white prints from the acknowledged masters – this book shows how people are continually pushing at the edges of what photography is / can do / can mean. The nature of the majority of the work covered here falls into what I would call ‘staged’ subjects – as opposed to ‘found’ subjects (and to be honest this isn’t my preferred genre of photography; I am fundamentally more attracted to photography that finds ways to capture what’s there than I am to manufacturing something that I envisage will look good in a photo…) but you can’t deny the imagination on show here. It demonstrates one of the concepts that I picked up from Sontag actually: that the distinctive way of seeing that a photographer has is, in itself, something to admire – over and above individual images or even collected sets.

13. Street Photography Now (Sophie Howarth & Stephen McLaren)

For me this does for street photography what the Cotton book does for more ‘made’ photographic art: it shows the breadth of imagination and vision under one so-called genre. And frankly this kind of subject matter is more my cup of tea. The cliches of street photography – black and white, US cities – are augmented by a vast array of styles and subjects. Colour seems to dominate, abstract shapes and juxtapositions emerge, and the diversity in locations is testament to the ever-widening definition of ‘street’ photography. Very inspiring. Think I’ll come back to this a lot during People & Place.

14. Magnum Magnum (Brigitte Lardinois, ed.)

This is a fantastic compendium of Magnum photographers’ work, with an interesting twist: each photographer has their work curated and evaluated by another Magnum member. so it serves not only as a thorough (if eclectic) guide to the works of these acclaimed practitioners, it also gives an insight into what great photographers think makes a good photograph – what they see in the work of their peers or predecessors. So in each short chapter you feel like you’ve learned something about two photographers – the subject and the author.

15. Magnum Contact Sheets (Kristen Lubben, ed.)

Recommended by my tutor, this was possibly the biggest eye-opener to me. Up until getting this book, I had always assumed that the great photographers got it right in camera more often than not… but the truth, as demonstrated here, is that they shoot as many exposures as they think they need, and pore over the contact sheets (physical or digital) to identify the one where they ‘got it right’. This book taught me that no-one gets it right all the time, not even half the time, so keep shooting! It’s not a review as such, but I did note my favourite photographers’ quotes from the book in this post.

16. Photo Box (Roberto Koch, ed.)

A Thames & Hudson compendium of historic and contemporary photographers, this is themed into subject genres: reportage, war, portraits, nudes, women, travel, cities, art, fashion, still life, sport and nature. Each photographer gets one representative image per category (some are in multiple categories) alongside a brief biography and analysis of their work. Like ‘100 Ideas…’ this is a mainstream ‘dip-in-and-out’ book rather than a serious work of photography history or critique. I’ve found it useful for both inspiration and for filling in gaps in my knowledge. I expect to come back to this book on and off during my People & Place studies in particular.

17. 100 Ideas That Changed Photography (Mary Warner Marien)

This book is a compendium of 100 innovative aspects of photography since its inception, and plots the development of the medium – some technical, some idealogical, some about subject matter, some about usage – in a very digestible, ‘bite-sized chunk’ way of presentation. It’s not a history of photography per se – it doesn’t follow a timeline, and in this respect it’s a book that one can dip in and out of rather than read cover-to-cover. I can see myself coming back to this one many times.

18. Photographs Not Taken (Will Steacy, ed.)

A quirky one, this. It’s a collection of short (1-2 page) anecdotes from contemporary photographers, all on the theme of the photo they didn’t take. Sometimes they didn’t have their camera, sometimes the camera broke, sometimes they were scared, sometimes they were being respectful, sometimes they chose to experience the moment rather than record it, and sometimes they just messed up the shot. Each vignette only takes a few minutes to read. In a sense they’re almost like photographs themselves – capturing a moment, but in words not images.

