Research & Reflection

Research notes – homage

Looking through my archive I have found some pictures that were taken after being inspired by other people’s photographs / art work or the particular way they took pictures. Here are some of my favorites:

The view from my window

Homage to Stieglitz. 1/125s at f8. ISO 200. 27mm (equiv 41mm)

Alfred Stieglitz spend the latter part of his career living in a high-rise hotel in New York City (the Shelton Hotel), and from his room windows he took a famous series of photographs of the city (see here and here, for instance). He also took similar photographs from the windows of An American Place, his gallery on the 17th floor of a building at 53rd street and Madison Avenue in NYC and the picture above was inspired by this one he took there. I was particularly drawn by the deep shadows and the crisp shapes of the original one, as well as by the perspective given by taking pictures from a high ground. My picture was taken from a hotel room on a 5th floor, on a sunny winter afternoon.

Close shave

Homage to Buñuel. 1/60s at f5.6. ISO 100. 28mm (equiv to 42mm)

I first looked at the eye cutting scene (still from the film here) in Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 surrealistic film by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali in the early eighties, when I was about 9 years old, and have been haunted by these images and the fear of loosing sight since then. The picture above, titled “A close shave”, was inspired by elements of the scene and was a way for me to try to channel my fears into something more constructive. The picture was taken with a mirrorless camera and a manual lens was mounted on a tilt-shift adaptor, which was shifted to the maximum of 12 millimeters in order to prevent the camera being reflected in the mirror. A manual flash was set to fire from below.

Research notes – Thomas Demand

Thomas Demand (b. 1964) is a German sculptor and photographer.

Demand specialises in the construction of life-size paper reproductions of famous or newsworthy locations, which he then photographs before destroying them.

His models are highly detailed and a quick glance of his photographs would trick the viewer into believing they were looking at a rather mundane  picture of a real office or control room. The first of his pictures I looked at, “Poll” (link) was a reproduction of an office in Florida where the 2000 US presidential election was recounted. I remember looking at the picture, which was reproduced in a book for several minutes before realising that the subject was actually a sculpture. While Demand’s models are very detailed, he deliberately inserts imperfections that help the viewer realise they are looking at an illusion. For example, the post-it stickers and voting cards in Poll are completely blank when one would expect them to be full of scribbles and punch holes.

In an article for the New York Times (1), Michael Kimmelman explains how Thomas Demand makes his creations. He uses photographs and newspaper clippings to design the sculptures, sometimes he does them from memory. This second-hand experience removes his sculptures even more from reality. One of them, “Staircase”, turned out to be different from the real inspiration (Demand’s secondary school staircase), with his recollection of the place having been corrupted by looking at other similar structures. Significantly, his chosen medium for disseminating his work is photography, which has traditionally carried, in the mind of viewers,  connotations of fidelity to what is real. That his pictures are deliberately or unintentionally unreal, but are superficially very realistic creates a sense of insecurity and doubt in the viewer, while also generating a great deal of curiosity on how such level of detail was possible to achieve.

Beyond the technique and its implications, I am particularly attracted to Demand’s models depicting current affairs that presumably have had an impact on him. Rooms where something has just happened are meticulously portrayed as found: offices with papers tossed on the floor (see here), rooms trashed (and here), control rooms with dangling ceiling panels (see here). Even though all is still, there is an element of subtle violence in some of Demand’s pictures, a sense of something having gone terribly wrong. Yet the pictures show no victims, only still objects, silent witnesses to events we could only imagine. This lack of human presence adds an element of coldness and fatalism to Demand’s images, which makes them disturbing and fascinating in equal measures.

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(1) Kimmelman, M. (2005). Painterly Photographs of a Slyly Handmade Reality. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/04/arts/design/painterly-photographs-of-a-slyly-handmade-reality.html [Accessed 8 Apr. 2017].

