Friday, 17 August 2012

Feedback Assignment 4

It was good to see this amongst the positive comments from my tutor:

"I understand your aim is to go for the Photography Degree and that you plan to submit your work for assessment at the end of this course. From the work you have shown in this assignment, and providing you commit yourself to the course, I suggest that you are likely to be successful in the assessment."

A couple of suggestions regarding the final edit, which I shall consider (and almost certainly adopt). The work also appears to have invoked memories from my tutor which whilst I am sorry to rake over old coals, I am also pleased that it stirred something - it's about all I can ask for at this stage of the course.

There was also an offer to discuss assignment five - which I will be very grateful for as I am in a bit of a fug as to where and what I am going to do. Looking forward positively.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Within Shadows

Susan Burnstine

Crossing the Bridge - 2005 © Susan Burnstine
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist
 I can still vividly remember the one recurring nightmare I had as a boy, I was probably around six or seven and this dream stayed with me for several months, maybe a year, though the time it stayed to plague me isn’t important anymore. I can still see a single fixed image in my mind from the nightmare, I know how the nightmare would continue but it never does anymore, I have even willed it to continue but it is a still; it has ceased to haunt me. It is a black and white puppet animation of a spaceship with the spaceman sitting proud of his vehicle, with the cockpit similar to an old fashioned airplane. The pilot is, seemingly, impervious to the vacuum around him and he is orbiting what appears to be a moon-like planet and whilst it is clear it is an animation it scared the life out of me for some months and for reasons that I still couldn’t and still can’t fathom.
I was subsequently nightmare free only and until I had parental responsibilities. It wasn’t a return to the nightmare I had had as a boy, these nightmares are of an impending disaster of some sort, where I am powerless to intercede and protect my family. Either I am incapacitated through falling off a ledge or I’m held back from preventing whatever fate has in store for my family, and it cannot be interrupted by me; I am powerless. Emasculation? Probably. Institutional patriarchal conditioning? Possibly. Whatever the reasons I will wake up with a start in recognition of the futility of the struggle against which I know I will lose. Once a week still; sometimes more.
Glide - 2006 © Susan Burnstine
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist 
I have been aware of Susan Burnstine’s work for a while, she has been featured in a number of publications and her work was referenced to me quite recently in an interview I did with Chris Friel who cites her work as a major influence. I had always liked the ethereal nature of Susan’s work, but it wasn’t until I looked more closely at her book “Within Shadows” that I started to get to feel a sense of connection with the work. On initial viewing I got the feeling of the narrative being projected, to me, from the shadows. There isn’t a great deal of detail in the shadows of the work in this book, but there is of variance in tone and a presence that occupies the darker areas. The camera’s that Susan uses aren’t designed to deliver crisp detail anywhere in the monochrome palette, but the tonal extremities are especially devoid of fine detail, leaving the imagination to supply the specifics . These camera’s are based on toy cameras, plastic lenses, boxes cobbled together almost as the antithesis of the modern day multi mega pixel cameras and these use film; from Susan Burnstine’s web-site; “With this body of work as with my former series, I captured these visions entirely in-camera using a collection of hand-made film cameras and lenses that are frequently unpredictable and technically challenging. The cameras are primarily made out of plastic, vintage camera parts and random household objects and the single element lenses are molded out of plastic and rubber. Learning to overcome their extensive limitations has required me to rely on instinct and intuition – the same tools that are key when trusting in the unseen.” All the work is done in camera, these images aren’t further manipulated in photo editing suites.