  1. Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph. New York: Oxford University Press
  2. Benjamin, W. (1931) A short history of photography. 1972 English translation. Oxford: Oxford Journals
  3. Sontag, S. (1979) On photography. London: Penguin
  4. Berger, J. (2013) Understanding a photograph. London: Penguin Classics
  5. Wells, L. (2009) Photography: a critical introduction. London: Routledge
  6. Freeman, M. (2010) The photographer’s mind. Lewes: Ilex
  7. Cartier-Bresson, H (1999) The mind’s eye. New York: Aperture
  8. Cartier-Bresson, H (2006) Scrapbook. Paris: Thames & Hudson
  9. Maier, V & Maloof, J. (2011) Vivian Maier: street photographer. New York: Powerhouse
  10. Parr, M. (2012) The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis
  11. Frank, R. (2008) The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  12. Cotton, C. (2009) The photograph as contemporary art. London: Thames & Hudson
  13. Howarth, S & McLaren, S. (2011) Street photography now. London: Thames & Hudson
  14. Lardinois, B. (2009) Magnum Magnum. London: Thames & Hudson
  15. Lubben, K. (2011) Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson
  16. Koch, R (2009) Photo Box. London: Thames & Hudson
  17. Warner Marien, M. (2012) 100 ideas that changed photography. London: Laurence King
  18. Steacy, W. (2012) Photographs not taken. North Carolina: Daylight

 

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Book: On Photography, Susan Sontag

I confess I tried to read this book [1] early in my studies, but it really didn’t sink in. More recently I had another go, and after having read more widely since, this time the ratio of what I understood to what I didn’t understand improved greatly! A third read further helped, as I formed opinions on which parts I agreed with and which I didn’t. So, worth persevering.

Initially, Sontag’s haughty, knowing writing voice distracted me; she makes everything she says sound like an immutable fact, rather than what it really is – a theory, based on opinions. Similarly, she makes sweeping assumptions applying her theories; she uses terms like “the photograph”, “the photographer” and “the photographic enterprise”, implying universality. I found it easier on second reading to mentally replace these definitives with (e.g.) ‘some photographs’, ‘old photographs’, ‘successful photographs’, ‘photographs of people’ etc, and these qualifiers helped the flow of comprehension.

(Ironically, Sontag could see this habit of generalisation in others whilst practicing it herself: when she says “Steichen’s choice of photographs assumes a human condition or a human nature shared by everybody”, it’s easy to replace Steichen with Sontag and photographs with theories…)

Anyway, enough literary criticism! What of the content?

Where the book was successful was when it made me think of a photograph, or photography as a medium, in a new way. There are a few key ideas from the book that did this for me; they sparked new connections in my brain, and I want to document these before I forget that they were once new realisations.

The moment made eternal

“Television is a stream of under-selected images, each of which cancels its predecessor. Each still photograph is a privileged moment, turned into a slim object that one can keep and look at again.”

“The force of a photograph is that it keeps open to scrutiny instants which the normal flow of time immediately replaces.”

This articulated beautifully something that is very powerful about a photograph: that it freezes a moment in time and space, opens it up for examination, doesn’t move on. It doesn’t resolve itself into a future beyond itself, happy or otherwise. The tension in a harrowing photograph is more than ‘this happened’, it’s that ‘in this photograph it continues to happen’.

Nick Ut’s 1972 image of the South Vietnamese girl after the napalm attack is a case in point: a TV report of the same incident would have shown what happened in the seconds or minutes afterwards, provided some kind of resolution to her story on that day: she was taken to hospital, she is recovering, or even – she died from her injuries and is now at peace. But in the frame of the photograph, she’s always nine years old, naked, in excruciating pain, terrified beyond belief, screaming. That’s what makes the picture hard to look at. The viewer is powerless to resolve the frozen-in-time situation. Sontag calls it “the moment made eternal”.

I found this concept fascinating. I’m not sure to what degree as a photographer you can identify at the point of clicking the shutter that the moment is worthy of such freezing, such scrutiny. However, it did illuminate to me one of the elements of a successful image. I suppose it relates to the ‘decisive moment’ thinking attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson, who also apparently said that a truly great photograph is one that you can look at for two minutes. Choosing the right instant to freeze and extract for scrutiny seems to be one of the skills of a great photographer.

Admiring a way of seeing

“[A position] with criteria which shift the centre of judgement from the individual photograph, considered as a finished object, to the photograph considered as an example of ‘photographic seeing’.”

