Droste Self-Portraits

One day a while back I happened to buy a black and white photography magazine on a whim. The magazine was the July 2016 volume of Black + White Photography and in it there was an article called: A Modern Eye on some of the work of Dora Maurer. The work on show immediately caught my eye and I have come back to it a few times because it really captured my imagination. Seven Twists I-VI (1979) grasped my attention for the reason that initially it was quite striking to look at because of the optical illusion.

Seven Twists I-VI (1979) - Dora Maurer
Seven Twists I-VI (1979) – Dora Maurer

Afterwards I began to appreciate the organic qualities the photographs possessed. By this I meant there were subtle imperfections to the photographs-in-photographs which rendered the illusion as authentic and natural. As well as this these subtle imperfections also had a romantic appeal to them in my opinion – if everything had been lined up absolutely accurately the photographs would have appeared flat and utilitarian.

The illusion itself was a variation on the Droste effect but one that twisted as the photos were taken, printed and then photographed again inside a new self-portrait. I particularly liked the ‘blank canvas’ or photograph as the starting base for the work. I could imagine it would be possible to start using a self-portrait as the initial photograph instead but this approach for me suggested that the work was quite spontaneous and perhaps the illusion wouldn’t have been as strong without the blank photograph.

I decided I would try to incorporate this touch (the blank canvas starting point) which eliminating other touches (like the twisting effect) in my own Droste self-portrait. Because I appreciated the subtle imperfections of Maurer’s work, I wanted to make this a feature of my work. I did this by the inclusion of the remote cord from my hand to the camera as well as alternating the hand holding the canvas in each picture. This kind of attention to detail I was learning could make or break a photograph. Unlike Maurer, I tried to pay close attention to how the photographs-in-photographs ‘lined up’ – both inside each other and with the photographic frame. Like Maurer, I chose the black and white medium to make the illusion stronger and to remove a sense of time to disorient the viewer (as the sense of time was now only from each iteration of the photograph). Lastly I elected to create the Droste effect for the photo-in-photo 3 times as then the illusion was quite apparent but didn’t overwhelm the self-portrait.

Droste Self-portrait (Cropped)
Droste Self-portrait (Cropped)

Although I wouldn’t strictly put this photograph or set of photographs in the genre of documentary it still included documentary elements, which is why I’ve included it as a post for my documentary course. Documentary elements could include the changing of my appearance from photograph to photograph-in-photograph. It could also raise documentary questions from photograph to photograph-in-photograph like permanence (or impermanence) of the photographic medium and what is true and untrue about this photograph or set of photographs? For example some parts are seemingly consistent from photograph to photograph-in-photograph but at the same time the photographs appear within each other. Also details like the hands alternating from side to side as the photographs become photographs in photographs. Therefore perhaps it proves that photographs are indexical to reality but at the same time can’t always be relied on as documents.

Droste Self-portrait (Uncropped)
Droste Self-portrait (Uncropped)

Incidentally I felt my self-portrait worked slightly better cropped in but I have included both the cropped and uncropped versions. The reason I felt it worked slightly better cropped in was that the viewer was able to concentrate on the illusion more and could be less distracted by other parts of the image. Also the alternating hands were more obvious in this version.

References:

Maurer, D. (1979) Seven Twists I-VI. In. A Modern Eye. (2016). Black + White Photography, (191), pp.40-43.

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Ephemerality of the Image

By including a picture within a picture where the original has since changed in the encompassing picture, I have been creating simulacra – copies without originals. The locations (in London) are still recognisable as the same from picture-in-picture to encompassing picture but the place has in some way been altered. These alterations vary in my chosen location; from people being present in the picture-in-picture and then absent in the encompassing picture or street art having been washed away over night. The inclusion of my hand symbolises my relation to the photos and the location they were photographed in. I have chosen to display the images produced as one grid – utilising the Droste effect to further get my point across that nowadays the image is largely ephemeral. This is due to the prevalence of social media which drives the high consumption and quick turnover of image based material like photographs by other people.

Highlight of Photograph 1
Highlight of Photograph 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highlight of Photograph 3
Highlight of Photograph 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Highlight of Photograph 5
Highlight of Photograph 6

 

 

Highlight of Photograph 7
Highlight of Photograph 8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once the thumbnail has been clicked on the highlighted picture within the picture frame it will link to a high resolution image which is the corresponding image. I have linked the images like this so the viewer can get a more detailed view of each image as well as the bigger picture. Lastly I have linked the unaltered bigger picture to a high resolution version of itself.

The Bigger Picture – Ephemerality of the Image

Black and white?

Black and white affects the reading of the image and is something I was acutely aware of without ever really understanding why the effect is so different from colour.

Black and white makes the viewer more distant from the photograph, because the image is reduced down to form and structure. In other words as Henry Carroll states: ‘black and white simplifies what colour complicates’ – (Carroll, 2015). This struck a chord with me because I felt I was able to read the components of black and white photographs more easily than similar colour photographs.