Yearn - 2007 © Susan Burnstine
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist 
The closer I looked at these photographs the more I felt I understood what it was I recognised in them. The images are in the main very blurred and have the appearance of film stills from movies. These filmic extracts do not try and represent the passing of life in the same timeframe as everyday life. If these images were captured in perfect focus there would perhaps be no ambiguity to the image, the questions that I feel are raised would disappear in the clarity of the image. It is the ambiguity that these images deliver that holds my attention, I feel I am drawn into the image by the impellent force of the narrative. "Crossing the Bridge - 2005" has me at the tipping point ready to be toppled over the edge, I have been there in so many dreams. Many of the images seem to waver at a point of decision, where something might be about to happen, where the fulcrum of fate seems to have been retarded or even arrested and a glimpse of the potential is made apparent in the sub-conscious. Often, the images conjure the innocence of childhood or the naivety of everyday circumstance, which drives the viewer to draw conclusions that we are about to experience something that maybe quite dreadful, and, like my own nightmares, the effort to contain the inevitable would be futile. Glide - 2006 is a dream of a photograph, a young and innocent child playing in the surf, in a state of almost grace that no parent surely would want their child to miss out on; but that licking wave is moving toward the child.
The Road Most Traveled - 200 © Susan Burnstine
Reprinted by kind permission of the artist
Within Shadows by Susan Burnstine is published by Charta ISBN 978-88-8158-811-4
Susan Burnstine's web-site is here

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Assignment four

Assignment four

A sense of place.

I was driving south on the road towards Oxford when the idea struck me. I was on my way to complete a commission to take three pictures; two portraits and a “staged” shot. The twin portraits were of the proprietor of a funeral directors and his manager; the staged managed shot was of a “bereavement interview”. The down-select of that session is here.

I had been to a funeral directors twice before, the first was on the occasion of the death of my father, the second when my brother-in-law died at the unseemly age of 40 - an altogether sadder affair. On both occasions the same firm of undertakers took the job. Crawford, who ran the business, was amongst the most spiritually calm people I have ever met and if joy is not a word that naturally springs to mind at times like these, he managed to remove any sense of dread associated with the “process” of bereavement. I had Crawford’s sense of calm, the peace that I felt he imbued his premises with when I was there under his care as I went to work on this assignment. The professional care that he provided which left me and my fellow bereaved the space to mourn; to not overly concern ourselves with the mundane and banal leading up to the decisions and practicalities of organising a funeral. 

The Undertakers that I was travelling to had had the responsibility to take care of one of our dearest and closest friends and I thought that they were “in the same league” as Crawford. The idea I had had whilst travelling towards Oxford was to develop a series of photographs to depict a “sense of place” at a funeral directors. I broached the subject, which was agreed, whilst I was with the owner during the taking of the portraits and I was subsequently asked for and was given a tour of the premises. This recce’ gave me some food for thought before coming back to explore how I felt about the place, and whether I could translate that into a coherent set of images. The following thoughts and photographs stem from those subsequent visits.

I very quickly became aware of the notion of the ‘public’, the “performance” areas of the premises and their concomitant “backstage” areas. The sense that there was a metaphoric curtain between the one space and the other became very strong to me, though curiously I perceived no sanctity behind the “curtain”. Strangely there was a physical curtain that covered the doorway between the “chapel of rest” and the “laying out area” – whether though that fed the thought, I’m not sure. The staff though didn’t display any great sanctity in the backstage area, a great deal of respect it has to be said, but the reverence they demonstrated confirmed my theories that this was equivalence on the “Crawford scale”.

I was quite surprised how small these premises were; about 40% of the total area was taken up by the “front-of-house”, which included the office area and a reception/meeting area. There was a door to the “chapel-of-rest” area which was about ten feet square, this is where the coffins were laid out if they were to be viewed. The “backstage” area consisted of a “laying-out” room, which contained the fridge for the dead, the store of coffins and paraphernalia associated with the process of “laying-out”, a small kitchen area, a small store area where they also had an engraving machine for plaques etc and a toilet. Coffins came in and out through back door to a parking area where hearses would come and go, the hearses were contracted in, along with bearers as required. That essentially is the business, it’s function, it’s capability, it’s role and service. Situated in a small shopping precinct in what has become known as the largest village in Europe, or to be more accurate a small town on the periphery of Oxford.

