Simon Roberts – Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island – Study Visit – 10/3/2018

I took it upon myself to make a study visit on 10th March 2018 to see Simon Roberts’ Merrie Albion exhibition on the last day it was open! I am glad I did because it made me realise a few things about Roberts’ approach (by seeing his massive prints in person) that I hadn’t completely grasped when I wrote a post about We English a while ago.

Merrie Albion - Landscape Studies of a Small Island Exhibition
Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island Exhibition

The main thing I came away with was that Roberts doesn’t just choose any random subject and photograph it from above. Invariably he chooses events to document people interacting with the British landscape and obviously feels it is more effective to adopt an elevated position in the majority of his viewpoints of such events. I would have to agree that his approach in choosing a high vantage point works for his subject. Viewing his beautiful and consistently huge prints in person was a rewarding experience. This was because it was appreciable the amount of skill that went into taking the photographs in the first place (on a large format 5×4 camera) but also the print quality rendered lots of detail and pleasing colours. More importantly however I could take in the scene from a perspective which allowed me to see relationships between the different people but also juxtaposed with the setting they inhabit.

An Old Photograph Taken from a High Viewpoint But with No Real Subject or Event Taking Place
An Old Photograph Taken from a High Viewpoint But with No Real Subject or Event Taking Place

If Robert’s work didn’t concentrate on events in the landscape would it be as effective? I wouldn’t say so for the reason it would still look nice but it would become more incidental and the tableaus wouldn’t have as much meaning. While this might seem pretty obvious what I am trying to get at is that this is a niche that Roberts’ has found and used to his advantage very well.  If I were to imitate Roberts’ work in my own it would have plenty of meaning and pleasing aesthetics but the style is quite rigid and I couldn’t foresee much different I could do to make it my own. However, by looking at his work on the study visit I started to wonder about how the people in the scenes looked almost like they were part of a performance. It might be possible to play upon the performance aspect of his work in certain ways.

One way I could envisage this working would be to choreograph some kind of (random, not yet an event) performance in front of the camera and have the camera be set up at eye level (unlike Roberts’ approach). The reasoning for the camera being set up at eye level rather than from a higher viewpoint would be in order to subvert the fact that the performance isn’t happening naturally anymore; it’s being choreographed. One example of a choreographed-based performance I could imagine occurring in front of the camera would be myself moving around in front of the camera (while it is set on a tripod and an interval timer) and perhaps interacting with people in the vicinity. This kind of performance intersects the usual gaze of the photographer being behind the camera which is documenting the scene in front of it.

© Simon Roberts (2008) - Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 2008
© Simon Roberts (2008) – Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 2008

Therefore by visiting Simon Roberts’ exhibition on the very last day it was open I have been able to find a new idea that differs in many ways from his style of photography but yet shares one key feature; that of performance in the landscape. Admittedly I am yet to try out this idea but I will endeavour to do so and see how it pans out.

References:

Simon Roberts – Merrie Albion – Landscape Studies of a Small Island [Exhibition] 19 Jan – 10 Mar 2018. Flowers Gallery, London Kingsland Road.

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Photographs Inspired by Chris Dorley-Brown and Peter Funch

I had started developing a tripod-based composite approach to some of my landscape photographs, most notably for Photograph 1 – Assignment 5 – Landscape. I was fascinated by the way it was possible to composite people in different places of a scene while using a tripod to maintain the same framing. By adopting such an approach I was able to alter the meaning of the scene in relation to the people it contained as well as between the people themselves (all of them were holding smartphones).

© Johnathan Hall - Photograph 1 - Assignment 5 - Landscape
© Johnathan Hall – Photograph 1 – Assignment 5 – Landscape

As I have been going though the documentary course I have come across many artists. A couple of them I have found employ a similar approach although to varying degrees of people being composited into the final photograph. Peter Funch is on the extreme side where he composites very large numbers of people into the final photograph; often who are similar to one another in their attire. They are similar to each other so the viewer can establish a connection based on juxtaposition of all these people in the same frame. Although much of his work lacks believability, because each image is put together into a single frame there is still a moment of your eyes daring you to believe what you are seeing is not real. This I believe is because we have traditionally always seen photographs as evidence of a reality and I would suggest Peter Funch takes advantage of us not wholly being able to prove otherwise.

© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane
© Peter Funch (2008) Memory Lane

On the less extreme side being more photo-realistic is the work of Chris Dorley-Brown. Much of his photographs are based in Hackney and I felt there was something to learn from his dedication to one area, presumably his local area. I don’t have evidence to be certain he used a tripod and composites some of his photographs other than by analysing his photographs. Quite a few of them have people in the scene who are juxtaposed with other people in meaningful manners that I could discern couldn’t be possible without the use of composite work on a tripod. The reason this was important to me was it informs my practice. I could begin to understand how Chris Dorley-Brown had achieved these visually appealing and yet meaningful photographs, almost in the style of a tableau.

© Chris Dorley-Brown (2009) Rio Cinema 2009, Corner of Sandringham Road and Kingsland Road, Hackney, London UK
© Chris Dorley-Brown (2009) Rio Cinema 2009, Corner of Sandringham Road and Kingsland Road, Hackney, London UK

Using the same techniques I had used in Photograph 1 – Assignment 5 – Landscape but looking at the subtle way Chris Dorley-Brown had used similar techniques in his practice, I tried to capture tableau by juxtaposing people with their surroundings but also with each other. Telling a story like Chris Dorley-Brown had managed I found was a much more difficult task than creating a visually appealing photograph for each scene. However, I tried multiple times anyway with varying degrees of success.

© Johnathan Hall - Brick Lane, Shoreditch I
© Johnathan Hall – Brick Lane, Shoreditch I

Choosing suitable locations for the framing of the photographs was more challenging too than I had imagined. I found it was desirable to search for intersections of roads or at least a scene which offered some kind of depth to it so the people didn’t appear superimposed and any potential story was more forthcoming.

© Johnathan Hall - Brick Lane, Shoreditch II
© Johnathan Hall – Brick Lane, Shoreditch II

One photograph in particular I felt was quite convincing in telling a story through a single image as I came across a scene in Green Park, London where couples liked to walk. By patiently waiting I was able to juxtapose various couples holding hands walking in Green Park. This was in the style of Peter Funch in the regard that the people all shared a certain trait (they were all couples) but in my opinion was more photo-realistic like with Chris Dorley-Brown.

© Johnathan Hall - Couples in Green Park
© Johnathan Hall – Couples in Green Park

Going forwards I could see this approach being a useful technique for capturing tourists using their smartphones for selfies at famous landmarks in London (for Assignment 5 – Documentary). The style of these shots would be less photo-realistic, more like Peter Funch’s because you would be unlikely to get lots of people taking selfies simultaneously. Having said that, there are a lot of tourists taking selfies in London!

© Johnathan Hall - Spital Square
© Johnathan Hall – Spital Square
© Johnathan Hall - At My Local Park
© Johnathan Hall – At My Local Park
© Johnathan Hall - Whitecross Street
© Johnathan Hall – Whitecross Street
© Johnathan Hall - Underneath Bridge Beside Waterloo East Station
© Johnathan Hall – Underneath Bridge Beside Waterloo East Station

Study Hangout 10/12/2017

On 10/12 2017 Bryn, Anne and myself attended a study hangout.

We talked in detail about our respective critical reviews. Anne was quite pleased with her feedback for hers as it was quite positive with some changes necessary, thankfully not as many as she’d feared.

I admitted I was partly stuck with my essay but was awaiting a response from my tutor regarding some questions I’d come to realise were bugging me about my writing and investigation into aesthetics in photography.

Amendment (22/12/2017):

I have since received an email from my tutor regarding my questions about my critical review which I found very helpful and have commenced writing the critical review, while taking into account suggestions based upon my questions my tutor had made.

Bryn communicated that he had read up quite a bit some of the primary resources from the course which was helping to inform his critical review and was starting to look at secondary sources to further back up these readings. Also he discussed how he might include in his essay something about how it was desirable to have a larger project to work on and have continuation with instead of having to constantly reinvent the wheel for each project. Hiroshi Sugimoto has this large project continuation in his Seascapes project which he works on in combination with shorter projects which Bryn admired.

Bryn asked Anne whether she might go back to the Gloucester Docks again for Assignment 5 so that her projects had a continued theme and she said may consider it. Also Anne described her interactive exhibition for the Somerset exhibition of OCA students which sounded very interesting. Here she asked exhibition-goers to reorder a set of photographs into the ‘right’ order that she had in mind and take a photograph of their perceived ‘right’ order and put that photograph in a guest book to document their participation.

Bryn asked Anne if she might consider doing something interactive in the Gloucester Docks similar to this and she said it was a possibility.