The above quote was actually in the context of the evolution of accepted wisdom on what made a good photograph – from the ‘Westonian’ dogma of adhering to technical quality criteria to the more contemporary view that takes in a whole range of styles and considers the ‘vision’ of the photographer and the emotions evoked in the viewers over and above measures of technical quality.

The lightbulb moment for me was realising that when people admire a certain photographer – above and beyond liking individual photographs – what they are really admiring is the way that person sees the world. If you make a trip to a photography exhibition you are saying, “I like the way s/he sees things”. The photographs furnish the evidence of that ‘way of seeing’, but it’s the vision that you’re admiring. I guess to an extent you could say that an appreciation of novelists, poets and painters is also predicated on connecting with their world-view to some degree, but with photographers it is most literal: you get to see (in the frame) what they saw (through the lens). You’re getting behind their eyes.

How to apply this? One of the challenges for a photographer is finding a distinctive ‘voice’ or ‘vision’ (without resorting to gratuitous taboo-busting). For a start, I need to be more mindful of subject matter and how I approach it; I need to ask myself before I hit the shutter: has this photo been taken already? what am I seeing here that I don’t think other people would see?

Past and present

According to Proust […] one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

“The photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes the now becomes past.” (Berenice Abbott)

Much of Sontag’s writing is predicated on the viewing of photographs as it had been practiced for most of its history – as a window into a nostalgic past, of which the photographs are scarce reminders.

However, I do wonder to what extent our relationship with photographs is changing in this temporal respect. Now the gap between taking a photo and sharing it for others to view can be down to seconds – we are often viewing the very recent past, or the ‘evolving present’. We ‘consume’ most photographs much closer to the point of creation than previously.

The ‘past’ of Sontag’s hypotheses doesn’t need to be that long ago to trigger the effects she discusses; I remember getting my holiday photos a week or two after I came back, and being briefly transported back to my holiday mood – today I can Instagram a photo from the beach, and my friends can see it, smile and scroll past it in a matter of seconds. It’s all very ephemeral.

So, many of Sontag’s observations on the power of photographs assume a passage of time, and this passage intensifies some of the connotations she discusses. This in one of the ways in which her generalisation fails to convince the contemporary reader, as our consumption of photography not only increases in quantity but also speeds up, it’s now a minority of photographs that demonstrate the powers she describes.

This is one of those realisations that seems obvious after the fact: time intensifies the power of images. Being cynical, it means that a mediocre picture can achieve some kind of greatness just by getting old – its ‘oldness’ becomes its point of interest for the viewer. So maybe a random selection of images from a prolific 2014 Instagrammer will be viewed as art in 100 years’ time…?

Summary

I’ve rambled on long enough. Suffice to say that On Photography has made me think about photography in different ways – it’s stretched my brain. And to quote Oliver Wendell Jones, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions”!

Now onto Barthes…

1. Sontag, S. 1979. On photography. London: Penguin


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Photographer: Lisette Model

A short break in assignment work for a quick book [1] review. I was in Nice at the weekend for the carnival and found a bookshop stocking the ’55’ range of Phaidon books, each being a ‘primer’ covering the career of a particular photographer. They are small and inexpensive books so I picked four photographers whose names I recognised but about whom I knew not much (aside from Model, I got the equivalent books on W. Eugene Smith, Walker Evans and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy).

The text is entirely in French, in which I am conversant but far from fluent! It took me the best part of an hour to understand the 13-page introductory essay / potted biography. So whilst each image is accompanied by an explanatory paragraph or two, I made the pragmatic decision to not translate all these but to make my own conclusions purely on the images themselves.

Subject matter and style

Lisette Model, Phaidon 55 range

Lisette Model, Phaidon 55 range

Serendipity struck immediately when I saw that her most famous early work was a series of images from the Promenade des Anglais in Nice in the 1930s – I was perusing pictures taken mere yards away! And the location of some of my assignment shots too.

