Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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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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Exhibition: Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs and David Lynch

At the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 30th March is a linked set of three exhibitions, with the common thread of celebrating the photographic output of counter-cultural American icons famous for their work in other fields: pop artist Andy Warhol, author William S. Burroughs and film director David Lynch. It’s hard to go in without preconceptions of the artists based on their ‘day jobs’.

I held two questions at the back of my mind throughout each exhibition:

  1. What are the connections between their photography and the art that they’re already known for?
  2. Would this be an interesting collection of images if the photographer was an unknown?

Andy Warhol: Photographs 1976-1987

Photographers’ Gallery overview

Although Warhol was interested in photography all his life, for much of his career photographs were the raw materials for his more famous screen-print works, rather than being the art in themselves. In his last decade Warhol took to using a 35mm compact camera to record his daily life and reconnected with photography at a more direct, but not necessarily less artistic, level. This collection is divided into two quite distinct halves: the large artworks he created out of photographic prints, and the simpler snapshots of his daily life.

In the specific works of photo-art he riffed on his own iconic technique of repetition of image, in this variation stitching together (or rather, hiring someone else to stitch together, of course) large prints into grids, sometimes with almost imperceptible differences between the frames, sometimes with noticeably different exposures of the same image. As in his screen-print work, his most eye-catching works are multiple images of American icons, but this time contemporary celebrities (Jerry Hall, Liza Minnelli) and with photos he took himself, not the already-iconic images he modified for his 1960s work (Monroe, Presley, Taylor etc).

He mines the same seam of identity and iconography in a way that is so ‘Warholian’ that only he could have got away with it. Some may say that he was repeating himself with these works, but I’m glad he did it and I’m glad I saw them; it made me look at his work and ideas with fresh eyes; his famous 1960s work has become so ubiquitous that it’s lost something now. But they do reinforce my opinion of Warhol as a creator-of-art rather than an artist. Not necessarily an inferior designation, but I do see a difference.

By contrast the daily life shots were very uninspiring; I got the feeling that anyone with a camera in late 70s / early 80s New York could have got a collection of images much like this; his personal vision or ideas don’t come through. As an insight into the trivia of the life of Andy Warhol The Famous Artist they hold some curiosity value, but without that context they are little more than intermittently interesting snapshots.

So to my two questions:

  1. Half of it was unmistakably Warhol; the other half was unexceptional street photography
  2. Half yes (although I’d be accusing the mystery photographer of ripping off Andy Warhol!); half not a chance

Taking Shots: the Photography of William S. Burroughs

Photographers’ Gallery overview

I didn’t think I knew much about Burroughs til I remembered that I’d read The Naked Lunch at university and found it as bewildering and fragmented as most readers. The only other thing I knew about him was his predilection for drugs and guns, hence the triple-meaning title I presume.

This is a hugely eclectic collection: portraits, self-portraits, picture essays, domestic still lifes, collages. Some were reproduced so small as to be difficult to engage with. He seems to have enjoyed experimenting with photography in a similar way to he did with writing. The most interesting images by far were the ‘assemblages’, where he cut up photos to make collages, and in some cases photographed, printed and re-assembled those collages to make further collages, in an ad-infinitum, kaleidoscopic way. He was truly trying to do new things with photography as art, but using the principles that had served him as a writer: cutting up, fragmenting, re-arranging, jumping around, eschewing the expected linear narrative.

In a similar way to Warhol – but deeper, more complex and to me anyway, more satisfying – he used photographs as a raw material for constructing visual works of art. They’re almost closer to two-dimensional sculpture than photography. Burroughs spoke of photography as being able to “disrupt the space-time continuum and expand the viewers perception of the physical world” – and you can almost understand what he’s getting at when you see some of the assemblages. But to be fair, he was on very strong drugs a lot of the time…

In answer to my two nagging questions above:

  1. As with Warhol, the most successful works here contain strong echoes of what he’s most famous for; what’s admirable about Burroughs is that he’s crossed from literature to visual arts yet carried over techniques
  2. The collages, absolutely; the other works, less so – again the interest inherent in those is the man behind the camera, not the resultant images

David Lynch: the Factory Photographs

Photographers’ Gallery overview

Between 1980 and 2000 Lynch took photos of industrial structures in Germany, Poland, USA and England. Initially the purpose was scouting potential film locations but it seems to have developed into a general hobby for a while.