Lastly I talked about my ideas for Assignment 5 with Bryn which concern tourism in the city I live in of London. Here I would basically be taking a spoof tourist role, documenting my experience in the city from the perspective of a tourist in London, with myself falling for the usual tourist traps and hotspots/landmarks that a usual tourist would but with twists in the photos used to document this act. The twists would be present in order for the viewer to be able to discern it was a spoof tourist role I was taking.

Study Hangout 19/11/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Anne, Bryn and Michael. We talked about very in depth subjects surrounding the ethics of photography including authentication of photographs as documents, subjectivity in photography related to the myth of objectivity, the death of the author and manipulation of the message. We related these in depth subjects with photography artists; the most prominent of these artists being Sebastião Salgado, closely followed by Don McCullin and then Martin Parr. Michael introduced us to the work of Simon Norfolk briefly who I aim to look at more closely as his work at first glance looked very interesting. I was not sure why our conversation was so theoretical but it may have been something to do with 75% of us having commenced work on the critical review or having just submitted it!

Balloon Vendor in Kabul - 2001 - From the Series: "Forensic Traces of War" © Simon Norfolk
Balloon Vendor in Kabul – 2001 – From the Series: “Forensic Traces of War” © Simon Norfolk

My opinions on the listed subjects were that it is very difficult to authenticate documents like photographs 100% as the viewer can usually interpret the evidence of photography being an indexical medium differently. This is even if supporting documents like text or (to a lesser degree) geotagging are included. I felt objectivity is a myth yet it is still possible to shoot in an objective style. Ultimately all photography is subjective (as even objective photography has its own aesthetic) but I would suggest some photography is more subjective than others. Relating to the death of the author, my stance was that this is true nowadays much more with the proliferation of images and ways of sharing them. Now it is not about who took the photograph but what the photograph depicts. The message of any photograph can be manipulated by means of supporting documents and other context like the photographer’s oeuvre.

We talked about the contrast in transparency of message between Salgado and McCullin where McCullin was very decisive in why he took photographs of war while Salgado’s reasoning seems more layered and less clear. We touched upon how my own critical review was going and I divulged that maybe the topic I’d chosen was proving to be too broad and therefore lacking direction. Finding relevant quotes and supporting work or photographs to back up my particular argument seemed like a way of tackling this.

Thomas Ruff at the Whitechapel Gallery (Photographs 1979-2017)

The main impression I came away with from visiting the Whitechapel Gallery on the 2nd November 2017 to see the Thomas Ruff exhibition was that Ruff took a very playful approach to his exploration of the processes, genres and aesthetics of photography. This playful approach was tinged with a more serious undertone as he addressed issues like photographic technique and how this changes with technological advances.

Thomas Ruff's 'Portraits' - 1986-1991 'Dwarfing' an Exhibition Goer at the Whitechapel Gallery
Thomas Ruff’s ‘Portraits’ – 1986-1991 ‘Dwarfing’ an Exhibition Goer at the Whitechapel Gallery

There were many aspects I didn’t ‘get’ regarding Ruff’s photographs but some things I had an inkling about and I have written down some of these observations here. I would start with the size of the prints: lots were enormous in scale; dwarfing people and his other, smaller prints in the exhibition. However, I didn’t feel these prints were gigantic only for effect in making the viewer say wow (although this may have been part of the reason!) The other reason (at least with Portraits 1986-1991) was to displace presumptions that a passport photo should appear small and make the viewer contemplate why this might be. For me it was because although the appearance was the same (in terms of lighting and composition) to a passport photo, the scale was the opposite of what we might expect from a passport picture. This brought up implications of seeing these people depicted as unique – because they are printed so large the viewer tries to find expression from an expressionless face.

Thomas Ruff's 'jpeg' - 2004-2008 Works When Viewed From a Large Distance Appear of 'Good' Quality
Thomas Ruff’s ‘jpeg’ – 2004-2008 Works When Viewed From a Large Distance Appear of ‘Good’ Quality
'jpeg' - 2004-2008 © Thomas Ruff When Viewed From Up Close Reveals Itself as Very Pixellated
‘jpeg’ – 2004-2008 © Thomas Ruff When Viewed From Up Close Reveals Itself as Very Pixellated

A similar study of scale could be seen with his series jpeg 2004-2008. Here from afar the enormous prints appear sound to the eye, showing the destruction of New York’s twin towers. However, as you get closer the image begins to break up and become pixellated as it becomes clear they are of very low quality, taken on mobile phones using jpeg. I inferred meaning from this in that although the event is of such high importance the quality used to record it can often be of low integrity and yet it is usable; the images are still circulated and viewed on such large scale.

