Month: June 2016

Research note – Bernd and Hilla Becher

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) were German conceptual artist and photographers famous for their topological photographs of industrial structures. They are considered the main founders of the Dusseldorf school of photography.

The following observations come from “The Long Look”, by Michael Collins.

“They immediately moved up from a Rolleiflex to a plate camera…. to use a camera to take the clearest pictures possible. This quality was largely discarded when art photographers thought that their pictures needed effects – soft focus, high contrast and so on – for the resulting image to be defined as art.”(1)

Fidelity versus art?…but can clear, faithful reproduction, record shoots, be a form or art? How about the creation of artificial spaces via post processing? Is this acceptable as a means to the end of achieving clarity, even at the expense of fidelity?…(see Rhein II – Andreas Gursky, who meticulously removed buildings and people from a picture of the Rhein river for the purpose of a achieving a clear, uncluttered spare  – “Paradoxically, this view of the Rhine cannot be obtained in situ, a fictitious construction was required to provide an accurate image of a modern river.” (2) ).

“The Bechers’ goal is to create photographs that are concentrated on the structures themselves and not qualified by subjective interpretations…that is, record pictures.”(1)

No soul? distance and coldness?…objectivity? – pictures emulate technical drawings, with front and side elevations. They also sought to neutralize the effects of light by taking pictures during overcast days…perhaps the beauty of these pictures is not related to the subject itself or the way such subject is portrayed, but on the capturing of significant detail, allowing the viewer to explore the object as if it were in front of it.

“There is a wisdom and honour in the Bechers’ work which frees them from imposing a conditional reading upon the viewer. The wisdom is the methodology they recognise in the ‘neutral’ depiction of record photography. The honour stems from a principle about not imposing their ideas on other people.”(1)

I relate to the above in the sense that I am not particularly attracted to the kind of photography that may take explicity sides on an argument, but would much prefer the ideas to flow subtly from my view on a particular subject, with sufficient ambiguity to allow the viewer to stand on any side of the argument if this suits them.  However, I believe full neutrality is difficult to achieve in any case because even an attempt to do that is likely to be influenced by our own prejudices.


“Of course, their motivations are not invisible, nor their presence unfelt. What does it mean when something ‘rings true’? How is it that one can sense the sincerity in another’s words? Perhaps this lies in the realm of intuition, not explanation. To analyse art is not necessarily to experience it. Sometimes, by focusing on a deliberation of it, one limits the engagement to a cerebral encounter. In the West particularly, we use explanations to try to control the unknown, to make uncertainties certain. Maybe there is a wisdom we have that is not learnt but is within us. Far better to look rather than puzzle, and to open one’s senses to what is there.”(1)

This is an interesting concept, and somehow connected to my previous comment. By neutralising the delivery one forces the viewer to focus on the subject as it is. But is it sufficient to sustain a picture from an artistic point of view? And is this alleged neutrality of presentation in itself a message?

“And when the structures have been demolished and grassed over, as though they were never there, the pictures remain.”(1)

Again, we see the idea of time and photography, although this time it has nothing to do with time series as in Tina Barney’s, but more with the preservation of history. This, in itself can be interpretred as a message from the photographers, in as much as individual pictures may achive a “neutral” point of view, but the body of work as such, including how pictures are arranged and selected, cannot be separated from the photographer’s ideals or points of view.


(1)  Collins, M. (2002) The long look. Available at: (Accessed: 27 June 2016).

(2)  Quoted from Andreas Gursky in Waters, F. (2011) Photograph by Andreas Gursky breaks auction record. Available at: (Accessed: 27 June 2016).


Research notes – Karen Knorr

Karen Knorr (b 1954) is an American photographer, famous for her series on wealthy Londoners and for her travel photography.  Her London work started with the Belgravia series.

Belgravia – link

Karen Knorr photographs here her home and that of her neighbours in Belgravia, London. There is a bit of connection between this work and that of Tina Barney, although Karen Knorr does not seem to be following characters either through their life or through time. The characters look detached and distant, sometimes indifferent to the camera and in many cases indifferent to each other.

“…the combination of image and text brings this work is closer to satire and caricature, without losing the strong reality effect specific to photography. The meaning of the work can be found in the space between image and text: neither text nor image illustrate each other, but create a “third meaning” to be completed by the spectator.”(1)

I think it is the text that makes these photographs. Sometimes the relationship between text and photograph is too explicit (like in the case of the maid cleaning her room, or the group of youngsters at the table), but in many other cases it leads to small incongruences that accentuate the the story and the political commentary behind the satire.

