Exercise 5.2

The first time I looked at the picture of World Trade Centre by Hiroshi Sugimoto (link), what immediately came to my mind was how unreal the picture looked like. It was like it was made from a model of the buildings rather than the actual thing, the lack of focus robbing the details one would expect to see and reducing the structures to outlines and swaths of solid grey tones. It so happened that I looked at this picture shortly after looking at the work  of Thomas Demand, who builds intricate paper models of places and situations and then takes pictures of them (see for instance here and here) and it occurred to me that it would be possible to still take a similar picture to Sugimoto’s by building a paper model of the World Trade Centre.

I looked at the internet for a neutral, frontal picture of the twin towers, preferably in black and white. The best I could find was this low resolution picture accompanying  the relevant entry into the Skyscraper Museum (link)(1). I copied the front side of one of the towers and enlarged this so that details became blurred and pixelated. I then proceeded to copy this four times and made a tridimensional model of each tower. These were then glued on a paper base on the position of the original buildings.

The background and sky were hand painted on A4 using an electronic illustration application and then reduced to a scale that was commensurate with the paper tower models (the reduction was to about A6). The background had to be widened to more or less fit the position of the buildings in Sugimoto´s. This was done by cutting and superimposing two copies of the background, which were then scanned and re-printed. The set up was illuminated with natural shadow light from the front, and an array of LED lamps on the back of the picture, showing through the paper background.  A picture of the set-up is shown below.

 

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The picture was taken on a full frame camera with a 50mm lens set at f8 and back  focused just behind the plane of background. Sugimoto took the original picture by focusing at twice infinity and in his picture the background looks as unfocused as the foreground. I tried to replicate this as much as possible but in any case, the background was originally drawn without clear building outlines and deliberately blurred to help achieve the effect. My response to the picture was primarily driven by what Barrett calls “Internal Context” – what I viewed in the picture itself, but was also modified by the original context based on how and why Sugimoto took the pictures (discussed here). It also contains elements of original context from Thomas Demand’s work.

The final picture, shown below, had limited post processing manipulation, primarily to correct verticals, crop and adjust the lighting, both generally but also by selectively burning some parts of the picture (particularly the bottom and to vignette the corners). Nothing was cloned out or added in post processing.

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Towers (2017) – After Sugimoto (and homage to Demand)

With this picture I wanted to test both my initial reaction to Sugimoto’s but also to understand whether other people had similar feelings. The final picture still looks unreal to me, although the towers in Sugimoto’s version have less detail than my fake models, and are heavily cropped at the top. The background is perhaps more obviously fake, but the sensation that my towers are slightly more realistic than the original left me a bit startled. I casually showed my picture to a friend and to him it was not immediately obvious that my picture was a fake. It seems to me that, just perhaps as Sugimoto’s original intention with these pictures was, we immediately recognise famous shapes by just a few traces, regardless of how blurred or distorted they are and not always question whether what we see is true or not.

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(1) Skyscraper.org. (2017). The World Trade Center: Statistics and History. [online] Available at: http://www.skyscraper.org/TALLEST_TOWERS/t_wtc.htm [Accessed 31 Mar. 2017].

Exercise 5.1

I took a sequence of shots of my wife while we were waiting for our food at a local restaurant. As usual, she took her sketchbook out of her bag and started to draw, and I took my camera and started to fire away. I had a 35mm equivalent lens on at the moment, which enabled me to have a relatively wide point of view without introducing too much distortion. The shots were all taken at the largest aperture available, f/2. They were only corrected for white balance and exposure.

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1/1000s at f2. ISO 6400. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

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1/60s at f2. ISO 800. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

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1/125s at f2. ISO 1600. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

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1/125s at f2. ISO 1600. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

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1/125s at f2. ISO 1600. 23mm (equiv 35mm)

Of the sequence, my favourite is the last one. The pictures were a mixture of candid and posed shots and at the time I took them I did not notice the expression my wife had on the last one, half way through between disgust and a shrug.  I cannot recall, when looking at the photographs, what we were doing at that particular moment, whether her expression was a reaction to something I had said or if she was thinking about something in particular. This adds a degree of enigma to the photograph that is not there in the other shots, as well as summing up, for me, what the distance between me as a photographer and her as the subject is, not only in terms of what was unnoticed at the time I took the shot (her expression), but also the erosion of information created by the passing of time.

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.

 

Exercise 4.5

For this exercise, I have chosen to continue my exploration of the humble onion, also my subject in exercise 4.4. This time, I am looking at different ways to photograph an onion that is not “conventional”.