Model’s images of Nice were however very different to the colourful, joy-filled place that I was trying to capture; it established early on her signature style of unflattering, unforgiving portraits, often cropped tight to give the subject no space, no means of visual escape. In terms of subject matter, she was attracted not to traditional notions of beauty but to vulgarity; a noticeable number of her portraits depict what could politely be described as ‘corpulent’ bodies. She seemed to seek out evidence of vulgarity and excess, particularly among the rich in the Nice series. In her other early 1930s European work she chose to shoot other types of subject on the edges of society: the old, the frail, the blind.

Once relocated to the USA, her style evolved a little – for example, her work based on reflections in shop windows, which looks like it influenced later photographers such as Saul Leiter and Vivian Maier – though her choices of subject remained: the extremes of society. She took unflinching portraits of the very poor and the very rich, and her lens treated them with equal (dis)respect. She variously depicted society’s flaws on the faces of individuals: vanity, insecurity, ignorance, excess. Her portraits of the lower working classes and the poor are sometimes surprisingly unsympathetic. She had no interest in flattering or beautifying subjects; the portraits comes across as quite aggressive, almost confrontational.

Legacy

Model had a surprisingly short career as a working photographer – she seemed to spurn the notion that she knew what she was doing, and played the role of the lucky amateur – and moved onto teaching. That her most famous student was Diane Arbus is no surprise, when you look at some of Model’s 1940s portraiture, especially the transvestites and hermaphrodites of the New York alternative scene; in these you can see the foundations of what Arbus turned into her own signature subject matter, the ‘freaks’ on society’s edges.

In choosing to focus on characters that range from merely unglamorous to full-on grotesque, Model challenged accepted notions of photographic beauty. In her work I can see the same kind of photographic thinking that inspired not only Arbus but in a way, Robert Frank, especially in The Americans [2]; that photos don’t have to be beautiful, or of beautiful subjects, or be technically perfect, to move you. Looking at any black and white street photography that focuses on characters, it’s hard not to be reminded of Model’s style to some degree.

1. Sussman, E. 2001. Lisette Model. Paris: Phaidon
2. Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl


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Book: The Americans, Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank

The Americans by Robert Frank

As part of my ongoing research into classic photobooks generally and the photo essay in particular, I got a copy of the 2008 Steidl edition of Robert Frank’s 1958 collection “The Americans” [1]. Unlike the Martin Parr book I covered recently, this wasn’t actually a work that had crossed my radar – surprisingly, perhaps embarrassingly, given its place in photography history.

The book has something in common with Parr’s The Last Resort: whilst lauded as a classic now, it divided critics on its publication as it eschewed the photographic conventions of the day and pushed people’s perceptions of what ‘good photography’ is. Like the Parr work, it is hard to truly experience the ‘shock of the new’ looking at it decades later, when these once-revolutionary aesthetics and vision can be seen echoed in the work of countless subsequent photographers. You have to try to put yourself in the shoes of the late 1950s viewer. Through this virtual lens it becomes clearer how much of a break from the past this collection represents.

A different kind of photography

Frank’s work is, at first glance, frustrating (well it was to me anyway). At first I couldn’t really see what the big deal was. But this is one of those collections where the more you look, the more you see (side-note: would I have given it a second look if it didn’t come with the weight of expectation? chicken/egg…).

What comes across is a set of images that place feeling/mood/emotion over technical quality. His work is often blurry, loosely composed, with tilted horizons, with unsure focus, with people’s faces obscured… in some instances I found it maddening that he hadn’t straightened up, cropped closer, refocused to get a better shot. But he seemed to select the exposures that conveyed the right feeling to him, not the ones that were technically the best. This in itself was revolutionary at the time.

This was the big eureka moment for me: almost all photography up until this point (and much photography since) was edited for aesthetic quality; but if photography has a documenting role, it needs to be able to capture a moment that may not be technically perfect, but get across what was happening at that split-second. A “good photo” doesn’t have to be a “good” photo!

Is this ‘beat photography’? It’s telling that Jack Kerouac provided the introduction text. The style of photography has much in common with the ‘beat writer’ style and rhythm, which in turn was influenced by the musicality of jazz – disjointed, fragmented, staccato, improvised, seemingly stream-of-conciousness but with an underlying cohesion. Specifically the road-trip format of the project echoes Kerouac’s most famous work – he manages to work the phrase “on the road” into the first sentence of the introduction.

