Sunday, 23 February 2014

B&W portraits as a documentary strategy (part 1)

Exercise 18 - read the information that accompanies August Sander's exhibition 'People of the 20th Century' at the SFMOMA.

Write a 200-word reflective commentary on Sander's 7 category system and briefly discuss the implications of his classification system within the socio-cultural content of the time. Make connections with contemporary practice such as that of Zed Nelson, if appropriate.

Reference websites:

There are numerous papers in the Tate archives that are free to access, providing very detailed and useful background information - this includes a half dozen on Sander.

The J P Getty Museum
"Despite Sander's dedication over five decades to the idea and compilation of this portrait atlas of the German people, the project remained unfinished. Nonetheless, his photographs remain compelling, in part because he chose to categorise his subjects by profession or social class. The images are thus representations of types, as he intended them to be, rather than portraits of individuals". This site provides a very good description of the individuals captured in each of Sander's categories.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
"Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, commented: 'Endowed with extraordinary observational powers and heroic determination, August Sander has left us with a compelling collective portrait of the German people during one of the most turbulent periods in their history. These powerful images, with their combination of unflattering objectivity and sympathy for the human condition, exerted a profound influence on later generations of photographers, among them the Americans Walker Evans and Diane Arbus'."
"His portrait images were grouped into seven categories, which, in and of themselves, reveal Sander's views of the German social order."  This site provides additional background to Sanders and his 'life's work'.

UTATA Tribal Photography - Sunday Salon with Greg Fallis
"Sander, like many of that era, believed in the faux-science of physiognomy—the belief that a person’s physical appearance reflects character or personality. "More than anything else," Sander wrote, "physiognomy means an understanding of human nature.” By photographing people he encountered and classifying them according to [his] seven broad archetypal categories, Sander believed he would create a scientific, visual account of the nation’s social order."  This site provide more in terms of interpretation of social status and standing in Germany at the time of Sander's photographic project. It discusses the seeming lack of impact the war on Sander's approach to his project and its impact on the individuals. Regardless of the disruption to Germany and the harrowing effect the war had in individuals and their way of life, Sander's was only interested in 'capturing' his archetype - banker last week, labourer this week, it made no odds.

World Socialist Web Site
After moving to Cologne, Sander's travelled to the farming districts of Westerwald, familiar from his youth, and began photographing the people and the place. This transition had profound consequences, in that, his work became as much a photographic project as it did a socio-cultural study. Around the same time, the countries in Europe were thrown into a power struggle, that would eventually result in World War 1. This had fundamental and far reaching implications for Germany's political and social stability, including the breakdown of the relations of the class system.
The son of a carpenter, from a farming and mining community, Sander's understanding of the relations of the class system were defined by his background and the circles in which he moved. "Society was thought to develop cyclically, beginning with the farmers, who in their closeness to nature were endowed with special wisdom, upwards through the craftsmen whose pride in tools and handiwork kept them in touch with honest values, on from the village economy to the metropolis, which in spite of, or perhaps because of its greater wealth and complexity inexorably led to degeneration expressed by the lost and rootless souls of the Last People. After this fall, a return to the soil and redemption was anticipated."
Hence, his early portraits of farmers emphasize the characteristics that made them a universal archetype for mankind: weather-beaten, but resilient; neither blissfully bucolic nor absolutely ravaged by the elements.

Sander said, “A successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography... I cannot show [my work] in a single photo, nor in two or three; after all, they could as well be snapshots. Photography is like a mosaic that becomes synthesis only when it is presented en masse.

Assignment 2 planning (part 3)

Since my last post regarding emotions and feelings, I am leading a new project at work. This has re-introduced me to an old college (M), somebody I have not worked with for the past 6 years. My college is a manic depressive and takes medication to mange the mood swings. Working with this disorder can be very challenging for the individual and the team.

Six years ago, I spent time with our occupation health nurse to gain an understanding of the disorder and M gave me a book to read about 'the black dog'. Of all the books and videos I digested, I would say the black dog communicated the 'depression' side very effectively (for me). The link is to a You Tube video telling to story in the book.

The definition of depression is given as "Severe, typically prolonged, feelings of despondency and dejection".

Synonyms: melancholy, misery, sadness, unhappiness, sorrow, woe, gloom, gloominess, dejection, downheartedness, despondency, dispiritedness, low spirits, heavy-heartedness, moroseness, discouragement, despair, desolation, dolefulness, moodiness, pessimism, hopelessness;

Interestingly a lot of these words are also used to describe sadness; in addition, I would suggest the vast majority of people have also felt all of those feelings at some point in there life. This is possibly one of the reasons that depression is very difficult for none-sufferers to understand or appreciate.