Googling “onion” yields the photographs shown in the screen grab below:

google-onion

Onion pictures in Google – grabbed on 18/02/2017 at 20:39

Most of the photographs have a white background, which indicates that these were mostly shot for “stock” photography applications, which just show the subject in its cleanest, most distilled way. Some pictures show a whole onion, others a section cut of the onion or slides, and some others just show a bunch of onions together.

If we scroll down, we can see other types of pictures:

  • We see onions with their leaves attached, just taken off the ground
  • We see drawings / designs based on onion shapes
  • We see close-ups of onion rings / onion parts
  • We see sacks full of onions and pictures of hundred of onions together
  • We see food prepared with onions
  • We see people dressed up as onions.

One of the approaches suggested by the coursebook was to make the subject incidental to the picture. Looking at Chris Steele Perkins and John Davies approach to Mt. Fuji, I believe this mostly works in cases where the incidental object is easily recognisable and / or is sufficiently unique to be able to counterbalance the main subject. For example, in John Davies “Fuji City” (see here), if any other generic mountain was at the back of the picture, it would not be considered as an alternative way of portraying that mountain, but it would just be considered truly incidental to the picture, in other words, completely dispensable.

The question then becomes, if a subject is just something generic or ordinary, how do you make the “incidental” approach work? One way of looking at it would be to make the object incongruous to the frame. In a way this is a bit dangerous because it may be interpreted as making the object stand-out and then it ceases to be incidental. The approach, for it to work, would require a balance between subtlety and assertion.

Based on the above, I attempted a series of shoots where I placed onions in places where we would not expect to see them. Some of the better shots are included below:

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“The bookends” (1/50s at f8. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – I took a series of photographs using onions as bookends, a use for which they are not particularly well suited given when shape and lightness. This is one of the better shots of this series, showing the onions as a small part of the frame and plenty of other objects more overwhelming in size. Yet the onions manage to become the subjects by virtue of the unexpectedness of seeing them being used as bookends.

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“Failed bookend”  (1/50s at f4. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – As expected, during the shootout some of the books ended up falling because the small onions were not heavy enough to support them. I took some pictures of the fallen books and the onion, such as the one above, but in my opinion these, while aesthetically pleasant, give too much prominence to the onion, which no longer can be called incident to the picture.

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“Fruit bowl” (1/60s at f8. ISO 3200. 43mm lens) – Another idea was to make the onion the odd one out by placing it inside a bowl of fruit. I like the simplicity of this concept, but in the end I deemed this too subtle.

Another approach I wanted to try for this exercise was the “lens vision” concept used by Bill Brandt successfully in many of his nudes and body part studies (see for instance here and here), where the use of a wide-angled lens in close up results in distorted, slightly surreal images.

I took some of these shots with a combination of lenses mounted on extension tubes to achieve extreme close-ups and also with a compact camera in 1cm macro mode, which only worked at the wide end of the lens, allowing for extremely close wide-angle shots of the onion. Here are some of the resulting photographs:

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“The top end” (0.4s at f22. ISO 800. 43mm mounted on extension tubes) – This shot is a more than life-size close up of the top end of the onion, where the leaves were cut. It has quite an abstract quality to it, but it is hard to tell it is an onion.

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“Top end, too” (1/60s at f2. ISO 500. 6.1mm lens (equiv to 28mm in full frame)) – This shot, also of the top end of the onion, was taken with a wide-angle macro lens compact camera. The extreme close up allows for the narrow depth of field, in spite of the small sensor, which gives a pleasant background blur; but the background is too bright and clean which makes this picture look too much like the ones in Google.

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“Sideways” (1/60s at f4. ISO 1250. 6.1mm lens (equivalent to 28mm in full frame) – also taken with a wide-angled compact camera in macro mode, this was one of my favourite shots, as it shows a bit more clearly that is an onion, but at the same time, it is not embellished like in the shots at the top of Google. It shows the rough, ageing skin of the onion and does not hide its blemishes.

The final shot I selected for this exercise was taken with a 135mm telephoto lens mounted in extension tubes to allow a closer focusing. It is shown below.

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“Cracked skin” (0.8s at f11, ISO 800. 135mm lens mounted on extension tubes)

It shows a close up of the side of the onion, where the outer skin is starting to crack. In spite of the close up, the contour lines and the crack would make the image instantly recognisable as an onion to anyone who has ever handled one in the supermarket or the kitchen. To me the crack signifies both the imperfection of real life – it is hard to get an onion as clean as those found at the top end of the Google search – and provides a focus point which is slightly different from the object itself: it is an onion all right, but the onion becomes a bit incidental to the crack in this instance. There are close-ups of onions in the Google-searched pictures, but these tend not to be as close as my picture above and tend to focus on more harmonious aspects of the onions, such as the concentrical inner rings, and not on the imperfections of its outer parts, as in here.