Research notes – Photographs and context

The following are my thoughts from reading the essay “Photograph and Contexts” by Terry Barrett, published in Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, David Goldblatt & Lee Brown, editors. Prentice-Hall 1997 (1)

Barrett commences his essay by talking about how the same photograph – in this case Doisneau’s “At the Café Chez Fraysse, Rue de Seine, Paris, 1958”, link – could be interpreted in different ways depending on its channel of transmission. Some generic examples are given – a magazine, a leaflet, a sensationalist newspaper, a museum and a book on photographs – and the point is made that the context surrounding the photograph (eg the expectations of what each channel of transmission is about) determines how the viewer understands the picture. I wonder myself at this point if the channel of transmission itself is just sufficient to explain the differences of interpretation, and how much of that interpretation could also be attributable, at least in part, to our own prejudices and the ability or predisposition of the viewer to be critical about what he sees.

Another interesting point made by Barrett is to do with the de-contextualisation of the photograph.  Doisneau originally took the picture as part of a photo essay on Paris’ cafes for the magazine Le Point, the original context, but the picture has since been used for a number of other purposes – some of which were not authorised by the photographer – and also to be shown as part of an exhibit on the artist himself. It is perhaps the latter use, in which the photograph is shown in isolation, where it is further away from its original context and becomes more difficult to understand and appreciate. Barrett argues, quoting Martha Rosler, that the photograph then becomes about the photographer.  It is inevitable that a photograph is always somehow a reflection of the photographer (eg in her way of seeing), but one always hope that there is an ulterior motive in taking a photograph, something else that should come together from the process of reflecting upon the images and how they were taken. It is this process that is lost by de-contextualisation (what Barrett calls “displacement”). Is probably fair for a photographer to re-imagine a picture into a different context, and then present it differently, but the moment somebody else interferes with that contextualisation process (eg a museum curator, a book editor), part of the most precious process of photography would be lost.

The above point is particularly relevant in view of Barrett’s observation that photographs “are relatively indeterminate in meeting”.  Sometimes is not even evident to a photographer why he took a particular picture, let alone what it means. It is only through the process of looking again at the images, perhaps even recollecting the process of taking them, that the photographer can start to form a view on what it is all about, and then provide an adequate context. The photograph itself would not provide meaning or purpose , beyond its own aesthetic clues which are not always evident.

Barrett concludes the article discussing the issue of adjudication, or how to discern between different interpretations of a photograph in view of its changing context to find the one could be the “…most plausible, enlightening, accurate…”. In this respect, he mentions three sources of information that are available to the viewer: information internal to the picture (eg the picture itself and its title), information surrounding  the picture (ie where the picture is shown) and information about how the picture came to happen (ie the picture-taking process, the environment in which the picture was taken). These are in turn called the “Internal context”, the “External context” and the “Original context”. It is of course, open to each person to interpret these contexts, and come to her own conclusions in terms of adjudication. And in that respect, there is no way in which we can ignore the issue of our own prejudices, beyond any contextual details, and how these play in the issue of adjudication. For example, Barrett towards the end of his article mentions about the dangers of  the “cultural tendency” of taking photographs as “mechanical transcriptions” of reality, disregarding the fact that when the photographer took a particular shot, he sliced reality in accordance with the angle that best suited her, and perhaps even worse, altered it before or after committing to take the photograph.  In the absence, or wilful ignorance, of sufficient context, we may end up believing something that may be there to trick us.

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(1) Barrett, T. (1997). [online] Available at: http://www.terrybarrettosu.com/images/pdfs/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf [Accessed 8 Apr. 2017].

Research note – Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation Prize 2017

The following notes are from a recent visit to the Photographer’s Gallery in London to see the finalists for this year’s DBPF prize: Sophie Calle, Dana Lixenberg, Awoiska van der Molen, and Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs

French conceptual artist Sophie Calle has been nominated for her publication My All (Actes Sud, 2016), which uses postcards to summarize all the projects she has been involved to date. In the gallery, the curator focused on a montage about the death of Calle’s mother, cat and father, in that order. This was perhaps the most popular part of the exhibition, full of people most of the time. I venture to say that part of the reason for this is Calle’s personal approach in the presentation of the material, which includes stories from her parents, an extract from her mother’s diary. People seem to be able to connect at an easier level with this.