Subjects and themes

In choosing what to shoot (and select in the edit), he set himself apart from his contemporaries; America as a broad theme had been done before, but not like this. He shot a huge variety of subjects, including many that others had not covered before: work and play, rich and poor, black and white, cities and wide open spaces. He seemed to be looking for a cross-section of subjects – people, places, activities – that together summed up America. His outsider status (he was a Swiss national) gave him both a curiosity about his adopted country and an empathy with the minorities he saw. This is not the America that a state-sponsored photography project would have covered.

He was, with this set of images at least, more of an eye-witness than an artist. In choosing to cover subjects/events not normally photographed, he provided a record of the country at that time. Furthermore, in choosing the specific exposures that more technically proficient photographers would have rejected, he was giving the world a chance to see specific moments of life that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. Example: the Hollywood starlet on the red carpet at the movie premiere: she’s out of focus, the spectators are in focus. He chose to highlight the ordinary people over the celebrity.

Whilst he had a knack for interesting subjects, he clearly had some specific thematic elements in mind. Some of these are now considered so stereotypical of 1950s USA that you wonder if they already were clichés or if Frank captured them on their way to becoming iconic: diners, big cars, jukeboxes. Several images allude to the racial segregation that was still being suffered by minorities in the 1950s. Other elements are timeless Americana: the US flag is highly prominent, stetsons make a few appearances. A couple of less obvious thematic elements become apparent on closer examination: death is depicted or alluded to in several images; religious imagery, specifically the crucifix, makes a few appearances.

Message?

What was Frank trying to say here? It’s certainly not a linear narrative, nor even, for a road-trip, a geographic one. He criss-crosses the states and captures what amounts to a series of vignettes, not a neat story with beginning, middle and end. He seems to want to provide a snapshot, or rather a series of snapshots, that show what a complex, multi-faceted place the USA is. If anything, he’s saying: all this is America; America is all these things. He is capturing a mood, a vibe. Holding a mirror up to a nation.

It’s easy to see now why this is such a pivotal photo essay. It used photography in a new way, it defied convention, it showed that photography can be raw, honest, unglamorous. It can capture seemingly mundane slices of life as well as grand events. It can evoke a feeling that is detached from whether the image is inherently beautiful. With over 50 years of photography that followed, it’s easy to take those things for granted. With this book you can see the roots of a new type of photography.

1. Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl


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Book: The Last Resort, Martin Parr

I’ve been vaguely aware of this work for a while, and the time seemed right to get hold of a copy of it, specifically the 2012 reprint [1] with new introduction. Last year I visited the ‘Only In England‘ exhibition, featuring the 1960s work of Tony Ray-Jones and the mid-1970s Hebden Bridge series by Martin Parr, and one of the major elements of the exhibition was the influence that Ray-Jones had on Parr. Yet the main influence at the time seemed to have been the aesthetic (black-and-white, documentary style) rather than the subject matter (Ray-Jones covered the English at leisure, particularly at the seaside, Parr featured a methodist community in West Yorkshire). I knew then that Parr’s later work revisited the seaside locale but with a very different style – bright, saturated colours. So when this book was mentioned by my tutor as a recommendation for the Narrative & Illustration section of the course, it seemed like an appropriate point to complete the triangle of Ray-Jones, Parr and the English seaside.

‘Tatty and vibrant’

Martin Parr: The Last Resort

Martin Parr: The Last Resort

It’s hard to look at this in 2014 and experience the ‘shock of the new’ that the 1986 readers did; this type of colour aesthetic is commonplace now. So my view on this is a response to the images, not their place in the history of photography.

The look of (most of) the images is consistently bright, with seemingly over-saturated colours and in some cases noticeably high contrast. This look is mainly down to his choice of equipment: a medium-format but highly portable camera and daytime flash to make the images more vibrant, almost hyper-real in some cases. The look perfectly suits the subject matter, in the words of the introduction (and seemingly quoting Parr himself) “tatty and vibrant”.

