Assignment 2 – research

Research notes – Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand (1928  – 1984) was an American photographer famous for his street work.

Winogrand shoot primarily black and white film using a rangefinder with a wide-angle lens (28mm). The photographs are primarily made on a frontal plane (ie not from above or below). The short focal length used means that he had to be close to his subjects when taking the pictures. As can be seen in the short film below, that sometimes meant that his subject will notice (and occasionally object) to his presence, but in general he had a very stealthy way of shooting, often simulating that he was checking his camera’s dials and then shooting the next second. Watching him in action is a delight, as he fires away without almost being noticed. This allowed him to obtain candid shots in spite of being in the middle of the action.

Many of the photos made by Winogrand contain crowds, both from the streets (in NY, Los Angeles) and from organized events (eg political conventions, balls ). In the crowd pictures, you would normally have a person / group standing out (for example, the girl with the white dress in the Centennial Ball picture (link), or the man shouting at the microphone in the Elliot Richardson Press Conference picture (link)) or groups of people joined by their actions where no one really stands out (like the Point Mugu Naval Air-Station picture (link)). Winogrand pictures have a naturalistic, uncontrived nature, representing a slice of “life” as it was happening in front of him. He was a very prolific photographer who seemed to enjoy the act of shooting more than other aspects of photography. While he died unexpectedly, barely a month after being diagnosed with cancer, he left behind thousands of unprocessed film rolls. In the short video above one can see that Winogrand would take several frames of the same scene and had little regard for economy of shooting. His style of shooting was not very far from what we experience today with digital cameras, in which we can rack hundreds of shoots in a single photo session.

It would be tempting to assume that part of his success was down to taking so many different pictures of each scene, but the reality is that he was not using a motor drive and although he could rewind the film quite quickly (his domination of the camera as a tool is very clear), there is no way his final results were down to luck. Some of his pictures show people seemingly doing different things in one frame, or looking in all sorts of directions (see for instance his JFK at the DNC 1960 picture, for instance (link)), but the framing and timing used brings harmony to the chaos and provide a clear path for the eyes to travel.

Research notes – Allan Sekula

Allan Sekula (1951 – 2013) was an American photographer, theorist and critic.

Sekula’s series of crowd photographs “Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black]” were taken during the street protests around the 1999 WTO conference in Seattle. From the text accompanying the exhibit (1), Sekula took the pictures with “…no flash, no telephoto zoom lens, no gas mask, no auto-focus, no press pass and no pressure to grab at all costs the one defining image of dramatic violence”. Sekula defines this approach as being “anti-photojournalism” and indeed, one would think that his technique would have implied being quite close to the action, perhaps even in its midst, rather than take a more cautious approach that one would expect from a normal press photographer.

Sekula’s work is presented as a slide show of 81 images. As the title mentions, the first picture includes a white globe (with a glimpse of a black globe in the background) and the final picture is a close up of the black globe. In between, Sekula presents a chronological account of the protest, starting in daylight, moving into the night, with light again and  finishing in the night. The pictures include a range of individual portraits, close-up shots of people in crowds, and crowds themselves. He shows the protesters, the police, some of the WTO delegates and some action shots, purposely of the police trying to contain or repress the protest, although there is no attempt to show explicit violence. The shots of crowds contain a great deal of tension. Even before the confrontations with the police began, you can see the crowds marching on purposely and dead serious, either resigned to their immediate fate (confrontation with the police) or with little hope of influencing the matters they were protesting on. Sekula himself noted that there were “…people waiting, unarmed, somethings deliberately naked in the winter chill, for the gas and the rubber bullets and the concussion grenades.”

Sekula seems to be using a normal lens. As he is close to the action, a normal lens in this case does not allow the inclusion of significant background information and consequently, many of the shots, even when including crowds, have a tunnel-like / cropped view point that adds to the tension and feeling of claustrophobia.  Furthermore, Sekula seems to be using a relatively wide aperture, even during daylight shoots, and this produces a “layering” of the crowd shots were the eye is forced to focus in a particular person or plane. He chooses this person or action as an “anchor” to the crowd, as if defining everything else going on in the frame, thus directing the attention of the spectator to what interests him. The effect is sometimes crude and other times more subtle: in a picture where protesters were sitting holding hands in front of a line of police officers, Sekula’s focus is clearly on the protesters, with the police being rendered slightly out of focus. This is preceded by a photograph of another line of police officers, now clearly in sharp focus, against the background of indistinguishable people, perhaps including other police officers and or protesters.