Serenity, which for me suggests a spiritual calmness as opposed to plain quietude was something I wanted to find and record. I wanted to portray the professionalism of the enterprise; a feeling that trust was implicit in the way the business undertook its function.

What I found were two areas, one being the “performance area” which presented a very formal front to the clients, the ones left to deal with the loss. I have presented two pictures of the “performance areas”, one in the interview area and the other in the “chapel of rest”.

 This “interview area” I think depicts a solid/reliable/professional/intimate space for interviews to take place. The balance of the room is very measured/placid, the cards present topical thank yous for services rendered.
Where I could have done better was to have a slightly lower crop to pull in the foreground chair legs better. I wonder though who takes the sofa and who takes the individual chairs – maybe it’s different for different clients. Behind the sofa is the door to the “chapel of rest”.

The “chapel of rest” is a colloquial term used in the facility. It is a secular estblishment, though the majority of the clients are either non-believers or Christians and because of that it was decided to put a simple cross on the wall above where the coffins are displayed when viewed. I noticed the cross and the support weren’t exactly in line with each other and I felt it fitting to leave it that way, as if as a comment on the secularity of the establishment. There were a string of halogen lights that could be positioned at will, I left them as they were almost as a memory of the previous incumbent to have been laid out. Apparently the staff occasionally apply a red gel to the lamp facing downwards on the corpse to “lift their colour” if they are especially pallid. The light was very low in this room and I had to brace myself against the back wall to get the shot of both carrier and cross. I did take some shots with a coffin on the support as a stage managed shot but the wide angle lens I used still wasn’t sufficient to establish a coherent image so I left them out.

 The next photograph is a transitional image. I opened the door that links the “laying-out” area with the “chapel of rest” and also the double doors that are used to move the bodies in and out. This first gave the benefit of light and also enabled me to position the mobile trolley/carrier. This mobile unit is used when the terrain is difficult or muddy; it is lightweight and collapses to a very small space. I like the way this photograph offers a connection between the now and after, between what is being dealt with by the bereaved and the journey that will be undertaken by the deceased. The coffin in the shot ties the image together as does the suggestion of mobility of the collapsible carrier. The trolley is the link to both the coffin and the living.

A row of coffins suggests the interminable process of death. The relentless cycle of life. Stock provisioning to ensure the business can cope with demand. Technically a difficult shot, I had to brace myself against the fridge to try and capture the full spread of coffins. On this occasion they had all the same type of coffins (light oak?) on a previous occasion they had a single dark wood (teak?) finish stacked amongst the plebian light oak. I suspect the most popular choice is the “light oak”. The banality of this and the other “backstage” areas was something that struck me as I crossed the divide on my first visit to the premises. These are the functional requirements for laying out bodies, for storing them pre and post cremation if needed, for recording their details and for relieving the bereaved of their concerns.

In the laying out area I had, instinctively, thought to take a photograph of the fridge that contained the bodies, and I did so. On the fridge door where the names of those bodies incarcerated in their penultimate resting place. I was asked, quite rightly, not to reveal any names of any of the deceased in my work so I had planned to “photoshop – out” any details. On this occasion I left one comment, which, whilst it does provide a reveal it does so on a level, which I think is acceptable, and brings the human aspect into perspective. The words I left in are “ring & watch”. These are instructional notes for the premises to remove them prior to cremation. It is probably difficult to read and I did think a close-up, just of those words, might be worth presenting here but I think it would have been lost with no other visual components to situate the words.

I tried a number of different shots of this, with and without the door closed, with and without the curtains drawn. It is perfunctory image, it determines for the viewer all the processes that are undertaken. The plastic sheeting at the back is now largely redundant as the corpses generally come in body-bags now, though I did cover the trolley in the sheeting on another shot to replicate this. The trolley is purposely staged to link the coffins with the fridge and having been pushed from the “chapel of rest”. At the back are boxes with labels, they are the cremated remains of people who have passed through these premises. To the right of the fridge is more paraphernalia of the process of “laying–out”. A complex image – which I think has the potential to be reworked as it is the weakest of them all.