Oddly the first image in the collection, of an old couple in a tea room, is the most subdued of the lot; it could almost be an outtake from the Ray-Jones 1960s series. Maybe Parr wanted to lead the viewer in gently – or lull them into a false sense of security. What follows is almost 40 images of working class families at leisure – in all their ‘tacky glory’.

The rest of this write-up isn’t so much about the images from a photographic critique point of view, as I’m sure that’s been done to death. I’m more interested in how the images made me think and feel.

Recognition – and not

It’s interesting looking at these photos, as in a way I see my own childhood. My family holidays weren’t at New Brighton but they were at Blackpool, Morecambe and Cleveleys on the same north-west coast. So unlike many of the original critics, or maybe even Parr himself (self-proclaimed middle-class) the images don’t represent some kind of anthropological study of a mysterious sub-culture, they are on one level pure nostalgia for me.

So I recognise the families making the best of a day at the seaside together, because that’s what you did. The shock to me is this: had I remembered those days with rose-tinted spectacles? Was there really so much junk food? (probably); so much smoking? (probably); were there really babies drinking coke from the can? (again, probably);  was there really so much LITTER?! Part of me thinks (hopes?) that he selected some images for shock value. Or maybe even to make a political point? (see below)

Themes and messages

A few themes run through the book. As mentioned, a lot of images seem to include an ugly amount of litter. I say ‘seem to’ as in fact it’s only about half a dozen; but their effect is disproportionate; ugly, dirty, tatty is the lingering impression of the place (but crucially, not of the people).

Similarly, on first viewing it seemed to me that a majority of images included people eating or drinking (in reality less than half do), but in fairness that is a big part of the seaside tradition: fish and chips, ice creams and fizzy pop. Interestingly not alcohol; maybe that would be a difference in the 2014 equivalent.

But on closer viewing, by far the most common subject is families – especially children, especially toddlers and babies. Over two-thirds of the photos feature small children – usually in family units. This is a series of tableaux of families at leisure, together. This is where the warmth and the affection (and in some cases, the inherent humour) come in.

The combination of these thematic elements builds up in layers to deliver a message that I find hard to put into words, but will try: it’s a depiction of people making the best of it. Maybe they had easy-to-meet expectations of what constitutes a holiday; the older generations here, the grandparents, they lived through the post-war decades. Package holidays abroad weren’t part of their lives at this point. For northern working class families in the mid-1980s it was holiday enough to be at the seaside, and you didn’t notice or didn’t mind that you were paddling in almost black, litter-filled water, or that you were sunbathing adjacent to a digger.

Is there a political undercurrent? If the depiction of the grime isn’t patronising (and I don’t think it is, I believe Parr treated these subjects with a certain amount of detached affection) then the next most likely explanation is that he wanted to heighten the squalor of their surroundings as some kind of comment on how the working class – especially in the north, even more specifically in Merseyside – were being neglected or even mistreated in the Thatcher years. Their stoicism in ‘determinedly enjoying themselves’ is heightened by the depiction of their unglamorous environment.

Summary

Like any photographer who curates an exhibition or book, Parr selected images that tell a story or convey a message. He must have taken hundreds of exposures; the 38 collected here were the ones that conveyed his message the best – even if that message was subconscious in his own head at the time.

This is without doubt a ‘warts and all’ depiction of these people; he disregards the previously-held rule that the poor or working class had to be depicted respectfully by photographers. Maybe the shock of the (for want of a better word) ‘ugliness’ was greater than the shock of the colour aesthetic, although the latter supported – or exaggerated – the former.

Regardless of its reputation as a semi-controversial landmark in modern photography, I personally found it to be a very evocative, almost moving collection of images from a past that I recognise (but wouldn’t want to go back to!)

1.  Parr, M. 2012. The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis


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Book: Vivian Maier – Street Photographer

I was introduced to the work of this elusive street photographer by the documentary ‘Vivian Maier: Who Took Nanny’s Pictures?’, and I wrote a blog post that covered it. At the time I downloaded this book [1] to my iPad, which with hindsight was a silly mistake; the images were too small, and I couldn’t really engage with the subject matter. Thankfully I got the good old-fashioned print version as a Christmas present, and in this I saw so much more, and came to appreciate the quality of her work.

