Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


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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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Exercise: Juxtaposition

Brief:

Take any book you like and make a suitable cover illustration using two or three relevant juxtaposed elements.

Results:

I chose “Kill Your Friends”, a novel by John Niven. It’s a very black comedy about the UK record industry in the 1990s, and centres around a hedonistic A&R man struggling to stay ahead in his career at the height of Britpop. He turns to violently murdering his rivals in a desperate attempt to rescue his failing career.

Kill Your Friends

Kill Your Friends

The two elements I felt needed to be illustrated were (a) his career and (b) the murders. So the juxtaposition of the CD (not vinyl, not cassette, it was the CD that dominated the 1990s) and the knife sprung to mind. I also thought blood-red for the text supported the imagery.

What I’ve learned:

Whilst this kind of illustrative work is new to me – it’s more like graphic design than pure photography – I quite enjoyed it. If I’m honest and self-critical, I’m not at all convinced that it matches the quality of real paperback covers, I am happy that the juxtaposition aspect of the CD and the knife works in terms of illustrating the contents.