The collected images maintain a consistently dark mood: tense, full of foreboding. He is drawn not just to industry, but specifically to industrial decay; the factories here tend to be derelict structures, being reclaimed by nature. These underlying themes and the gloomy, monochromatic imagery do reflect his film work, especially earlier works such as Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

He chooses a range of viewpoints, getting closer and closer to the subjects as you move around the gallery: there are long, wide shots of whole factory structures and cooling towers; there are crumbing interiors, often with a window onto the outside environment; there are close-ups of left-behind heavy machinery, pipes, ducting etc; there are very close, almost macro shots of walls, surfaces, broken windows, showing textures and veering towards abstract. I found these last images the most engaging: heavy industry reduced to shapes, lines, blocks of light and shade.

Of the three, his is by far the most coherent and accomplished body of work. Thematically it is extremely focused, and this really helps the viewer immerse themselves in the artist’s world (and this may have been helped by Lynch providing one of his own industrial sound installations to accompany the visuals).

To answer the two opening questions for Lynch:

  1. The trademark sinister edge of his film work is present here; most specifically it brought to mind Eraserhead more than any other of his films
  2. Yes, absolutely; I’d have paid money to see this whoever had been behind the lens – there is genuine talent on show here and he is not merely trading on his name

Summary

The David Lynch exhibition stood well apart from the other two to this viewer. It stands on its own as a cohesive, self-contained series, and this really helps to reinforce and intensify the message and mood. The Warhol and Burroughs shows both suffer by casting their net slightly too wide, trying to cover a disparate set of works per artist, and this diluted the effect for me. If the Warhol gallery just had the stitched multiple images, and the Burroughs gallery just had the assemblages, they would have been much more potent.

Is this because Lynch is still with us, and exerted some influence on the subject matter (although it is curated by a third party), and by comparison the temptation with deceased artists is to anthologise rather than specialise?

Anyway – Lynch impressed me most, Burroughs surprised me most, Warhol reinforced my existing opinion most!


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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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Photographer: Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter died yesterday (Tuesday 26th November 2013).

Saul Leiter

Saul Leiter, 1923–2013

Strangely, he’d been on my mind recently. I hadn’t even heard of him til a few months ago when a stranger who saw my Leica started talking to me in the street saying he’d just been to see a Saul Leiter documentary at the ICA in London. Then he crossed my radar in the last couple of months as I worked through the Colour module of the Art of Photography course. Last night I was trying to find an online copy of the aforementioned documentary ‘In No Great Hurry’ and when I failed in that pursuit, I went to Waterstones at lunchtime today to see if they had a copy of his ‘Early Colour’ book (they didn’t). Once back at my desk I read the news that he’d passed away.

I won’t give a potted biography as you can get that through a little light googling. From a purely photographic point of view, I was immediately drawn to his innovative and striking use of colour in street photography. The genre of street photography tends to get stereotyped as being predominantly black-and-white, as that seems to lend an air of documentary authenticity to images, as well as suiting the graphical elements (lines, patterns etc) in urban settings. But Leiter turned that on its head, shooting in vivid Kodachrome film and producing a body of work that captures the streets of New York not in the usual moody monotone, but in bright, saturated colours that jump off the page, through your eyes and straight into your brain.

Taxi, New York

Taxi, New York (Saul Leiter, 1957)

His juxtapositions of vivid, solid colour in strong blocks demonstrate a use of colour as core element of imagery that I haven’t seen in many other photographers. His use of colour is brave, bold and demands your attention. In some images it comes across not as ‘capturing colour subjects’ but ‘capturing colours’ in and of themselves, with the shape they happen to have fallen in, the form the colours happen to have taken, treated as secondary. Many images veer towards abstract, and it was no surprise to learn that he was a painter as well as a photographer. Whether consciously or not, he seemed to love to ‘amp up’ what he saw: exaggerate colours, isolate details, simplify the composition into strong geometric shapes.

One very specific aspect of his work that made me take notice was his regular use of glass – such as reflections, misted windows, and the distortions that they bring. He used this technique a lot, and to great effect. Combined with his colour palette and his unusual angles and other compositional quirks, it gives a slightly other-worldly view on what would otherwise be a regular street scene.

463

463 (Saul Leiter, 1956)

One of the shots I took for the assignment – one I personally felt very proud of, and one which my tutor singled out for praise – has elements of the Leiter visual language in it. I’m not claiming to be of the same calibre by any means, but there must have been some influence going on in my head; it wasn’t a deliberate attempt at any particular style; it was only after the event that I realised I may have been inspired, subconsciously.