You can google her story but in a sentence: she took tens of thousands of shots on US city streets but none were seen until after her death; she is posthumously feted as the great unsung heroine of street photography. So this collection, like the other books and exhibitions being built out of her legacy, had no input from the photographer herself since she clicked the shutter. Which is just one of the aspects that makes the sheer quality of her work astonishing; she never had feedback on her work. She just churned it out, seemingly for nothing but her own pleasure.

But what of the actual work itself?

Composition

For someone apparently untutored she had a fantastic natural eye for a great photograph. Looking at the available contact sheets on the official Vivian Maier website, it does seem that her ‘keeper’ ratio is higher than average, and it is worth noting that for most of her shooting life (can’t really use the word ‘career’ here) she used a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera, which took films of only 12 exposures. So she was by necessity fairly selective about what she shot, unlike 35mm shooters used to 36-exposure film (and totally spoilt digital photographers who can shoot til the battery or memory card gives up). Her compositional skills were, on the evidence of the images curated here, exemplary.

She had a few identifiable compositional styles. Portraits often featured a secondary point of interest that rewarded deeper viewing after the initial focus on the subject’s face, such as the toy that a child is holding, or an unusual item of clothing. In other images she created a sense of mystery, of unresolved narrative by excluding certain elements; what are those children looking up at, out of the frame? why is that man sleeping in his car? Another of her stylistic approaches is the wide architectural shot with person in context for scale.

If I had to identify any flaw – which may come across as spectacularly arrogant, but is relevant here in the context that she didn’t get any feedback or critique, so it’s an exercise in imagining what her peers may have said to her at the time – the one that springs to mind is her over-reliance on centrally-placed subjects. This may in part be an effect of her shooting in 1:1 ratio, where maybe one is just naturally more inclined to place your subject centrally, but in a few instances it lends the image an overly static feel that is at odds with the subject matter itself. In some instances I found myself placing a hand over part of the image in a crude attempt to re-crop it in my mind.

While it’s difficult to date the images accurately, there does seem to have been a progression from quite traditional ‘straight-on’ shots to more creative, often geometric compositions. In particular, the images where she juxtaposed people and architecture display some wonderful shapes and lines. My assumption is that these more compositionally complex images came later as she gained confidence, or just got bored and wanted to experiment a little.

Subject matter

There isn’t a single, strong thematic thread through her work, beyond the level of ‘city street life’; it’s a mixture of portraits (posed and candid, children and adults, solo and groups, plus some self-portraits in reflections), architecture and in a few cases borderline abstract treatments of city street details. Again, as with many aspects of her work this eclectic spread of subject matter may be down to the fact that she never showed her work, never sought opinions, never specialised too much based on external feedback. In this respect she maintained the broad mindset of an amateur. From wider reading I understand that she also worked in colour, video and audio – so this book represents a reasonably contained curation of her output, and it still reasonably eclectic.

It is notable that the content of her work does seem to get darker in mood over the period covered by the book; the work that appears to be from the 1950s is typified by shots of families, especially children, while the later work moving into the late 1960s features down-and-outs, drunks and outsiders. Some of the later work is devoid of people, simply recording the deterioration of the city around her. In this her output can be seen as a parallel of the mood of the nation over the post-war decades.

Legacy

Where to place Maier in the history of street photography? It’s a curious conundrum; on the face of it it would appear that her style would have inspired those who followed – some of her ‘outsider’ portraits are almost Arbus before Arbus – and yet that patently can’t have been the case as she remained hidden throughout her life. So one must surmise that the development of street photography was broadly following a path forged not by one individual but by a vague ‘movement’ that Maier was a part of, albeit an unknown one. Meaning: the same factors that influenced Maier (technology, socio-economic, artistic) will have influenced others, who in turn influenced others after them. Maier is kind of a belatedly-discovered link, not a missing link as such, more one that corroborates the developments demonstrated by others.

