Part 2

Research note – aesthetic codes and reusing images (Project 2)

Gianlucca Cosci and Mona Kuhn both used shallow depth of field to focus the attention of the viewer on what they think is the main part of the subject. Looking back at my old catalogue of images I found one in particular that I feel can be used with the same effect.

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This picture was taken in mid-2011, shortly after the beginning of NATO’s intervention in Libya against Gaddafi’s regime, in which France, then presided by Nicolas Sarkozy, played an important role. It is in this context that I remember taking this picture, focusing on the headshot of the French president, as he was the man of the moment. A long time had passed since that picture and for a long I though that Sarkozy was going to be out of politics forever, particularly given the way he lost his presidential election and the corruption scandals he was involved shortly after leaving the presidency. But these are strange times, and it does seem that Sarkozy has again a good chance of returning to the fore and become the French president once again. I would like to re-imagine my picture in the context of this process of political death and redemption, like a project covering personalities that fell out of grace and managed to return to the limelight. The picture I took shows a man in the news, but the context is not clear (you cannot read any text in a normal print of the image) and the setting, on the handle of a slightly run down door for a non-specific establishment, could be interpreted as either the news being delivered to your door, or somebody discarding an old newspaper because he or she could not find a bin nearby. In that respect, this could either be used to illustrate Sarkozy’s old political demise or his return to power, if that ever materializes.

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Research notes – Guy Bourdin

Guy Bourdin (1928 – 1991) was a French photographer.

Famous for his fashion shots, Bourdin was particularly interesting as a photographer in as much as he used, while alive, magazine and advertising photographs (ie, what we would normally considered his professional work) almost exclusively as the medium for his artistic expression. While one would perhaps see this as nothing out of the ordinary, after all, even when shooting professionally one always expects a certain aesthetic to be maintained as the photographer’s distinguishing style; Bourdin commissioned photographs were heavily charged with social commentary, or even in direct contradiction with the promotion of goods (which one would consider to be the primary goal of advertisement). One gets the impression that in the end his primary consideration was the concept behind the pictures, rather than the specific promotion that the commissioned work was supposed to undertake (see for instance these examples from the Charles Jourdan campaign here and here, which purport to be advertisements for women’s shoes). Bourdin photographs contain, in many cases, direct or subtle elements of violence, often accentuated by the use of saturated primary colours (see previous examples, but also here and here) which are in direct contrast with the glamour one would expect from fashion photographs and which generates uneasiness  in the viewer.

Bourdin is particularly famous for his colour work, which was often overly saturated and full of contrast (see . It is fascinating how much he managed to achieve with a medium that, according to many, offered less control over output and manipulation than B&W before the advent of digital photography. His black and white photographs, while lesser known, are equally full of symbolism and veiled social critique as his latter colour work.

“Guy Bourdin was an image maker, a perfectionist. He knew how to grab the attention of the viewer and left nothing to chance. He created impeccable sets, or when not shooting in his studio rue des Ecouffes in le Marais, in undistinguished bedrooms, on the beach, in nature, or in urban landscapes. The unusual dramas that unfold in these seemingly everyday scenes and ordinary encounters pique our subconscious and invite our imagination. Moreover, he developed a technic using hyper real colours, meticulous compositions of cropped elements such as low skies with high grounds and the interplay of light and shadows as well as the unique make-up of the models.”(1)

Again, preparation of all the photographic elements in advance seems to be a recurring feature. It is not surprising given that Bourdin’s background was fashion photography, that requires meticulous preparation of every aspect.

Many of Bourdin’s photographs show only parts of women, particularly legs and torsos. The faces are missing or obstructed in many of these pictures, devoiding Its subjects of identity and reducing them, quite literally, to the minimum required to sell a product (in this case footwear). This is particularly poignant in a series of picture of legs, cut under the knees, walking down the streets (see here, for instance). Bourdin may be deliberately doing this to objectivise its subjects, perhaps as a commentary on the fashion industry or society’s attitude towards women. The point is more directly made in one of his black and white prints entitled “Polaroid” (1978), in Which a woman appears to be part of a property for lease (see here).

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(1) Bourdin, G. (2016) Guy Bourdin – Louise Alexander Gallery. Available at: https://www.louise-alexander.com/artist/guy-bourdin/ (Accessed: 21 September 2016).

Research notes – Fay Godwin

Fay Godwin (1931 – 2005) was a British photographer.

The following notes are taken from a viewing of the book “Landmarks” – a retrospective of Fay Godwin work (1). As customary in other research notes on books, I make below some general observations on layout and presentation.

  • The book contains both portrait and landscape pictures.
  • Both orientations are combined, presented together.
  • There is no specific reason why they are put together in this order. No evident connection, except for broad categories (landscapes, portraits, etc).
  • There are both colour and black and white pictures .

Some of the landscape pictures (most of which are B&W) are quite interesting because they include both natural and man-made features. In some cases (road markings, farm fences), the effect is complementary, but some of the features are not expected or incongruous (buses, theme park posters, security fences, earth moving equipment) and create an effect of shock in the viewer. These pictures and the way they are presented remind me of the A.O.N.B. series by Keith Arnatt, which has the same aesthetic values. Godwin makes very clear her views on the subject matter by her titles. One picture of an otherwise tranquil Welsh mountain track, with a mechanical digger in the middle of it is titled “Welsh Water Authority bulldozing Bronze-age tracks, Snowdonia National Park, 1988” (see here). Other pictures show dying trees and cut down forests. There are no man-made features in these pictures, but the impact of man is clearly shown by what is missing.