 I wasn’t told about the process of “laying-out” I didn’t think to ask and no-one offered me clues. I’m sure that if I had asked I would have been given the information, but the clues that I found were enough for me for the purpose of gaining some sense in this place. The next photograph is a cropped version of a reasonable close-up of, what I can only guess, are tools and equipment used in the process of “laying-out”.

Now I had heard/read that hair and nails continue to grow after death, that there is residual life even after the heart stops beating and for a moment I thought about that when I saw these tools, the hair on the comb. Of course it doesn’t happen like that, there is sometimes an appearance of growth, but that is due to desiccation as the skin retracts through lack of moisture. Nevertheless there is a job of work to be done, to render the deceased to their best appearance on their final bow on this mortal coil.
The photograph contains all the elements but isn’t composed as well as I would have liked. I should have made a better play of the comb and scissors in the box, maybe have asked if I could have moved them around on the shelf that were situated on. Nevertheless I am pleased that I caught sight of this and how it stopped me short when I first noticed the remnants of the last remains of people passing through this last terminus.

I thought it important to see some of the “bits & pieces” that get used as part of the process. These mundane cardboard boxes contain some of the everyday needs of the undertaker. The brown plastic containers are the empty vessels that have carried the remains of the deceased after they have been cremated. Under the shelf are boxes that still contain the remains of the recently cremated, ready to be delivered to the nearest and dearest. I like the regularity of the photograph; the constructional details of the building counter posed with the relaxed way the boxes are stacked and the slight decomposition of the wall seems to add something to the image. A difficult edit as these details were on the top shelf and so the verticals and horizontals were all out of alignment and I thought it important to get them back in line.

Alternate photographs

The first being a more traditional view of a series of similar shapes – these coffins from end on looking through the brass-plated handles. Some very slight stage managing was needed to get the handles in line and the use of a shallow depth of field suggesting a greater continuum that might have been supposed. I was reluctant to use this image, it is more pleasing, greater rhythm but overall I felt the cry of cliché echoing some thoughts on the subject that have been circulating there for some time recently.

The trolley, an ex John Radcliffe Infirmary model, looked like a post-communist survivor from a gulag in Siberia, it was an extremely solid but overly complex looking piece of engineering. The “Dymo” labels on the end view situate the functionality quite well I think and the apparent high use as signified by the worn enameling also tells a tale. I covered the bed of the trolley with the plastic sheeting that is normally used to wrap the corpses in; this also doubles as a provider of good contrast to the metalwork and simplifies the images somewhat. I was torn between this and the trolley shot with fridge image earlier.

Another office shot, this time looking from the middle of the space to the outside world. I was hoping for more human traffic outside – passing trade – although the staff told me they usually get telephone calls to make appointments rather than have potential clients “just popping in” – which I suppose is quite understandable. The business end of the premises, the ubiquitous computer, the files, the notepad, the copier/fax machine just visible in the right hand side and the outside car park. Whilst this in itself doesn’t suggest a funeral directors it would do as part of the set if situated by the appropriate text. What I like about this image is that it is relatively bright, not a sombre setting nor a joyous one either, but a clean, smart, functional room which doesn’t over power the visitor.

In keeping with the mundanity of the situation “backstage” the following shots are potential includees. The engraver has some text, that I will blur and has an air of finality about it. The words speak of an end, whilst the engravers crib sheet ensures that there is no mistake in the work that is done. Mistakes at this time for the bereaved are hard to accept and the care by which the staff here undertakes to ensure a trouble free experience is worth noting.

Lastly part of an area that is solely the province of banality, the kitchen area that the staff find respite in. The coffee cups washed and readied, the soap and washing up liquid ready for more duty. The splash back needing some attention, the hooks looking for labour.