A Selection of Thomas Ruff's 'Nights' - 1992 - 1996
A Selection of Thomas Ruff’s ‘Nights’ – 1992 – 1996

Another, constant theme throughout Ruff’s work is experimentation; constantly pushing the boundaries by exploring the limits of photography. From documentary style night shots using a special surveillance camera making the ordinary seem otherworldly, to the digital photogram, Ruff changes his approach and techniques according to technology, often with hauntingly beautiful results in my opinion. His experimentation did inspire me to try out different techniques myself and his postmodern appropriation of existing imagery was intriguing.

An Example of Thomas Ruff's 'photograms' - 2012 - 2015
An Example of Thomas Ruff’s ‘photograms’ – 2012 – 2015

One such series of works in particular really caught my eye. press++ 2016- were (again) giant prints, appropriated from the archives of news agencies. I did wonder how the writing and stamps had appeared on the images themselves as it appeared quite natural. I found out that Ruff ingeniously overlaid the backs of the photographs containing all the context and information about the photograph onto the front of the photograph. This was quite unique because the context appeared in the same place as the content. I discovered the result to be an interesting combination of text and image that worked well.

A Selection of Thomas Ruff's 'press++' - 2016-
A Selection of Thomas Ruff’s ‘press++’ – 2016-

Overall I was glad I went to this exhibition as it made me think a lot about image size when presenting work, experimenting process and techniques with my own work and brought up some novel ideas concerning the photograph as an object.

References:

Thomas Ruff: Photographs 1979-2017 [Exhibition] 27th Sep – 21 Jan 2018. Whitechapel Gallery, London.

How to Photograph an Abstract Concept

As I have been studying documentary I have become increasingly aware of the need for a clear brief. This enables more incisive photography in my experience. The reverse I’ve found can also be true – in my recent Assignment 3 – Gentrification in Deptford I was struggling for a clear brief and started using post-conceptualisation as a strategy so that I could just start taking pictures and see what developed from there. However, for my upcoming Assignment 5 – A Personal Project, one of the requirements for the assignment is ‘a methodical approach’. Therefore I could either use post-conceptualisation as a method or do the opposite and produce a clear brief but not somewhere in between.

One area I’ve realised could be improved in my work would be the inclusion of an abstract concept rather than literal concepts in producing a clear brief. With the exception of Assignment 2 – Ephemerality of the Image where I developed the idea of an abstract concept, I have not explored abstract concepts. One essay that really inspired me with regards to abstract concepts particularly for Assignment 2 was Maartje van den Heuvel’s Mirror of Visual Culture. Here I eventually discovered a way of photographing an abstract concept – ephemerality of the image but the process of developing the ideas was quite drawn out.

I decided on a whim to make a search on the internet: “How to photograph an abstract concept” without much hope for inspiring results but was pleasantly surprised a few search results down to find something other than a list of ’20 ways to instantly improve my abstract photography’, which was what the rest of the results seemed to consist of! The search result in question linked to an essay by John Suler called Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche relating to conceptual photography. I found Suler’s essay to be accessible and practical and here were some of the observations I came away with after reading the essay:

I had been thinking about photography in the ‘wrong’ order in my mind at least; writing loose briefs and hoping for something creative to come out of my observations on research conducted. Instead I learned it was preferable to think of a concept in conceptual photography first and think about how this might best be represented as a photograph or set of photographs afterwards. In particular, ‘Photographs also offer a seemingly more real, tangible depiction of concepts that otherwise seem abstract or elusive.’ – (Suler, 2013). Many of my previous projects had been literal concepts so learning that one of photography’s strengths lay in depicting abstract concepts was interesting for me.

One part of Suler’s essay that I had an opinion on was: ‘[conceptual artists] are free to use an idea as the guide in creating a work, rather than being restrained by aesthetic standards about how things are supposed to done. – (Suler, 2013). Although I agreed with this statement on the most part (as opposed to creating just aesthetically-pleasing photographs like in non-conceptual photography), I felt there was an additional side to conceptual photography often being minimalistic and perfunctory in style. As the idea behind the photograph or set of photographs becomes more complex (the conceptual art I’ve come across often is quite complicated in concept), the execution of the photograph almost needs to be simple. This is in order to get across the message as lucidly as possible for a complicated idea. Suler (2013) touches upon this when he remarks ‘The process might be very challenging and creative, especially when dealing with complex or elusive concepts.’ when talking about creating artistic photographs for conceptual art. My response would be the perfunctory approach for the resultant photographs is kind of like a style for complicated concepts, not only to get across the message of the art but also also a deliberate attempt by the artist to signify the art is more important than the photograph.