Last time, it was a real eye-opener for me working with M - trying to keep up with intense highs and then trying even harder not to get sucked into the depths...

This situation made me think about how depression could be communicated in images. Surfing the web turned up a very limited selection of images, the majority of which were very sad looking teenagers and the remainder felt like stylised advertisement images for clinics. Considering how accessible information is regarding depression, it surprised me that no one had really thought about it or tried to communicate from the individuals point-of-view.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

People surveys

Exercise 17 - Listen to Daniel Meadows talking about his work. Then read the essay "The photographer as recorder" by Guy Lane.

Lanes review assesses Meadows 'Free Photographic Omnibus' against three lines of inquiry from Foucault's 'The Archaeology of Knowledge' namely: discursive events; surfaces of emergence and archive.

In summary...

Meadows was lucky - right time, right place, things came together and he was able to collect on the opportunity.
  1. Post war need to document the massive changes that were occurring across the country - the baby-boom resulting in unprecedented population growth; the shift from small towns to sprawling cities and a resultant increase in pollution.
  2. The developing understanding of what photography, as a recording medium, had to offer the country and business; thus the availability of moneys in terms of public funding and private grants.
  3. The emergence of 'spaces' (galleries) suitable and willing to hold photography exhibitions.
  4. The need for change, for new and fresh ideas; a constructive move away form the past. Bearing in mind the last time the nation was recorded was by Sir John Benjamin Stone around the turn of the 20th century; as such in 1972 Meadows was considered to be very much an alternative artist.
I believe one of the most interesting elements of the paper is Lane's discussion about tradition - the crux of the reason for Meadows bus travels was to record the English way of life (tradition) that was rapidly being eroded because of the pace of change driven by post-war circumstances. At the time Meadows sponsors were aware of the change and therefore it was obvious that traditional life style would be lost. However, Lane's investigation shows that the 'longest' tradition that Meadow's photographed was the West Indian community in Moss Side who moved in after the second world war! Whilst this does not detract from the recording exercise carried out by Meadows, it does rather drive a hole through the rationale for the project.

The Revival

Some twenty years after completing his 'Free Photographic Omnibus' Meadows found his photographs and was surprised how fresh and current they looked. He was persuaded by a friend to carry out a 'revival'. This resulted in Meadow's advertising in the local papers of the various towns he had visited for those who appeared in his original photographs.

One of the advertisements in the local newspaper
When people got in touch, Meadows went and re-photographed them. The culmination of this activity was a new book called "The Bus", where the original photographs are paired with an up-to-date version; at the back of the book is a short write-up telling a little bit about the individuals.

Debbie and Martin Pout
Debbie Pout is a graphic designer now working in Kent and her brother is a postgraduate sports scientist at Loughborough University.

Both images are taken by me of pages in The Bus.

Anecdotes from the book:

One day Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) turned up at the bus offering (a) Meadows tea and a hot bath and (b) to have his photograph taken. Offer (a) was gratefully accepted; however, offer (b) was rejected because Plant was "not ordinary enough" and therefore did not fit the criteria for Meadows bus photographs!

Twenty years after leaving art school, Meadows bumped in to Peter Marlow (London-based photographer) who told him that he had spent an afternoon looking at his images and waiting to speak to him - he wanted to know how to become a photographer.
Meadows states, "if he'd asked me, I'd have probably said "F*** knows mate. Why do you think I'm living on this bloody bus?"

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Photographer (part 3)

Gideon Mendel

Through Positive Eyes, Mumbai, India. 

Mendel selected(?) a group of 14 people, in Mumbai, who were HIV positive and trained them to use a compact digital camera to take photographs of their lives. Mendel took these images and created videos, these videos were narrated by the individuals. Thus they effectively became a vehicle for the individuals to communicating about their relationship with HIV; how they overcame their struggles (fears, depression, alienation, etc) and developed an acceptance of their condition.

Mendel does not say how the individuals were selected, but having heard their stories, I would suggest they were at peace with themselves and therefore able to communicate their 'journey' more effectively. The population is certainly diverse, with a number of individuals being very creative in how they communicate using the camera.

I particularly liked the video of Antony D'Souza - rather than photograph people and places, he cut out card and lit the figures, creating silhouettes that he then photographed; and Priya Devnath's story is very touching.

Kingsmead Eyes Speak

Another project by Mendel, focuses on the Kingsmead school in Hackney and a group of 28 pupils aged 10 and 11. The children were again taught how to use a camera and sent off to photograph their surroundings - the eyes part of the project. In addition they were required to write a poem as a theme for their images. The images were not made into a video as before, instead the children read their poems aloud and we can hear this - the speak part of the project.