While I found the story engaging, the pictures were another story. Images from Calle are almost as if they were taken from a stock site. They are unspecific  and symbolic, some times quite graphic, but almost always impersonal, which creates a startling contrast with the accompanying text, which is revealing and intimate. I wonder if she just takes the pictures for no particular reason and then reuses them for her projects. For example, there is this end of the road sign and ram head that she uses when discussing her father’s passing away, that could have been used in many other occasions to illustrate other points. In one of the stories, Calle tells about her mother’s last activities and accompanies the text with a picture of a woman having a pedicure which looks so generic (see here) that is hard to conclude this is a picture of her mother.

Next to Sophie Calle’s space, the curator presented the work of Dutch photographer Awoiska van der Molen, which has been nominated for her exhibition Blanco at Foam Fotografie Museum, Amsterdam (22 Jan – 3 Apr 2016). This consists of a series of landscapes printed in black and white in large format. If Calle’s work is not particularly focused on photography as such, van der Molen’s approach is all about the images. These were taken on large and medium format film cameras and printed very large, sometimes perhaps too large, with the grain structure being quite prominent event from afar. These were all silver gelatine prints, hand retouched. A significant effort given the scale of the photographs on display, some of which were over 2 meters tall. According to the curator, van der Molen picture-taking process involves her being isolated in remote areas for days, something even weeks, and taking a picture when she feels attuned with the environment. In that respect, the work is very contemplative and reflective and many of the pictures have a soothing, relaxing effect that almost push the viewer into meditation. Of the pictures on display, the following were my favourites:

# 212-7 (link) van der Molen plays a lot with the idea of printing photographs darkly, which I something I have been trying to experiment with recently. Her long exposure picture of the mountain in silhouette with just light coming from the cars going up to the top is quite startling, particularly when seeing it in a full size print. I particularly enjoyed the contrast of the lights with the serenity of the mountain’s shape. It is an unbalanced picture, with all the action happening on the top third, and a large amount of negative space in the bottom two-thirds, but I somehow enjoyed that part as well, as it works as a sort of preamble to the rest, with the eyes slowly going up to where the action is. I had the opportunity of speaking to the curator of the show (Anna Dannemann) about this picture and she mentioned that because it was a long shot, the negative was full of star trails  which the artist has carefully removed by retouching. The picture is not just attractive on its own, but the silver gelatin print itself is also a work of supreme craftmanship and dedication.

Continuing with the theme of printing darkly, the seascape in # 422-7 (link) is a very strange picture in as much as many people would normally conclude that it was just underexposed, as there are almost no highlights and the shadows have been rendered in a very dark grey. There is something in this picture that reminded me of Sugimoto’s work and I immediately felt very calm in front of it.

Picture # 380-14 (link) has a more abstract quality to it and is significantly more contrasty, but like the seascape before, it has a relaxing effect. These are pictures which are conductive of introspection and self-thought. In the case of Calle’s montage, the text which accompanied the pictures had a similar impact, but the pictures themselves were bland when compared with van der Molen’s.

On the floor below was room dedicated to Dana Lixenberg a Dutch photographer nominated for her publication Imperial Courts (Roma, 2015). Imperial Courts is a housing state in California, USA and Lixemberg has spent several years photographing the place as well as the people who live in it. Some of the pictures with no people are quite interesting. Tony’s Memorial (link) and Tish Baby Shower (link) have a surreal, dehumanized quality to them. The housing state looks like a prison, with bars on windows and flat numbers stencilled with paint. I find most of the portraits a bit unremarkable, except perhaps the one of Shawna with her son Kashmir (link), which captures quite well the hopelessness of living in that place. Shawna is possible a young teenager, her hands so large compared with the body of her small, crying son. She is not crying herself, but her expression somewhat manages to convey a sadness that goes within.