One aspect of this book, and the other work I’ve seen of Maier’s, is that it’s all from the 1950s and 1960s, and yet it’s known that she carried on at the same level of output until the late 1990s. Why is her published work so narrowly curated? Is it because this is her best work, and she peaked and then declined to the point where the only remarkable aspect of her work was its quantity? Or is it that a central attraction of her work is the ‘time capsule’ nostalgia element? Or is it simply that the curators of her legacy are saving the rest up for future publishing? (My assumption is a combination of the first two points: quality peaking early and nostalgic interest).

In summary, an excellent collection of sometimes extraordinarily good images. Look beyond the quirky backstory and there is some truly great street photography here.

1. Maier, V and Maloof, J. 2011. Street photographer. New York: Powerhouse


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Book: Magnum Contact Sheets

One of the observations that my tutor made on Assignment 1 was that I didn’t seem to take many shots of each subject, according to the contact sheets I provided. This was absolutely true. I had a very naive assumption that if I saw in the viewfinder what I thought I wanted the picture to come out like when I pressed the shutter, it would be OK. My tutor Dave pointed out that the greatest photographers of yesterday and today have in common the fact that they tend to shoot, and shoot, and shoot – and select the best shot(s) in an editing phase after the event. Change the angle a little, move around the subject, try horizontal format, try vertical format, move your head a fraction to remove a distraction, or to move a focal point to a better position – the possibilities are only limited by your imagination (oh, and your film roll / memory card…)

Anyway – to illustrate this point, he recommended a very fine book called “Magnum Contact Sheets” [1] that I treated myself to after getting his report, which happily coincided with me having a bit of birthday money to spend (it’s a tad pricey).

Magnum Contact Sheets

Magnum Contact Sheets

The book takes both iconic and lesser-known images from Magnum agency photographers from the 1930s to the 2010s and puts them back into the context of the contact sheet from whence they came. Where possible it also allows the photographer to explain their editing decisions, either through archive materials or contemporary interviews. It’s a genuinely fascinating insight into photographic minds. I used to assume that these professionals knew exactly what they were doing every time they pressed the shutter, but in fact they are plagued with as many doubts as the rest of us – in some cases even more so.

Rather than reproduce any of the contact sheets and resultant images, I thought it would be interesting to hear some photographers’ views on contact sheets, how they use them and what they get out of the process. All quotes are from the book [1].

“The contact sheet is a valuable instructor. Presumably, when a photographer releases the shutter, it is because he believes the image worthwhile; it rarely is. […] Ruthless examination of the contact sheet, whether one’s own or another’s, is one of the best teaching methods”

– David Hurn

“In effect, the contact sheet reflects the conscious and unconscious mind of the photographer. Often even the photographer cannot interpret it correctly. Nonetheless, it is through the analysis of contact sheets – a form of self-analysis – that a photographer can try to grasp the direction or meaning that lies behind his own images. This process can be long, but it can also be fascinating.”

– Ferdinando Scianna

“It is only when you go back to your contact sheets that you can see how the scene developed in time, which is why contact sheets are a never-ending source of fascination for those interested in photography.”

– Martine Franck

“When I look at a contact sheet, I try to remember the feeling I had when I took the frame. The memory of feeling helps me edit.”

– Larry Towell

“Contact sheets are mostly a waste of money, I find. 99.9% of frames on the contact sheets are mistakes one makes while photographing. Because it is a waste of money, I love them. There are things in life we must do just because we find them unprofitable. Also, contact sheets are private: they belong to me, whereas photographs, once they leave my hands, take on a life of their own”

– Leonard Freed

“It’s a lot of pictures getting to the good one.”

– Elliott Erwitt

And finally, for the sake of balance, here’s possibly the most celebrated photographer in history explaining why he hated showing his contact sheets, even though he used them as an invaluable tool in analysing the work of others:

“A contact sheet is full of erasures, full of detritus. A photo exhibition or a book is an invitation to a meal, and is not customary to make guests poke their noses into the pots and pans, and even less into the buckets of peelings…”

– Henri Cartier-Bresson

1. Lubben, K. 2011. Magnum Contact Sheets. London: Thames & Hudson