Overall I feel quite happy with the results of the trips I made; however I do think that my “stage-management” skills could be improved. I had had a few visits to place and whilst I did start moving things around quite considerably I think I could have been bolder, perhaps more assertive about what I needed to do. The photograph with the comb and razor etc. needed to be composed better by placing the objects on the table perhaps to reveal with greater clarity the direct connection they provide to the deceased. The “fridge and trolley” shot is overly complex. Thinking back to Assignment two, about simplifying the image, I think have managed to over complicate it; I wanted to provide a visual link between the two areas and associate them with the deceased and their prospective coffins.

If I were to have been acquiring pictures purely for an article I'm not sure what would have been different, as it would have depended on the nature of the article; I was aware though that to have both landscape and portrait shots would probably be important for a picture editor. To provide pictures for marketing purposes; I would probably have focussed on the "front of house"area. The quietude of both the office/interview area and the "chapel of rest". I would also perhaps taken some photographs of the thank you cards and added a couple of smiley pictures of the staff (I have these in any case). To provide material for an expose of the facilities I could have subverted the appearance quite drastically should I have so wished. There were areas that could have been a little cleaner, a little tidier; but I think it would be possible to paint a picture any number of different ways dependent on the intention at the time. Maybe I looked for Crawford, which is why I perhaps found him, maybe because they looked after our best friend so well that I wasn't fully open to seeing the negative. I'm not sure either way. I think though, I found a sense of place at this establishment that is a reasonable truth. I suppose I went looking for Crawford's presence and in a sense found him in this place.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012


There were seven photographs by Sharon Boothroyd at Art Jericho and, I think, ten from Tim Crooks and whilst it isn’t my intention to compare the two sets of work I think it worth noting the quality of the presentation between the two sets. Tim Crooks had seven prints behind glass which looked like inkjet 40 X 40 cm prints, window mounted as well as three larger unframed but mounted prints. The glass prints suffered from light reflection which detracted from the image and gave it an inconsistent feel, which I don’t think helped the artist’s intent at all. Whereas Boothroyd's images were the epitome os consistency and immediately compelling for that reason.

That being said the Crooks images were still very interesting. The artist had been quoted in an interview with Janine Freeston from Photomonitor regarding the series as: I composed the content of my images in a structured, methodical and calculated way and this was an intentional choice. I wanted to represent the Victorians desire to establish a sense of order in an otherwise chaotic environment. By this I am referring to the mind of a mentally ill and institutionalised person”. I think that the prints worked very well. The images depicted an institution that was clearly once a hospital, but the decrepitation in the former ordered facility was a very clear metaphor for the state of mind of someone condemned to a life incarcerated from reality. The building was slowly decomposing, just as maybe the mind of a long-term inmate would slowly crumble.
What troubled me though was the way this highly structured process had been subverted, two of the images were incorrectly mounted - the tape attaching the print to the mount may have slipped but it gave an incongruous feel, especially coupled with the variance in the presentation style. However I thought the narrative, as expressed through the statement by the artist and the images themselves was very clear and my mind was drawn to the recent conditions at Winterbourne View here where the opening few moments seem very redolent of Crooks’ images so making this series extremely current as much as it is an echo of the past. I was reminded of the derelict leper colony I visited many years ago – see here, I happened upon it so the intent I felt was spontaneous rather than the considered approach from Crooks. The artist's use of a medium format film which he then scans and then digitally prints also crosses the divide of time, these negatives will also break down and decompose.