The final part of the show includes a room with the work of Swiss artists Taiyo Onorato and Nico Krebs who have been nominated for their exhibition EURASIA at Fotomuseum Winterthur (24 Oct 15 – 14 Mar 16).  The installation includes a mixture of film and slide shows depicting life in various central Asian countries. An interesting part of their work had to do with contextualization. They visited museums and looked for artefacts that had been removed from places they have visited and photographed such artefacts in front of pictures of the place or region where the object came from, with some interesting results, some of which are less obviously a montage (link) than others (link)

Assignment 4 – self assessment

Looking at the end result of my fourth assignment submission, I summarise in the following table some personal notes in relation with the course’s assessment criteria:

Assessment criteria Personal views
Demonstration of technical and visual skills In general I believe the final selection of photographs continue to demonstrate reasonable levels of competency in terms of framing and composition. This assignment led me to deepen my exploration of techniques and ways of visual presentation that I did not have a great deal of experience with, such as off camera flash illumination, and the modification of artificial light, both in shape and colour. While I am satisfied with the end results in terms of technique at the time of submission, I was left intrigued by some of the results I got (particularly in the picture of the shed door, which I was initially expecting to look a little less natural) and I can see myself revisiting some of the techniques used in future projects.
Quality of outcome I feel generally satisfied with the connection between the various photographs in terms of their theme. Although the end results are not entirely homogeneous in subject and sometimes diverge in  the quality of illumination, I am satisfied that they conform to the main idea of being ordinary, mundane objects that I have attempted to portray under a different light. One of my ideas with this project was to achieve the correct balance between the light falling on the main subjects and that of its surroundings. While in some cases the main flash also provided some degree of fill light for the background, for most pictures my approach could only be attained by increasing ISO, and this inevitably led to some pictures exhibiting relatively high noise levels, which are thankfully not particularly noticeable at the size of the submitted pictures, except perhaps for the second picture, when there is clearly some noise visible on the sky.
Demostration of creativity Leading to the look of the final pictures, I took a number of shots under several combinations of flash, artificial and ambient light, both as part of exercise 4.4 and in subsequent experiments (see for instance exposing for the highlights, combining natural and artificial light and flash in daylight). Ultimately, I believe whatever creativity can be attributed to the final shots comes from that experimenting, which was primarily aimed at finding a look that expressed what I wanted to achieve: giving a platform to the ordinary and the neglected. In this process, the initial ideas came from pictures and photographers mentioned in previous blog entries, but the final look is primarily derived from the empirical process of throwing my subjects under what I believe was a similar light – ignoring in many cases what the original lighting arrangements were – and then changing the conditions until achieving something which hopefully was sufficiently different to stand on its own. In some cases, this involved trying different angles for the flash, in others changing the colour of the flash to try to match that of the ambient light or the subjects.
Context Compared with previous assignments, the theoretical research in this case was particularly limited. I did some initial search work and looked at some of the names mentioned in the course guide, some of which partially influenced the final look of my pictures, but I actually ended up doing a lot of exploratory work with the camera itself, looking at issues such as under exposure, exposing for the highlights, the combination of natural and artificial light and the use of flash to complement available light, prior to deciding which of exercises 4.2 to 4.4 I wanted to explore further. Once I settled on 4.4, I did a bit more of theoretical research, primarily around the names included in an exhibition on flash photography held in the Photographer’s Gallery in London in the early 1980s, and then tried to adjust the techniques used in exercise 4.4 to the look I felt more comfortable with from the photographers I had looked up. In the end, however, I wanted this assignment to be a personal journey of discovery of light and what the camera could do, and this is reflected in the predominantly empirical approach I took to give context to the project.