OXO Tower Inside/Out

OXO Tower Inside/Out (Rob Townsend)

Before starting the Colour module I was carrying a kind of photographic snobbery around in my head, the one that’s been erroneously repeated down the decades – that colour is inferior to b/w photography, that it’s garish and only good for fashion and advertising, it’s not ‘art’, it’s not ‘authentic’… well a couple of months on I have 100% changed my view on that. Colour photography absolutely can be art, it can be innovative  it can be beautiful, it can be abstract, it can be painterly, it can be evocative, expressive, thought-provoking…

And one of the reasons I now believe all that is: Saul Leiter.


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Exhibition: Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr

The new Media Space at the London Science Museum is a long-awaited southern offshoot of the National Media Museum in Bradford, and its inaugural exhibition is ‘Only in England’, featuring works from Tony Ray-Jones from the late 1960s and from Martin Parr’s first major show ‘The Non-Conformists’ from the late 1970s.

As well as providing his own photographs – clearly inspired by Ray-Jones – Parr has also curated a selection of 60 previously unpublished Ray-Jones images from the National Media Museum archives.

Tony Ray-Jones

I hadn’t heard of Tony Ray-Jones before this exhibition was announced; he was England-born but worked in New York alongside such luminaries as Garry Winogrand, and in the late sixties came back to England to apply some of the NY street photography aesthetic and technique to the English. Sadly he died in 1972 aged only 30, so the images here represent his last major body of work.

Ray-Jones had a fantastic eye for the quirky details in seemingly mundane situations. He came back to England in 1966 to record what he saw, with a returning native’s eye, as the eccentricities of the national character, particularly at leisure. His settings of choice were seaside resorts, beauty pageants, carnivals – worlds that resemble normal life but were just slightly out-of-kilter. They capture the English attempting to let their hair down, not always looking wholly comfortable doing so.

Blackpool, 1968. Picture by Tony Ray-Jones.

Blackpool, 1968. Picture by Tony Ray-Jones.

Despite the late 60s setting, the look and feel seems more 1950s, not simply through the use of black and white but in the clothes, faces, even postures of the subjects – as if the permissive age hadn’t quite hit these pockets of England yet. When you see the odd long-haired youth in a motorbike jacket, it’s as visually jarring as it would have been at the time. Was he trying to capture a disappearing era, consciously or otherwise?

His images are masterpieces of self-contained narrative. Some are multi-layered tableaux where your eye wanders around, taking in all the characters, while others (including several chosen by Parr) demonstrate how he could use space in an image to draw attention to a simpler but equally fascinating point of focus.

I found lots of humour in the Ray-Jones pictures; sometimes just a facial expression or an incongruous element, but always something that pointed to a playfulness in the way his camera had caught the scene, even when it was underpinned with a sense of melancholy. I wandered through the first room of the exhibition with a wry smile on my face for much of the time. He really captured the provincial English character fantastically well.

Martin Parr

Martin Parr was studying photography while Ray-Jones was working, and happily admits his influence. While Parr’s early work is clearly influenced by Ray-Jones – black and white, focusing on small aspects of English life, capturing a disappearing era – the subject matter (local Methodist communities in West Yorkshire) is a little different. And yet Parr’s most famous later work shares much in common with Ray-Jones subject-wise – the English at leisure, especially at the seaside – but by that time he had developed his signature style of social documentary in a saturated colour palette. So it seems that he was inspired by Ray-Jones in different ways at different times in his career.

Tom Greenwood Cleaning, Hebden Bridge, 1976. Picture by Martin Parr.

Tom Greenwood Cleaning, Hebden Bridge, 1976. Picture by Martin Parr.

It is interesting seeing Parr’s 1970s work; to me there was a sense of someone still trying to find his style. Some images are character-based and feature the flashes of humour that he learned from Ray-Jones, while others are much more formal in their composition, such as the straight-on shots of doorways, shop fronts etc, and the shot with the elevated factory worker with outstretched arm, an apparent crucifixion allusion. There are a trio of shots of ‘Lord Savile’s gamekeepers’ where the first two look classically posed, almost painterly, while the third introduces a bit of cheeky humour in the form of what looks like a dog defecating in the snow (well, I thought it was funny). One other thing he shares with Ray-Jones is a deliberate lack of topicality in the settings; many of the images, particularly the local village shots, could be from the 1940s rather than the 1970s.

So it’s fascinating to see the thread of influences running through the work of these two kindred spirits… Ray-Jones brings a NY documentary approach to England, which Parr then takes and ultimately develops into his own brightly coloured later style.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, and learned a lot about what made these two photographers so individually and jointly distinctive. They shared a similar eye for the rich seam of eccentricity that runs through the English and how they live their lives – in a warm, non-judgemental, celebratory way.