Karen followed up the Belgravia series with two similar series entitled “Gentlemen”and “Ladies”

Gentlemen – link
Ladies – link

Like in the case of Belgravia, it is the combination of pictures and text is what really makes these series. It is interesting to see how she sources he texts (from interviews with the models in “ladies” and from newspaper articles in “Gentlemen”). Sometimes Knorr only shows us the setting without people, other than representations in paintings or sculptures. The use of these props creates a great effect in some of the pictures (like the one with the bust of Margaret Thatcher or the one with the young man being seen by two classic sculptures, both from the Gentleman series). One gets the sense that nothing is left to chance in these pictures and that everything is as carefully arranged as possible.

(1)  Karen Knorr. 2014. Belgravia | Karen Knorr. [ONLINE] Available at: [Accessed 27 June 2016].

Research Notes – Tina Barney

Tina Barney (1945) is an American photographer known for her large size photographs of family and friends in their homes, doing everyday activities. She uses a large format camera to take pictures, which are all in colour.

Marina and Peter – link

In this picture of “Marina and Peter”, there is a general sense of mess. The wardrobe open at the back and the clothes in the front give an impression of the picture being spontaneous, like not arranged. Yet it surely is not the case. There is a bit of Jeff Wall in these, particularly due to the seemingly unwarranted nature and the large format used. Lots of tension from both characters, which are probably father and daughter.

Marina’s room – link

The picture of “Marina’s room” was taken on the same room as above 10 years earlier, with probably the same characters but a lot less tension. It is interesting to see the evolution of families over time and how they change. The eroding effect of time on both character and places.

The Europeans – link

In “The Europeans”, Tina Barney set out to take pictures of whealty families from various countries in Europe. The pictures were all in large format and had a more formal, arranged approach than her previous photographs of family and friends.

What is interesting about Barney’s approach in The Europeans is how her style, used with family and friends, translates into total strangers. This has similarities to what I am experiencing with shooting assignment 1, as I am not that familiar with the area I am photographing. Unlike her previous pictures, the ones in The Europeans do not have the feeling of candour and familiarity that you could feel in her previous work. There is still that perception of arrangement, of meticulous preparation, but while in previous work one could be left to wonder if the picture was taken casually, in this case there are no doubt as to the formality of proceedings. It is possible that she wanted to convey those feelings, as part of her study of European nobility and wealth, but we do not know to what extent she knew the people being portrayed, and some of the titles, such as “The British Cousins“, leave you with the impression that she may have been somehow related to the subjects. It is this ambiguity that adds to the rigurosity of her approach to result in pictures that feels distinctly more distant than her previous work.

Research notes – Keith Arnatt

Keith Arnatt (1930 – 2008) was a British conceptual artist and photographer.

Some of the following observations derive from an article by Ian Walker entitled “Between seeing and knowing”, apearing in the book “Keith Arnatt – Rubbish and Recollections”, published in 1989 by the Photographers’ Gallery. Ian Walker was discussing Keith Arnatt work both and how the made the transition from conceptual artist to photographer.

In “…Earth Plugs”. Arnatt cut a hole into the ground and lined it with fibre-glass: a “plug” was made to fit it exactly, filled with earth and topped with turf. When the plug was removed, the hole was all too evident, but when replaced, one could locate it only if one knew already where it was. The plug had two opposing states – in or out – but in which state could it be said to be “functioning”? When it was out and therefore inoperative, or when it was in and therefore invisible? Arnatt commented that his concern was “with the relation between what one sees, or does not see, and what one knows, or does not know”.(1)

Earth plug link

This is interesting because a photograph primarily deals with what one sees, but many times it also deals with what one does not see. The camera always captures more than one sees, simply because one is too preoccupied with the subject and fails to notice what is going on in the periphery, and sometimes even quite close to the centre. Sometimes what one does not see compliments what ones sees perfectly. In many occasions there is the temptation to “crop” or “clone out” what we did not intend to photograph, but I think sometimes we crop too much. Sometimes what is there is better left there.

There is also the issue of asymmetry of information. The photographer knows better than the viewer what is there at the moment he or she is taking the picture. Sometimes this knowledge works at a disadvantage for the photographer, because our prejudices may affect the way in which we portray something, resulting in many missed picture opportunities. In many occasions, though, the photographer may use such knowledge to deceive or to mask. To show something in a way which is different from reality and to manipulate the viewer into his or her point of view.

“Following on most directly from “Earth Plugs” was “Invisible Hole” (1969), a square hole cut in the ground with mirrors on its four sides and turf in the bottom. Unlike the “Earth Plugs”, the hole was not physically hidden, rather its invisibility was the result of imperfect perception. The mirror not only “simply” reflected what was in the hole, but also reconstructed it, and any attempt to understand what was being seen involved a continuous sense of oscillation between two and three dimensions.