It took me a little while longer to feel the full impact of Sharon Boothryod’s work; but there was no issue at all with the quality/consistency and beauty of the prints. Seven prints in all who have as their focal point children who portray the victims from a parental break-up and in five of the photographs have the father depicted. The clarity of the imagery makes the emotional strength of these images much stronger. Boothroyd in the “we are OCA” blog here makes the statement: The highly fabricated images incorporate elements of fantasy in their precise construction, settings and use of actors.  By exaggerating conventional locations into filmic versions of themselves, the artifice of the photograph is highlighted.  The manufactured scenes challenge the accuracy of selective memory by questioning the truth behind the images. So, we know these aren’t “real” situations but staged managed, but they still worked for me. The focus on rejection, of over compensating, of superfluity, of filling the time are very compellingly portrayed. Fiction is, I believe, the way in which we can explore moral dilemmas, to decouple reality with a tale enables a safety curtain to be drawn over difficult situations and enables explorations of agendas that are sometimes difficult to engage with directly. My wife is a primary school teacher and has to deal with a lot of the fall-out of these breakdowns, it is difficult not to point fingers – but the infant carries the damage almost as if the parents shed their responsibility to the child as they deal with their own traumas. I was very moved by these images.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012


I was asked recently if I would consider providing some images that were “inspirational”. I wasn’t quite sure whether my questioner had seen my work and had therefore needed to ask whether I might also provide a “line” of inspirational images or, whether despite all they knew of my work that maybe it was felt that I could supply some “inspiration”. I’m not sure what “inspirational photography” is, but if I’m asked I’d like to pitch in, as it were and maybe find something to inspire me that would hopefully “flow through the chain” from shutter to the uninspired looking for a lift.
Partway through a five kilometre trek in the Tyrol recently, cameras cocked and ready I started to think about how many times I had trekked through similar vistas in search of some inspiration of my own. We had taken a room at about six thousand feet in the Italian Southern Tyrol, similar in most respects to the Glacier National Park in Montana, to the Smokey Mountains in Virginia, to the Rocky Mountains in British Columbia. Pine forests that latch themselves limpet like to the sides of mountains whose peaks are often shrouded in mist. Ski-lifts operating over land, cleared like fire break scars scratched in pale green amidst the deep emerald of the pines. Sun-rays like searchlights pierce the clouds that seem at this altitude to scud across the sky with ungainly haste. Lakes that from time immemorial have been fed by a rich diet of minerals and salts offering azure blues and brilliant greens which nestle like jewels, glinting like Aladdin’s cave to inspire even the most flaccid of hearts...
Our first trip to British Columbia was after a colleague had suggested, because he knew I was a keen photographer, that I would “love it, as there is a photo opportunity around every corner”. And sure enough there was, monumental landscapes of sharp edged mountains, waterfalls, lakes lined with pine forests and I “loved it”. I took rolls and rolls of film, all black and white. I knew the aesthetic I wanted, my view of the panorama that I sought was as clear as the snow-melt rushing through the scenes that held me in awe. I started a collection of National Parks in search of Adam’s portfolio; Yosemite, Bryce Canyon, Jasper, etc. etc. and finally at Lake McDonald in the Glacier National Park. I was more than pleased with the shots I had captured and with careful processing both film and digital images soon became trophies to be displayed.