Due to his chosen angle of view and position vis-a-vis his subjects, Sekula’s crowd pictures feel more like portraits in which the remaining elements of the crowd act as background, which in this occasion is not “creamed out for bokeh”, but subtly left less defined to provide enough information to contextualize the actions of his subjects. This is an approach in stark contrast with Gursky’s crowd pictures, in which aperture is deliberately closed to render everything flat, as if it were in the same plane, with the spectator unable to fix his / her gaze at anything individual but forced to interpret the picture as a whole.

Sekula’s slide show, in its entirety, can be found here

https://slought.org/media/files/sf_1489sekula_waitingforteargas.pdf

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(1) All quoted text in this note comes from Sekula’s accompanying introduction to “Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black]”, which can be found here

Research notes – Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky (b 1955) is a German photographer famous for his large format photographs.

Gursky has made several shots of crowds, but being influenced by the documentary work of Bernd and Hilla Becher and the Dusseldorf School of Photography, his work tends to be impersonal and distant, more akin to a record shot than an artistic creation.

In his photographic series of stock / mercantile exchanges (link), Gursky shots the (hundreds of) traders in action from a high vantage point. The lens used is likely to have been a wide angle, as the subjects are shown relatively small with relation to the frame and the pictures cover a significant portion of the ground. There is no specific individual subject and no particular sense of timing, lending the pictures a “snapshot” nature, and in some cases a “cropped” look. If we take a closer look, however, it is clear that Gursky has put a lot of thinking into the technical preparations for his shots. The Kuwait Stock Exchange II picture (2008)(link), for instance, shows a large number of white dressed traders which are “stopped”, optically, by a dark wall at the top, containing the picture. The subtle horizontal lines in said wall are also perfectly aligned to the  edge of the frame.

By not focusing on anybody, Gursky’s pictures of crowds tend to “collectivise” the actors and consequently, end up being more pictures of activities rather than people. The feeling of chaos stilted by the presence of so many different  people in the frame, all doing separate things, is subdued by the sense of overall purpose that one gets from the activity depicted (ie trading). The fact that there is no sense of timing in the pictures does not detract from its impact. As a matter of fact, there is no need for it, as individual actions are rendered completely irrelevant by the chosen angle of view and the photographer is not seeking for a decisive moment.

Similar in concept, but this time applied to objects rather than people, is the 99 Cent diptychon (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/99_Cent_II_Diptychon), in which Gursky photographs supermarket aisles from above, resulting in layers of colour. These photographs show again a significant control of technique, with all the horizontal lines from the aisles perfectly aligned, altough the photographs have been digitally altered so it is not known how much of the technical aspects of it have been corrected in post-processing. Like the exchange series, the pictures of these supermarket aisles are cold and impersonal.

His Pyongyan V shot (link), however, is slightly different from the “exchange” series. In here, Gursky is again showing thousands of small subjects (cheerleaders in a stadium in North Korea), but you get a sense of timing and syncronization with this shot (all the girls are holding their pompoms high in the air, hands fully extended, all at the same time, while the crowd in the stands hold placards depicting a field of flowers. You get the impression that this picture would have been completely different just seconds latter, but just like in the “exchange” series (and perhaps more clearly in this case) one get the impression that individual actions matter less than the collective result.

A slightly different approach was taken by Gursky in his photograph of the Bundestag (1998)(link), which was shot through a window and includes the effect of reflections on the crowds (of MPs, presumably) creating a degree of abstraction which is a departure from the clean lines of his “exchanges” series, where there are unobstructed views of the subjects. The picture has also been heavily manipulated digitally, so it is not possible to distinguish from true reflections or post-processing distortions. Gursky employs digital manipulations quite extensively but in many of his pictures the effect is not really noticeable, creating in the spectator the doubt as to whether what they are seeing is real or not.

Research notes – Martin Parr

Martin Parr (b. 1952) is a British photographer.

Some of Parr’s work involves documenting crowded public spaces. In particular, I had a lok at two of his books on beach photography: “The Last Resort”, photographed in New Brighton and the Wirral peninsula in the mid-80s; and “Life’s a Beach”, a subsequent compilation that includes some pictures from “The Last Resort” project as well as other beach photographs from across the world.

For “The Last Resort” I have made the following general observations on the book presentation and general characteristics of the images:

  • All pictures 3:2, with horizontal orientation and presented in bright colour
  • All seemingly shot using fill-in flash.
  • Normal point of view (likely used a normal lens)
  • Some pictures are in pairs, most are shown on their own.
  • There are some very basic illustrations on the opposite side of each image which are seemingly related to the picture (and which in my opinion are a bit kitsch and distracting)

There are many crowd pictures in “The Last Resort”. Some of them are there just to show how large the crowd is (people by the pool – link), others show people in groups which are layered by distance from the camera, creating fluidity in viewing and a sense of story (see for instance this and this). Parr goes very close to its subjects, which, with a normal lens, often implies that people are cut and we do not get to see their faces directly. In one of the pictures, in which a lady is trying to feed some chips to her two kids (link to picture), her head is cut off , but we somehow manage to see her (and what she is doing with her hands through her reflection in a window. Additional head shadows to the side and a person cut off on the extreme left complete the scene to give the feeling of a crowded space.