The pictures seem to be taken with normal perspective and a small aperture, as most seems to be in focus, from beginning to end.

Another interesting series of pictures, also reminiscent of Arnatt’s work with rubbish, are the glassworks series. These are in colour and show various subjects through layers of glass, some of which appears broken or steamed. The defects or water drops in the glass create additional shapes which, combined with the softening of the light from the translucent effect, creates a series of abstract, ethereal pictures, full of beauty. Like in the case of Arnatt’s work, it is quite remarkable that this is achieved with discarded rubbish and weeds, items that one would not normally consider particularly beautiful, but that are transformed by the treatment, thus challenging the spectator’s preconceptions.

A follow-up series entitled “secret lives” seems to follow from the above concept and tries to focus on details of various objects, often shot through obstacles such as mesh. These also show the artist’s desire to explore views which are often missing and pushing the boundaries of what is real and what is abstract. These are all presented in colour.

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(1) Godwin, F., Armitage, S. and Taylor, R. (2001) Landmarks: Photographs by Fay Godwin. Stockport: Lewis, Dewi Publishing.

Research notes – Mona Kuhn

Mona Kuhn (b. 1969) is a Brazilian / American photographer.

The following notes are from pictures of Mona Kuhn’s book “Evidence”, appearing in an article by Doug Stockdale that can be found here, as well as other pictures of Kuhn found online.

Two interesting aspects of Kuhn’s work in “Evidence” is the use in some pictures of glass and its reflective / translucent properties to add elements to the frame (eg her reflection, the sky, trees) and to diffuse her subjects by mixing them with the reflections, in a process that creates new images that are neither faithful reproductions nor entirely abstract, but stay in between.

The other element that is interesting, and this ties with exercise 2.6, is the use of wide apertures / narrow dept of field in the pictures, sometimes in a counterintuitive way, eg with the main subject being completely out of focus while some seemingly irrelevant object like wild flowers appearing sharp in the foreground. To add to the effect, Khun skilfully composes the pictures to ensure that we are under no doubt as to who are her subjects, placing the sharp flowers or the leaves on the edge of the frame, as if they were there just to provide a context to the subjects, in a confusing way.

Kuhn also creates “layers of softness” by placing the subjects at increasing distances from the focal plane (see here, for example). This is done in a way that provides sufficient separation to allow the viewer to distinguish each shape, in spite of the softness, thus providing a clear path for the eyes to go deeper into the frame by creating a sense of story. This is a remarkable achievement given that the subjects are each presented on their own and, far from interacting with each other, seem to be lost in their own minds.

The use of intense natural light on many of the photographs, not only delineates the bodies of her subject but also, and perhaps as a conscious byproduct, generates large blown-out areas without any details, in some cases approaching 50% of the picture’s area (as in here). It is generally not pleasant to watch, but it does add to the idea that the photographer is more interested in showing her subjects in the best possible way and background considerations come second, which is not necessarily a risky approach given than in many cases the subject themselves are an integral part of the background.

Research notes – Gianluca Cosci

The following notes come from an interview of Cosci by Kev Byrne, which can be found here (1). All quotes are from Cosci

….Panem et Circenses was taken exclusively around the Millennium Dome which at that time was a depressing no man’s land after being open for only 12 months in 2000. It was Blair’s vanity project to boost his image as “presidential” prime minister. That white elephant with a price tag of nearly one billion pounds of tax payers’ money was standing empty while he was declaring war against Iraq. I had the need to work on that specific place in that moment.

Cosci shows here the importance of location as an integral part of the concept one wants to convey, yet while I am sure the idea to shoot around the Millenium Dome did not come on a whim, his description of the process makes it sound like the decision was more emotional than rational. Sometimes impulse is also an important part of the photographic process, and in many cases we are not sure what we are photographing or why, but still go ahead and do it because we had the urge to do so. Some of these images then make sense when we sit down and look at them a few days or months later.

at the end of the day one tends to always believe in the photographic image even though after Photoshop this is getting less and less true I guess, but the sense of “evidence” remains anyway, especially if one compares it to painting for example…

Even with Photoshop, there are still details that are there in the photograph which are ignored in the manipulation process and that form part of the record, the bits we would ignore perhaps when we paint.

…photography does suggest a kind of reality even though a highly subjective one indeed… And it includes that frozen moment in time that is the essence and the allure of this medium.

I can personally related to Cosci points about reality and time. I am currently trying to work around these concepts by looking at objects that occupy a specific space during a limited, short time: discarded coffee cups, left over food, cigarette buts, carrier bags. Most of these objects are overlooked, avoided, when taking pictures. But they also have a story to be told: how they got to where they are and where they will go next. I try to capture a slice of that story in the limited time, sometimes seconds, that I have in front of them.

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(1) Kev Byrne 1971. 2017. An interview with Gianluca Cosci | Kev Byrne 1971. [ONLINE] Available at: https://kevinbyrne1971.wordpress.com/2016/04/16/an-interview-with-gianluca-cosci/. [Accessed 18 September 2016].

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” (1) 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” (2) 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), 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.

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(1) Parr, M., 2009. The Last Resort. Dewi Lewis Publishing.

(2) Parr, M., 2013. Life’s a Beach. Aperture.

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).