A slightly wider perspective than AA to show the river bad
The first sign of a question came when I noticed something familiar in one of the Lake McDonald shots, it was something that I put to the back of my mind because it was a photograph that I quite liked. It was only when idly browsing an AA book from the shelves at home did it strike me what it was that I had noticed previously. Adams had taken the almost identical shot many years prior to me - see here. Admittedly there isn’t much choice, the shot is taken from the bed of a river that feeds the lake and the river therefore needs to almost dry. It was August and there is only one direction to point the camera – dial the aperture to f32 and set the exposure using a Pentax digital spot meter, develop the film with a tanning developer and hey presto the trophy is bagged!
This pivotal moment made me question what it was I was trying to achieve with photography. I knew at that point that I was dealing in cliché, just like a Cornish landscape, the reality was that I wasn’t bringing anything to the photography that the “real-photographers of the f64 group hadn’t done so much better half a century or more before. The landscapes I was taking were more than technically competent, people liked them, they were inspired to buy them – they still do - but I wasn’t expressing anything with them, they were and still are pretty sterile much in the same way I now feel about Adams/Weston/Cornish et al. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ve had an epiphany – I’m not really a believer in magic moments – more that over the past two or three years I have worked out that a lot of what I had taken, initially as personal inspirational shots have now become clichéd to me. These beautifully toned, sharp and passive square photographs I can still admire. I can still be in thrall to the craft of highly skilled monochrome photographers who work the land and to some extent the body to produce beautiful images that people still want to hang on their walls. Wall art. And what’s wrong with that, well nothing if someone feels inspired enough to pay good money to occupy some space on a lounge or office wall with an A3+ print mounted and framed. Who’s to say they are wrong, certainly not me if they are buying from me.
I knew what inspired me when I packed the “gear” along with the walking boots and airline ticket and I wanted others to be inspired by my photography. My inspiration now comes not from wanting to provide Wall Art purchased at exhibitions, from portrait commissions or from web-site updates – these are I feel more to do with a job of work. Personal inspiration comes now from a desire to understand how the world is and how I interpret it, translate it into a coherent narrative that expresses a point of view. My work is clichéd if it only offers a lens that has been pointed in the same direction at a common subject and doesn’t offer a different perspective.

So, some cliches from the Southern Tyrol:

I considered other cliches and started to find them everywhere I looked:

I suppose the thing is about cliche, about all the images that are "captured" is that they are lifeless after they have been"taken". A series of greatest hits doesn't make any lasting sense and this is what I feel about these type of photographs. Adams, Weston and their modern day ilk, that I once aspired after, took extremely well crafted photographs, their technique was uppermost in their minds as they went about their work. But, to me, their work stays in and of it's time, it doesn't stand scrutiny other than their search for technical excellence and the portrayal of the land or body in an idealised way. Having ones picture on someone else's lounge or office wall is a great booster, money gets exchanged and that is an end in itself. It doesn't express anything about me or how I see the world, it's injustices, it's faults, how I fit in and what I want to communicate  narratives that I believe in. I know I am still feeling my way in how to deliver/extract an emotive message from an image, or more likely a series of images, but I am starting to feel as if I am pointing somewhat towards the right horizon now.

Selective processing and prominence

Two of my favourite people images - originals first and two alternatives.

 I can see the eye in the original, but wanted to highlight it a bot and get the "effect" of his gaze. The edited colour version is a lot better than the original, but for the monochrome works the best

 The young girls expression is challenging, even in the original, but by highlighting and making the eye more prominent it helps to "understand" her gaze. The portrait crop helps push that even more.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Robert Capa in Verona

What a difference a print makes.

It is accepted that exhibition prints are often editions of an original, but in an exhibition where an iconic photograph is framed, hung and lit to make it a feature sets the print on a level that a reproduction in a book, however well produced can never match. The Robert Capa exhibition Verona covers the wars he covered from the Spanish Civil War to Indo China. Where his career wasn’t long, he was declared “the greatest war photographer in the world” by Picture Post when he was only 25; it was December 1938. On May 25th 1954 he was killed by an antipersonnel mine in what is now Vietnam.