Parr’s framing balances the people in his pictures with structural and other objects founds on the ground and on tables, including (prominently) food and rubbish. In addition to anchoring the compositions, these elements also provide context to the subjects and their actions, and oppose directly any preconceptions about beauty that the spectator may bring, or would normally expect to be avoided in photography. As a matter of fact, rather than trying to avoid them, Parr seems to embraces them rigorously, to the point of not even cropping numerous examples of stray objects or persons at the edge of the frame that would normally be considered distracting but that in here are integral part of the reality portrayed.

In all the crowd pictures, there is something always happening. These are all action shots which are grabbed from real life rather than staged. In many cases, there is a subject or a group of subjects in the foreground that are doing something specific, minding their own business, which is quite remarkable because with the fill flash and being relatively close to the action, it is impossible that they would not have noted the photographer. The pictures do not seem contrived or staged, but at the same time it is hard to imagine them being entirely candid, give the set-up. Perhaps this is Parr’s way of instilling a little bit of doubt into the spectator, increasing in this way the curiosity for exploring the tableaux in greater detail.

“Life’s a beach” expands on “The Last Resort”‘s original ideas by compiling beach pictures from across the globe. The book itself is of a more compact size than “The Last Resort”, but contains a greater number of images. Here are some general observations on the layout:

  • Most pictures are 3:2, landscape oriented.
  • Some pictures are square or have a portrait orientation
  • Most pictures are in pairs, but some are shown individually, accompanied by an illustration on the opposite page, again seemingly related to the picture.
  • Pictures are identified by a place and date.

Like in the case of “The Last Resort”, there seems to be always at least two planes of action in Parr’s crowd photographs, with either a subject doing something very close to the camera, or being out of focus in front of the camera (eg see here and  here), with the crowds as a background. One sometimes wonder if this is a picture of a crowd or the crowd is there just to provide background or to fill the frame. In some case, when the actions of the foreground subjects are quite distinct from that of the background elements, these pictures feel more like portraits with a busy background (for example, see this).

But when a subject does not dominate the frame, there is always a pattern on these pictures. They seem like crowds, but there is a reason why Parr has taken a shot. It is not random. There is harmony, either provided by subjects doing similar things (eg lounging on the sand, swimming, eating) or by clusters of different active subjects layered inside the frame (see here, for example).

The pairing of pictures is usually easy to follow, and generally, there is harmony or complementarity between the frames, although this is sometimes not too obvious, and in some cases seemingly related pictures (for example of people doing the same thing, like reading the newspaper) are separated by a totally unrelated image in the middle, as if to break the flow to keep the reader on the edge.

Research notes – Alex Prager

Alex Prager (b. 1979) is a self-taught American filmaker and photographer.

Doing a basic research on the Internet on photographers who have covered crowds, I came accross Alex Prager’s exhibition entitled “Face in the Crowd”. The following observations are partially derived from the note on this  work posted in Lehmann Maupin’s website (1). Some of the pictures commented here can be found in Alex Prager’s website.

Shot on a Los Angeles soundstage in early 213, Face in the Crowd is Prager’s most complex and ambitious work to date. The artist directed hundreds of actors on constructed sets to create portraits of large crowds at airport terminals, lobbies, beaches, movie theaters and other public spaces. For each scene, Prager taps into a shared cultural memory to create images that are familiar yet strange. The characters, clothing, hairstyles and poses are all carefully chosen by the artist to convey a range of time periods from mid-century to present and recall cultural references drawn from street photography and classic Hollywood cinema(1)

Why staged? Some of these scenes could perfectly happen in real life. Many of them do, and as a matter of fact many of the pictures look very natural. Others give away that it is staged, in a subtle but unequivocal way.  This obsession with control seems to be a significant feature in many modern photographers, particularly from the Americas (Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson  come to mind, to name some). While many past photographers were very fastidious with the technical aspects of photography (Ansel Adams, Bern and Hilla Becher), the obsession with control in modern photographers seem to extend to a greater control over the photographed matter, to the point of employing actors to play real life rather than capture it directly. I can see the point to a certain extent. It certainly does allow the photographer to have a greater degree of control over the concept and the aesthetics, on top of the rigorous technique, but isn’t it too contrived in the end? How different is this from taking a natural shot and then manipulating it in Photoshop? Many of the notes accompanying these photographers’ work make great emphasis on the expensive production sets and the meticulous preparations, as if these were to add anything to the value of the pictures.