Children are naturally creating and (I believe) have a natural eye for an image and this comes through very strongly with their images. What did surprise me was how very good there were at poetry. I particularly enjoyed Karolina, her images and poetry were excellent; and Mikotaj's poem about his brother being an alien made me laugh.

Information and expression

Exercise 16 - Read Mraz's essay "Sebastiao Salgado: Ways of Seeing Latin America"

Research the work of by Salgado to which Mraz refers.

As yet I have not been able to track down a copy if Other Americans by Salgado, however, I have made through use of the web - the difficulty is knowing if the images loaded actually come from said book.

Salgados website "Amazonia's images" does not make any specific reference to the book, but there is a portfolio entitled 'Latin America' - this contains 10 images. Interestingly, it includes two of the images refereed to be Marz, namely:
  1. The children playing the the bones -Marz states that "infatuation with demise and despondency can be seen in the Brazilian children who lie on a floor, playing with animal bones", I'm sorry I don't see this picture in this light at all, I can't see the 'alluding' to death, nor does is highlight the 'evident poverty'. I does, however, clearly show the vast cultural differences and wealth divide. I do not get the impression from this image that the children feel hard done by, in fact they look very contented playing together - I am very curious to understand their game.
  2. The dog at the funeral - I appreciate that this may have offended the Americans at the time, but surely that is just because of a lack of understanding on behalf of the Americans? I have to be honest, I see nothing wrong with the image or the concept of the image. As a dog owner, I would like my dog to attend my funeral...
I think my reading of these images may be 'unfair' since they have been taken out of the context in which they were originally shown - back to Berger (John has a lot to answer for!). Looking at ten apparently abstract images of Latin America, all taken during Salgado's 'roaming about' period (1977 - 1984) I am even more curious to see the book and to understand whether these selected images are the most 'positive of the bunch'. Each of the ten images makes me want to understand more about the individual situation and none of those images give me a feeling of despondency.

If one assumes that Sagado was 'finding feet' as a photographer in his birth country, whilst trying to communicate the 'plight' of Brazil's less fortunate to the rest of the world through their (American, European) eyes; it is possible to understand why Salgado 'over-egged' the doom and gloom angle. A picture speaks a thousand words, therefore, if you paint a very bleak image of poverty and depression and communicate this to a rich country that has just come through a depression (America in the 1940's), you are much more likely to elicit the help and money you need. It's difficult to say that what Salgado did was wrong, bearing in mind his first hand experience of living conditions in Europe versus those in Brazil. I would rather prefer to think of it as a clumsy attempt to do the right thing.

I would suggest that Salgado recognised his previous error because of the way he re-addressed and re-used certain images from Other Americans in his book Terra. This time around rather than implying a negative situation using lots of singular and discrete images, he utilised groups of images that created a narrative as well as providing an historical context to ensure understanding by the audience. This change in approach actually communicated his message much more effectively because it was balanced and anchored in reality.

Migrations, his next book tells the story of people disenfranchised by poverty, war or repression, who are driven to cross boarders (at any cost) in the absolute belief that life must be better on the other side.

I have a copy of Salgado's book, Genesis, in my opinion, the images are beautiful both in terms of the composition and processing. When I originally starting looking through the book, my first impression was they were very black and white - I'm not sure I can enplane that further, other than I felt an intensity from the images that I have not felt with other photographers work - they are very in your face and make you want to look at them; concentrate on them.

Comparing the Latin American images with the Genesis images - the later are significantly more processed and I would put this down to age, life experience, the artist finding his voice; also not forgetting the advances in technology. I would be very interested to see the Latin American images re-processed today.  

One of my favourite Salgado photographs is Church Gate Station, Bombay (Mumbai), India, 1995. I feel I want to be there to experience the situation, but at the time I'm relived that I'm not - how does anybody cope in that level of chaos?

Additional information found during my research:

Talk on TED - Ideas Worth Spreading: Sebastiao Salgado: The silent drama of photographs.
Latest work (May 2013) by Saldago - Ecological Recovery of the Brazilian Rain Forest around his home farm.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Conceptual photography

Source three-part interviews on "What is conceptual photography?"with critics Lucy Soutter, John Roberts and Sean O'Hagan; curator Louise Clements; and conceptual photographers John Hilliard, Suzanne Mooney, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarian.

Below are a comments taken form the three interviews that I found interesting. The photographs were taken by me, one from each video interview.  

Part 1

JH: Conceptual art is 'something that is not easily spoken about' where 'nothing is being communicated or taught other than by suggestion' and its normally art that is 'reliant on documentation for the art to be preserved' for example Richard Long [walking the paths - desert sculptures that are captured by him (photographs) otherwise nobody would now his art existed.]