There are so many Capa photographs to talk about and whilst most are in this exhibition, the first two shots are particularly interesting. On what was undoubtedly a cold night on the 27th November 1932 Capa was despatched by his agency to his first major assignment to photograph the “un-photographable”. Whether this was a test is not known, what is known that it catapulted the young photographer into the limelight. Trotsky was due to address an audience of 2000 of the Danish Marxist Tendancy, Socialistisk Standpunkt with a speech entitled “In Defence of October”. Such was the fear of a Stalinist assassination attempt some 200 police, many of whom were mounted were sent to accompany the exiled revolutionary. No cameras were allowed, Trotsky abhorred his picture being taken, because press photographers largely had large and obvious box cameras they were disallowed from entering the facility. Capa had a “small Leica” and he took a roll of film from the speech, shots from which were featured in Der Welt Speigel, and Time amongst others – not bad for a first timer, especially as no-one was supposed to take any photographs! The first print in the exhibition is an enlargement of a contact set of those Trotsky photographs. It is clear that they have not been blessed by very careful processing, light has leaked onto the film and the overall impression is, well frankly speaking, incompetence. The print that has been selected to hang alongside is quite iconic although on first sight quite curious. Trotsky is in full flow – his hands expressively masking half of his face, his mouth venting his passion, the shot though, whilst almost unique given the circumstances rates further consideration. Firstly Capa is quite close to his subject. It seems likely that he was using a 50mm lens or slightly wider, the composition has him slightly left of centre at a lecturn with a committee of dour-faced men behind him. There are many in the contact set that are “brighter and cleaner”, better exposed that the chosen, now iconic image. This image has all sorts of technical problems, most likely the final wash was in fresh tap water which in late November would have been cold. The surface has a “crazed” look about it, the emulsion, whilst not delaminating is covered in random and multiple scratch-like lines. This level of damage isn’t visible on any reproduction I have seen of this image and it was a surprise to me when I saw a large print how bad the image has been damaged, or, as Time declared when they published the image “it is a broken image of a broken man”. It is difficult to disassociate the appearance of the print with the life of the subject that ended in less than to years from this photograph being taken. There is another connection with photography with regard to Trotsky that I wrote about here.
To have though your first assignment succeed at so many levels is a testament to the sharp elbows that this émigré developed in order to survive. Two other images from this exhibition, taken from a set of six also stand out for consideration I think. The one, perhaps the most famous image of Capa’s canon “Death of a loyalist militiaman, Cordoba front, early September 1936” “supposedly” depicts a Spanish loyalist at the moment he is hit by a fascist bullet. “Supposedly” because there was, and still is, controversy about whether this was a “staged-shot” – such is the remarkable nature of the serendipitousness of Capa turning, witnessing and shooting this event when clearly there would have been bullets flying. The other shot is titled “Loyalist militiamen jumping over a gully, Cordoba front, early September 1936”. The two photographs are clearly from the same place, probably the same roll of film and contains another common element. The second shot has the fated soldier, apparently shot on the other image who, as one of six are seen traversing a gully, his balance is not steady, he seems to be falling backwards. It has more than a hint of the iconic other photograph about it. There is just a suggestion that this loyalist wasn’t a natural when it came to the running and jumping part of the training and maybe Capa had the notion to stage the famous shot. There wasn’t exif data then, only Capa’s word and why would we want to doubt him, he got closer than anyone else and just too close one time too many.
There are images that make you wonder how staged they were, the photographs from war time Britain look almost Madame Tussauds like in their "woodenness"; there are others though that have the power to wrench the heart such as "women crying at funeral of twenty teenaged partisans who had fought the Germans before the Allies entered the city, Naples, October 2nd, 1943" shows raw emotion in the faces of 15 or so women, captured in strong contrast one can't help but wonder if the mood wasn't enhanced by the treatment of the negative in the processing and if that wasn't intentional as well. Juxtaposed in the book on the opposite page to the aforementioned image is another from Italy this one entitled "Two soldiers in a hospital set up in a church, Maiori, Italy, September 19, 1943". This photograph has the two subjects bathed in a soft light, reminiscent of a renaissance painting, such is the tender approach to the creation of the print. A master of the medium. Here is a link to the venue that I was so glad to have been able to visit. Thoroughly reccommeded.

Just Looking

I took a lot of pictures of people during my time in Italy and these shots are from Lake Garda and Verona. I have edited these to depict people who have seen what I am doing and have visually confronted me. I find them very interesting. I have purposely not done any editing on these shots, the contrast was very high - almost too high  - but I tried to expose for the light in which the subjects appeared and didn't worry too much about the background lighting which is sometimes quite bright. The darker backgrounds work better in overall exposure terms, but this isn't about that it is about expression and how people react.