I want it to feel staged to create that sort of isolation and disconnected communication but these aren’t reenactments of real crowds. I don’t want to show people what a crowd looks like. I’m creating the feeling of a crowd that has no substance to direct people to what’s going on right now in our culture. (2)

In the specific case of Face in the Crowd, the staging is part of the artist concept and consequently, there seems to be a purpose for it, as explained by herself in the paragraph above. One has to wonder, though, if a real life crowd with the feature that Prager is looking for could not be found.

Prager makes extensive use of high/low vantage points to accentuate her message. In Face in The Crowd, high vantage points helped create an aura of isolation, by allowing the spectator to play the role of a surveyor, able to scrutinise every individual’s actions. In some of these “Where’s Wally” setups, Prager would sometimes place somebody looking directly at the camera (or the sky?), as if enquiring who is watching them. This adds to the feeling of power by the spectator. In the 2014-2015 series of photographs, she also introduces extreme low angle PoVs, in some cases even photographing through a transparent floor, which generates discomfort and in some cases a sense of inferiority in the viewer, quite the opposite of the Face in the Crowd series. These low angle shots, probably taken with a normal to moderate wide-angle lens are taken quite close to the subjects, which tends to exaggerate the perspective and accentuate the intimidation, a feeling that is confirmed by some of the subjects looking down, towards the camera (and the viewer) with disdain (as in “Burbank, 2014” – see http://www.alexprager.com/#!/photography/Recentwork)

Curious about Prager’s work, I decided to investigate further and found a catalogue from an exhibition titled “Polyester” held at the Robert Berman Gallery, in Santa Monica, California between April and May 2007.

In addition to looking at the pictures, I also made some observations on the layout and presentation used for the catalogue, as part of a wider research on photo-books. In this respect, I noted the following:

  • Pictures have all sorts of format, from 5:4, 3:2, panoramas, and are both shown horizontal and vertical. There is a centre spread in which one picture is amplified and only certain details are shown.
  • Some pictures are presented on their own, other are presented in opposite pairs. Orientations are not mixed
  • All pictures are in full colour.

The catalogue included a short introduction. From that, I excerpted the following:

“Prager’s cinematic approach is reminiscent of the mid 20th century angst and naivety that Hitchcok, John Waters, and David Lynch portrayed. Stories unfold with each photograph that stimulate the senses. Playful yet bizarre scenes are a balancing act between fantasy and reality.”(3)

Many of the images in the cataloge (some of which can be seen here) have a contrived, forced look and most of them show “plastic” characters which resemble dolls and which are overly made up. Some of the scenes appear “natural” (eg woman sunbathing – link) and are serene or contemplative, but in many instances there is a sense of urgency, of distress and subtle violence, like if something terrible is about to happen to the subjects. In two pictures, subjects appear to be running away from something. In the action pictures, there is a clear contrast between the beauty and elegance of the characters, nearly universally well dressed, and the brashness of their actions, which creates confusion in the spectator: we would never have expected to see somebody dressed for a party climbing down a hill, with high heels on, and has a balancing social effect, sort of demonstration that we are all humans with the same fears and urges, regardless of whether we are supermodels or plain ugly.

Many of the pictures include elements in the sky, either birds or airplanes which provide a nice balancing effect on the compositions and a subtle reference of Hitchcok.

The picture of a crowd (which can be seen here) contains several men running and a woman in the middle, partially blocked, and seemingly walking at slower pace. All of them are impeccably dressed. This again creates and element of contrast and separation and allows the eye to rest in one particular element, the one that is different from the other. The aperture seems to be small (there is a great amount of DoF, although elements at the very front are clearly blurred) and the angle of view appears to be normal to slight telephoto (50 ~ 60mm equivalent). The setting is staged and Prager was likely able to give precise orders on how the characters were going to move, allowing her to create the subtle difference in the characters’ actions that really make this picture work.

Prager has made other crowd pictures which have a similar theme, in which one particular character stands out from the crowd, either by actions, orientation of the face, position or the focus of the camera (see pictures including Elizabeth Banks in this article –> http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/alex-prager_n_4441057.html)

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(1) Alex Prager – exhibitions (2013) Available at: http://www.lehmannmaupin.com/exhibitions/2014-01-09_alex-prager (Accessed: 30 August 2016).

(2) Frank, P. (2013) Alex Prager Photographs The Dark Underbelly Of Crowds. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/16/alex-prager_n_4441057.html (Accessed: 30 August 2016)

(3) From Robert Berman’s catalogue for “Polyester”. The text can also be found on the gallery’s website: Alex Prager – exhibitions (no date) Available at: http://www.robertbermangallery.com/exhibitions/alex-prager (Accessed: 15 September 2016).