Part 5

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)