Arnatt was struck by one photograph of the Invisible Hole which became a work in its own right, the Invisible Hole revealed by the Shadow of the Artist. Considering that image, Arnatt began to understand the ability of photography simultaneously to document what was there and to transform it into something quite different.”(1)

Invisible hole link

Indeed, photography is not only a record of what we see, but a tool to transform reality. It can probably never be a fully accurate record of real life or a substitute for being there, but its greatest power lies in transforming meaning by virtue of light and composition.

In relation to “Self Burial – Television Interference Project”, Ian Walker says:

“…It is important that these are static images – lugubriously deadpan in their very stillness – pretending to be “stills” from some probably very slow event as the artist effortlessly descends into the ground. The illusion is convincing but also quite unconvincing, for logically we know that it couldn’t have happened like that. We can imagine all the activity – the digging, the climbing in and out – which must have gone on between frames. Still we half believe in the events, if only because the photographs themselves are so very straight. The pictures are “documentary” even if the performance is bogus; a fictional narrative is created from factual single images. “(1)

Self burial link

Again, the relationship between knowing and seeing: we know they are fake, but we see they are real. The artist may also know they are fake, but the public does not know how they were faked…There is an interplay between what we know and what we show in a picture which can be a form of art on its own. In modern club photography you may often see this process but in inverse: we are soo used to photographs being overcooked with post-processing that occassionally you may have a picture of something real but unusual and the viewers would mostly assume that it was “photoshoped”. In that case, the viewer may seem them as fake, but they do not know they are real.

——————- ooo ——————-

A.O.N.B. – link

Miss Grace’s Lane – link

Pictures from a Rubbish Tip – link

Industrial Gloves – link

Boxes – link

Arnatt’s later work as a photographer, as opposed to his early use of photography as a conceptual artist, makes extensive use of everyday, mundane objects as the focal point of pictures. Starting with A.O.N.B., Arnatt peppers the landscape with man-made objects which are sometimes incongruous or which, under standard parameters of aesthetics would have been avoided or removed for the purposes of taking a “successful” landscape photograph: rubbish tips, abandoned cars, sign posts and the like. This theme is elaborated further  in Miss Grace’s Lane, where rubbish and dereliction becomes the central theme, but the composition and use of light somehow improves the aesthetic impact of looking at what one would normally find repulsive. While the treatment in A.O.N.B. and Miss Grace’s Lane seems to be natural in the sense that these object are seemingly photographed “as found” (although we may never know if that was the case), the use of derelict objects in subsequent projects, such as in “The Tears of Things” or the “Industrial Gloves” series, have a distinct “studio” feeling to them: the objects seem to have been taken away from their environs, isolated and then taken from such an angle and with such lighting as to transform them into abstracts. Nearly every object is afforded the same treatment: shallow depth of field, dark background without any distinct features, and a very close-up point of view. In the middle of these two approaches, the Howler’s Hill  / Pictures from a Rubbish Tip projects stand like the “missing link”: while objects still give the impression of being taken “as found” (although in this case we do know they were actually picked up) many of the photographs feature close-ups and give very little background information. The “Boxes” series follows from the above but the treatment of the light in here is slightly different with frontal flash is used to give the subjects a harsh, direct illumination that puts them clearly in the spotlight. It is clear from this progression that Arnatt was preoccupied with the transformative effect of photography, an aspect he already recognised from its use of the medium while working as a conceptual artist, and taking this to the extreme he was able to extract beauty from objects that we would normally find repulsive or simply ignore for being mundane.


(1) Ian Walker: “Between seeing and knowing”, appearing in “Rubbish and Recollections” – Arnatt, K (1989). London: Photographers’ Gallery.

The Square mile

When I first read about this assignment, what came to my mind was to do it around the place where I work in central London. After all, this is a place I am most familiar with, having taken pictures of it during lunchtime almost every day for most of the past 10 years. But, on second thoughts, I feel it was more appropriate to use this opportunity to try something else, as photographing places around my office was likely to draw me into doing more of the same I had been doing until now, and would have limited my chances of pushing my ideas into different directions.

The brief does mention about the need to “push yourself out of your comfort zone in terms of subject matter” and this would be quite difficult to do in an area where most of the subject matters were familiar to me. It would either have forced me to photograph stuff I am not comfortable with, or otherwise led to subtle variations of themes and subjects I already had explored, none of which was appealing to me.

Having recently moved to a new neighbourhood that is distinctly different from the place I used to live, I decided this was a great opportunity to both explore my new surroundings and try a new approach to my photography.

In keeping with the title of the assignment, I decided to limit the area of exploration to a square mile centred on my road. The map of this area can be see in the link below.

Area map