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: 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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Tony Ray-Jones’ Notebooks

I saw that the new Media Space has opened at the Science Museum in London and have already decided that I should give it a visit while I’m working down here. The inaugural exhibition is “Only in England: Photographs by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr”. I hadn’t heard of Tony Ray-Jones before reading about the exhibition, so I was interested to see that there is an article on him in the September edition of the British Journal of Photography [1].

I’ll comment on Mr Ray-Jones’ photographic oeuvre when I get a chance to see it, but what I found fascinating was this BJP article that focused not on his photographic work, but on his notebooks, now part of the archive of the National Media Museum in Bradford (of which the new Media Space is a southern offshoot). He was an avid note-taker, and the BJP article reproduces pages from his ring-bound notebooks that he used to document his thoughts and his work.

I particularly liked his ‘Approach’ note.

Tony Ray-Jones 'Approach'

Tony Ray-Jones – ‘Approach’

It’s a handwritten manifesto, or more likely aide memoire, with his 13 rules/reminders for photography. I think I should have something like this, to make me remember what’s important. It might not have exactly the same points on – his genre was very much people photography – but I do like the simplicity of having a list of ‘commandments’ to stick to!

1. BJP (2013) Archive: Tony Ray-Jones’ Notebooks, British Journal of Photography, September 2013