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Attempt at seeing in black and white 1

As a photographer you have to learn to ‘see’ in the black and white medium and not just convert it from black and white afterwards because then those forms and structures probably won’t be as pronounced as if the photographer was looking for them in the first place. This is illustrated by Henry Carroll in a book I’ve been reading called ‘Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People’, where he says: ‘All too often people compose their shot using the language of colour and then hope that it will translate into black and white later. Neither of these approaches work.’ – (Carroll, 2015). I have been guilty of using that approach in the past but have since experienced what Carroll observed; instead it is better to be on the look-out for shots that would look good in black and white first.

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Attempt at seeing in black and white 2

In my opinion it is psychological too, as negative emotions are more easily related to in black and white. There’s something melancholy in my mind associated with black and white because it reminds us subconsciously of photography’s nature – a memory of something from reality which can’t be replaced. This makes me feel if I were to produce 8 black and white single-image narratives for assignment 2 I would be inclined to choose a more despondent theme for the photographs. On the flip side of this is the photograph’s other attribute – the potential for it to be reproduced indefinitely. This reproducibility allows the viewer to look at the black and white photograph especially with a sense of importance – this same photograph could be seen in newspapers etc and indeed had been. This would be by association – in the past black and white photographs were observed as more truthful and people had grown up with them in their culture – there was a sort of aura embedded into the collective psyche surrounding black and white photographs.

One strategy I felt would prove pointless with an optical viewfinder camera like mine was to shoot in black and white preview mode and view it on the LCD screen after the fact. While this definitely wasn’t as immersive as shooting with an EVF ‘in the present’ and viewing the scene before the camera in near-enough real-time, I was pleasantly surprised to find that before ‘chimping’ I could start to imagine what the preview would look like. Therefore I started to think in black and white, with particular attention paid to light and shadows and seeing potential for reducing the scene down to its abstract, core features.

Above I’ve displayed a couple of examples of me trying to ‘see’ in black and white before taking the shot (even though the optical viewfinder let me see in colour as a preview!).

 

References:

Carroll, H. (2015). Read This If You Want to Take Great Photographs of People. London: Laurence King.

Survival Programmes

When I read about the Exit photography group: three, young photographers trying to bring about social reform by documenting harrowing poverty through purely black and white photographs as well as interviews over 5 years, I found the magazine article about Survival Programmes to be eye-opening and moving at the same time.

 

Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities
Home-bound pensioner, Maryhill, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975

 

Home-bound pensioner, Maryhill, Galsgow, Scotland, 1975 by the Exit Photography Group depicts a man who’s thoughts are elsewhere. Whether his thoughts are on what is outside his window, or in my opinion more likely his retirement, it seems from his intent gaze they are elsewhere and not on the TV which dominates the composition. Ironically the TV shows a scene which may be something akin to what he regards as retirement which is why I’ve found this image so compelling. The black and white medium allows the viewer to concentrate on the compositional aspects of the image as well as lighting so this potential message becomes clearer.

 

Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities
Rootless Youth, Small Heath, Birmingham, 1975.

 

Rootless Youth, Small Heath, Birmingham, 1975 by the Exit Photography Group was the most moving image for me of the series as the youth looks very dejected and run-down and the black and white treatment subtly leads the viewer to the unfortunate youth because of the converging perspective centring in around his head.

In terms of the Exit photography group’s photographs’ success in fighting for social reform, because the photographs were black and white, for me their cause was aided as the black and white element helped. I felt the photographs themselves were very well-composed and indicative of the struggles with poverty that were happening but because the medium of black and white was employed they did indeed take on an extra authority. I have thought about why this may be and one reason which occurred to me was that people associated black and white with truthfulness as photography had traditionally been this medium (colour had not been possible until later in photography’s life). For that reason the viewer was more likely to accept what was represented in the frame as fact.

 

Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities
Vandals, Tenement Block, Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975.

 

Vandals, Tenement Block, Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975 by the Exit Photography Group was for me a look into a different world with the vandals photographed on two extreme corners of the frame. This added to the drama in my opinion.

Perhaps another less obvious reason the photographers for the Exit photography group employed black and white solely may have been that although colour was available and was more immediate and modern, black and white was also available but more aged. Viewers may subconsciously read the images as part of an older time, stuck in its ways. Therefore in a way it possibly signified the divide in contemporary colour and older black and white. The message of social reform being communicated with the viewer that way (poverty belonged to the old age with black and white). Perhaps colour would be used as a more positive, immediate energy to celebrate social reform by these photographers, if social reform was brought about?

References:

A link to the license for the images above: http://www.amber-online.com/about/terms-conditions/attribution-noncommercial-noderivatives/

issuu. (2006). Volume 5 Number 1. [online] Available at: https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/vol5no1 [Accessed 12 Feb. 2017].

Steele-Perkins, C., Battye, N. and Trevor, P. (1975). Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities: Home-bound pensioner, Maryhill, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975. [Photograph] Newcastle: AmberSide Collection.

Steele-Perkins, C., Battye, N. and Trevor, P. (1975). Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities: Rootless Youth, Small Heath, Birmingham, 1975. [Photograph] Newcastle: AmberSide Collection.

Steele-Perkins, C., Battye, N. and Trevor, P. (1975). Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities: Vandals, Tenement Block, Govan, Glasgow, Scotland, 1975. [Photograph] Newcastle: AmberSide Collection.