 

Research notes – flash in daylight

In earlier post (see here and here), I took a series of shoots looking at the combination of natural and artificial light. The problem with natural and generally available artificial light is that it is not always possible to change its configuration. Some things can be done about it, with reflectors and other light modifiers, but major changes, like for instance to make natural light strike an object at a particular angle, are only possible at certain times of the day and for a limited period which can be just down to a few minutes or seconds depending on the season. These limitations could potentially be overcome by using our own artificial source of light, like a flash.

The following series was taken with a single external flash during daylight. The first shot was taken indoors, in a partially covered tunnel with one of the walls removed to allow daylight to come trough. The light falling on the shot was only natural and indirect (ie reflected from the adjoining surfaces, which were dark).

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1/60s at f5.6. ISO 400. 27mm (equiv to 41mm in full frame)

project-8

In the above, the flash was set in a slightly “feathered” position by moving the head slightly up (pointing towards the reilings rather than the pack of crisps). The flash head was covered with a home made snoot, made with black cardboard, to give more directionality to the light. The flash was set at about 4 meters from the subject. Schematics are shown to the right.

In the resulting picture, the flash light is a bit overpowering and there is almost no background light from the ambient. This creases quite a dramatic shot which focuses attention strongly on a subject that under regular daylight would look mundane and would normally be ignored.

dscf3108

1/180s at f8. ISO 200. 27mm (equiv to 41mm in full frame)

project-9The next shot was taken on broad daylight wiht no artificial light involved other than from the flash. The flash was put on a stand and placed about 1 to 2 meters away from the plastic cup. No modifier was used, but the head was pointing slightly upwards so that it would not illuminate much of the ground. The schematics are shown on the right.

On this occassion, the flash light and the ambient light were more or less balaced, with the ambient light primarily setting up the road and the reflection of the building above (it just stopped raining a few minutes before) while the flash provided the ilumination of the plastic cup, which stands up in contrast with the dark grey of the road surface. There is less drama in here when compared with the initial shot: there are no long shadows and the highlights are more subtle, but there is still a high level of contrast and separation between the subject and its background.

 

Research notes – combining artificial and natural light

Following from the idea of underexposing from my previous entry, I decided to take a series of shots under natural light (both on overcast and sunny days), as well as combining natural and artificial light. Some of these shots are shown and discussed below.

dscf2664

1/60s at f5.6. ISO 800. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The first shot was taken indoors, in a corridor which is lit with a combination of artificial and natural light (from openings in the ceiling). There is a very subtle colour cast on this shot which I find quite attractive. The top end of the light strip has a bluish tone coming from the natural light, which is partially diffused through glass panels, which may further cool its tonality, whereas the bottom half of the strip has a slightly warmer tone, coming from the less intense artificial lamps, with incandescent bulbs, fixed to the ceiling. I initially had though about converting this picture into black and white, to emphasize the shapes and the contrast of the light, but I decided against it in the end because the subtle colour hues of the light would be lost with this.

dscf2675

1/2000s at f5.6. ISO 800. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The next shot was taken outdoors with only natural light. It was sunny, and consequently, the light had a slight golden colour cast. Exposure was set not to blow the highlights, creating a nice, soft graduation from dark to light gray (the light was coming from under some arches, hence the shadows on the left). While I like the overall look of the picture, it does lack the hue variation of the previous one due to the single light source.

dscf2712

1/30s at f5.6. ISO 3200. 23mm (equiv to 35mm in full frame)

The last shot in the series combines again both natural and artificial light, but this time there is a combination of direct and reflected / diffused light. There is also a clear distinction between the sections of the frame which are illuminated by the different sources, so that there is almost no spill or mixture like in the first shot. With each light source having its distinct colour temperature, the result is a picture of parts that cannot be separated but complement each other and allow the view to wonder from one segment to the next and back. I find it quite pleasant to look, if it was not for the slightly irritating bit of dull highlight at the bottom (water reflection at the corner of the wall), which could be corrected in post-processing, but I am showing here for completeness.