A photograph’s concept can be translated into an image either specifically or ambiguously. When it is translated ambiguously, viewers tend to project their own meaning or understanding of the concept onto the photo which is what some photographers want according to Suler (2013): ‘The photo presents the container of a general concept or idea, but then people fill that container with their own personal meanings.’ When creating abstract concepts in photographs I would prefer for the viewer to infer meaning but for it to be not too ambiguous so somewhere in the middle. Suler (2013) is of the opinion that for the more specific of these approaches a clear understanding of the concept is desirable before visual communication commences.

As I was more interested in creating images for abstract concepts, it was useful to note from Suler’s essay that he recommended the use of a dictionary, thesaurus and online image search engine to aid the sender of the concept (the photographer) in acquiring a better understanding of the ins and outs of their abstract concept. He also states that ‘Symbols, metaphors, and similes are very useful when designing conceptual photographs.’ – (Suler, 2013) whereby the receiver of the concept (the viewer) could associate signs a photograph may possess in order to gain the sender’s meaning. Therefore if I wanted to create a photograph symbolising entropy of meaning in social media imagery, I could look up the definitions and synonyms for entropy and social media. Then I could see how other people represent entropy or social media in their photographs/images and also think about symbols, metaphors and similes that would be appropriate once I had a more lucid idea of what the concepts entailed.

Lastly, Suler touched upon post-conceptualisation (which I used for Assignment 3 – Gentrification in Deptford) although he used the term ‘reverse engineering’ of the conceptual photograph. Here he basically describes the process I went through with Assignment 3 where I took photographs first and then ‘apply an idea to it’ – (Suler, 2013). While both approaches can be effective I felt the more appropriate strategy of conceptualisation of an idea beforehand would perhaps be better for Assignment 5 where ‘a methodical approach’ was desirable.

References:

Suler, J. (2013). Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche. [online] Truecenterpublishing.com. Available at: http://truecenterpublishing.com/photopsy/conceptual.htm [Accessed 23 Oct. 2017].

Van Den Heuvel (2005). Mirror of Visual Culture. Documentary Now! [online] Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/heuvel_discussingdocumentary.pdf [Accessed 23 Oct. 2017].

Study Hangout 22/10/2017

Today I attended a study hangout with Miriam and Leonie.

The Hell of Sierra Pelada mines, 1980s - © Sebastiaou Salgado
The Hell of Sierra Pelada mines, 1980s – © Sebastiaou Salgado

It was good to hear their progress and we were at similar stages in the course although Leonie had almost finished Assignment 5. Miriam and I were starting the critical review for Assignment 4. I discussed my ideas for Assignment 4 with the group – the idea of beauty in documentary and whether a really aesthetically-pleasing photograph takes away from the meaning a photograph may be trying to convey. The responses from Leonie and Miriam were very interesting for me, with Leonie comparing the work of Tim Hetherington and Don McCullin’s American soldiers photographs saying that one was rendered completely differently from the other in regards to beauty. Looking at the two photographs side by side I could definitely relate to this observation.

Korengal Valley, Afghanistan - © Tim Hetherington - 2007
Korengal Valley, Afghanistan – © Tim Hetherington – 2007
'The Thousand Yard Stare' - © Don McCullin - 1968
‘The Thousand Yard Stare’ – © Don McCullin – 1968

I used the work of Sebastiaou Salgado as an example of aesthetic beauty with the potential for displacing meaning because his photographs have been typically so beautiful. Miriam countered this point by saying one of Sebastiaou Salgado’s photographs – that of a gold mine (The hell of Serra Pelada mines, 1980s, was the photograph I think she was referring to) means she no longer buys gold but only fair-trade; the photo by Sebastiaou Salgado had made such an impression on her. This could make the case that beauty captures the viewer’s attention with the possibility for meaning to be discovered afterwards in the same image, which should be something to consider when writing my critical review.

Lastly we discussed juggling things like work with the course and how it affects the flow of our studying. Also what our plans were after competing the documentary module and how often it would be helpful to liaise with our tutors in order to improve assignments.

Overall I found the study hangout to be very helpful as always but in particular it did give me some more points of consideration for my critical review.