Hillard is very structured, prepared in the way he approaches his art - he has a drawing (sketch) if the photograph before its ever made. Thus his work is totally conceptualised, nonetheless, as it moves form paper to the camera it will still evolve into something that works. Afterwards you're talking about something that is very 'nameable', a specific set of ideas that you can speak about. The purpose of conceptual art is to embed those ideas in the final photographs so that they can be retrieved.

John Hilliard describing how he made this double exposure image.
Part 2

SO'H: "I always start form the premise that there's something interesting here and I must be missing it."

LS: "It is often very easy to understand the content of the image, but you don't have any way access to the ideas, the motivation, the historical references, the inter-textuality. All the rich layering of the ideas and concepts that maybe going on in that work may require a little more leg-work to understand."

SO'H: In Paul Grahame's lecture 'the unreasonable apple' he talks about how conceptual photography has created or enabled the creation of an hierarchy of values within photographic genres, for example, Jeff Wall (and his approach - the conceptualisation, the creation of such detailed scene to photograph) versus the photographer who just goes out "snapping his surroundings". O'Hagen considers that going out with your camera and shooting your surroundings is equally important, in the event that we see it as no longer valid, then how will we get the next generations of Friedlander's, Arbus's and Frank's? These emerging artists will be consigned to the dustbin!

LS: "Conceptual photography is anti-personal, anti-emotional and anti-subjective".

SM: "I really don't see that its my job to be super-clear, maybe its good that there's a question or a puzzle or a difficulty" in understanding my art.

SO'H: The problem with conceptual art is sometimes the idea overrides everything else. "To be honest, I'm not that interested in the process you've used to get the images" - what's important is "does the image engage me? All the stuff before hand (is invisible) unless you have a huge text letting me know what it is". But "does that not indicate the photograph is not speaking for itself?"

SM:"Photography is very good at giving us one way to look at something, you can't skirt around the edges to see what else is happening. Sometimes that point-of-view can be quite deceptive, but at the same time that kind of ambiguity can be quite interesting."

"When I'm working, I'm shooting and I'm shooting and when I can't work it out  visually, then I know I've got something!"

Suzanne Mooney photograph
Part 3

OC: "There's no such thing as conceptual photography, all photography is conceptual and all photography is not conceptual."

SO'H: Conceptual photography is much closer to the art world than most photography... Certain 70's street photographers were conceptual, if you're walking along a street and you decide to go right under someones face with a flash and shock them (they/re going to react) and you're going to do this over and over - that's a concept! It's conceptual art. But there are false boundaries being made, (this typoe of art) probably isn't baffling enough or illusive enough or mysterious enough..."

LC: When you find the key to that work and it opens up your mind to the idea - that's a very inspiring thing."

AB: (Talking about a photograph taken of the assassination of Bhutta.) "The photograph was taken at the exact moment (the shutter opened and closed at the exact time of the event) the horizons are skewed, its very blurred, there is no information in the image, only that it attested to the fact that he was there when it happened."

OC: "How much does a photograph of an event need to represent that event to be evidence of that event? How much do we have to see for it to act as evidence?"

The artist 'signed-up' as photojournalists for a trip to Helmand Province, Afghanistan. 
Both artist then discuss the process of 'embedding' - the signing up to the types of photographs that they will take and the type the won't. The process of sanitation and censorship that the papers and news companies exercise every day, before the news is communicated across the world. Specifically - no wounded soldiers, no bodies, no enemy fire. In effect all images are standardised and bear no resemblance to what is actually happening. They asked themselves, how could they be subversive and capture their version of the war whilst not actually breaking the 'embedded agreement'?

As a result they took with them a roll of photographic film and each day when an event occurred (that normally the photojournalists would shoot) they exposed a 6 meter length of their paper for 20 seconds. This was done in the back of one of the army convoy vehicles and no where near the 'occurrence'.

The questions they ware posing to the viewers are:
"1. What do you expect to see?
 2. What do you want to see?
 3. How much would be enough evidence for you?"

None of the papers or the news station would touch the photographs they created whilst in Afghanistan, their only outlet were galleries and museums.

AB: "Often they would get a call from a museum telling them there was a scratch on the photograph and wondering whether it needed to be respired. AB explained that that was the point, this is a document in its true scene, its been there, its gone on the journey and come back. That scratch is as important as the blue colour or the black colour within the photograph."

The other component of the story is the video documentary they made about the journey of their roll of photographic film. From start to finish, they film the cardboard box - almost like it had a life of its own. The film is always shown when the images are exhibited.

AB: "Our impulse was not just to counter and to upset the journalistic community, but to engage a debate - why are we, in 2012, seeing images that are less analytical and critical that they were in the 1960's? Something is wrong, we are being controlled...."

Broomberg and Chanarian showing the unexpected faults in their image