Project 1: Absence and Signs of Life
William Eggleston’s saturated and vivid images, capturing Memphis and the American South, highlight the beauty of the bland humdrum every day. Eggleston broke away from traditional black and white photography and started experimenting with colour, widely associated at the time with fine art, in the late 1960s. His 1976 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Colour Photographs, fundamentally shifted how colour photography was viewed within an art context.
The photographs above is not only an example of colour but also of Eggleston’s interpretation of his surroundings by the objects they held, not just the people who may occupy them. Viewers are drawn into the scene, rather than their gaze being dragged to the person or persons in the scene.
Research Task: Personal Reflection
The photographer can be story-teller or history writer, both of which can imply the creation of a fiction (what is the difference in the end between writing a new history and creating a story?) – note Christian Patterson’s Redheaded Peckerwood – or history teller, which implies a documentary process. Perhaps writing history requires a closed narrative style, while storytelling can rely on an open narrative style, leaving the view to fill in gaps to create new truths.
The creation of a fiction is interesting to me, for short term development purposes, but I suspect unfulfilling as a long-term oeuvre.
“Artist and photographer Richard Wentworth registers chance encounters of oddities and discrepancies in the modern landscape. Renowned mostly for his readymade sculptures but also known for his photographic series, namely Making Do and Getting By, Wentworth is inclined to explore the nuances of modern life and the human role therein.
Mundane snapshots and fragments of the modern landscape are elevated to an analysis of human resourcefulness and improvisation, whereby amusing oddities that would otherwise go by unnoticed become the subject of intent contemplation.
Wentworth captures pictures of improvisation, where objects are removed of their original context, stripped of their ordinary function and yet often rendered functional in an altogether new and unexpected way. A car door serves to mend a wire fence. Wooden crates, wedged into a doorway, exert the function of a door.
There occurs a rupture between object and function, which allows a subsequent rupture between function and meaning. Meaning is no longer hinged on the commonplace and uniform functionality of the mass produced object, but rather augmented by the unfamiliar and, thus, noteworthy new function with which the object is instilled. Wentworth’s photographs bear witness to instantaneous transformations, wherein everything is celebrated for its conversion into something else.
Such encounters with incoherencies in the modern landscape, resulting mostly from the mutation of function, are injected with an inherently human vigour, despite the blatant absence of the human figure. It may even be argued that the centralised objects stand in for the metaphysical human presence they symbolise, precisely by occupying the central foreground, which, in popular amateur photography, is generally inhabited by the human figure.”
http://www.gupmagazine.com/articles/making-do-and-getting-by [accessed 18th May 2020]
The Guardian writes that … “Elliott Wilcox is a London-based photographer who has captured the abstract patterns and vivid colours of unfamiliar sporting realms. From ‘real tennis’ courts to indoor climbing walls, his images explore space, texture and pattern. Signs of past sporting exploits linger within each frame, leaving a human trace on an otherwise alien environment.”
https://www.theguardian.com/sport/gallery/2013/feb/06/beautiful-games-courts-walls-gallery [accessed 18th May 2020]
“Sarah Pickering is a British visual artist who works with photography and whose work deals with themes of falsity and deception. Pickering (UK, b.1972) uses the process of photographic image making as a way of staging, observing, performing, and facilitating in order to examine and explore mediated versions of reality and work beyond its confines. Central to her work is an intense and repeated scrutiny of the issues raised by such subjects as fakes, tests, hierarchy, science-fiction, explosions, photography, and gunfire. Pickering’s photography examines the frequent gulf between documentation and that which is documented.”https://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/bio/ [accessed 18th May 2020]
Karen Irvine, Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, writes: “Sarah Pickering’s photographs disturb our sense of security and illuminate the ways in which we cope with traumatic events that are beyond our control. Her pictures depict environments and events crafted specifically for simulated training to prepare police officers, firefighters, and soldiers for calamities ranging from fire and civil unrest to terrorism and war. By exposing the absurdity and controlled nature of these environments, Pickering’s images reveal our predilection to deflect fear by trying to anticipate and plan for it—and our tendency to create a story to help us process it. Ultimately Pickering’s photographs raise questions about the efficacy of preparedness and hint at the psychological effort needed to combat and recover from trauma—the struggle to live with the anxiety that can accompany security…The terror of security resides in the mental space between acceptance and denial, preparedness and ignorance, control and disorder. The ambiguity of fear, and the unsettling revelation that preparedness can be futile, spawns a jarring absurdity that lives at the core of Pickering’s work.”
https://www.mocp.org/exhibitions/2010/04/sarah_pickering.php [accessed 18th May 2020]
Reading Task: Something and Nothing
Read Chapter 4, ‘Something and Nothing’ in Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd edition) London: Thames & Hudson. You will find this on the student website.
- To what extent do you think the strategy of using objects or environments as metaphor is a useful tool in photography?
Using objects or the environment as a metaphor is a useful tool as a carefully chosen image can represent a complex narrative more succinctly or more poignantly than the equivalent text. Arguably it is also a useful tool to stretch the creative muscle.
- When might it fall down?
It might fall down, when carelessly implemented, for example, producing an image too abstract for the viewer to comprehend.
Maria Zinser (Zenser, 2017) writes in her ‘Brief History of Still Life’:
“The still life has witnessed a transformative and interesting evolution from the bottom of the hierarchy of artistic genres – its subjects not considered important enough by humanists to be worth painting – to the magnificent Dutch Golden Age still lifes, which arose under a protestant spirit that deemed every part of God’s creation worth depicting. In France, it underwent a revival in the late nineteenth century, when modernist painters discovered it as the perfect subject for the formal exploration of different styles, colours and compositions. Still lifes were ideal for bourgeois households and quickly rose in popularity. Modernist pioneer Edouard Manet explored different subjects ranging from ham to lilacs and expressed that ‘a painter can say all he wants to with fruits or flowers, or even clouds.’…
So what of still life today? As everyone lives life fast, art can make us pause and really look at our environment and our rushed activities. The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans captures life and our surroundings in great detail. He regards the photograph as ‘a body entangled in the world. It does not just exist passively – it is a sociable and open body that actively meets the real world around it.’
His still lifes are thus in no way dead nature but on the contrary, very much alive. Still Home shows half-eaten fruit and nuts on a plate. The sun shines warmly onto this arrangement to which the viewer is drawn by the pleasing colours and which looks so appetizing despite essentially being food waste. Dispersed pomegranate seeds are mixed with pistachio shells and the skin of a grapefruit, covering the bread knife used to cut open the fruit. Through his hanging, Tillmans always emphasizes the medium of the photograph, exposing them mainly without frames. They are no longer windows to another world but objects – or bodies if you will – in the room to which the viewer is drawn and which provoke a reaction. Standing in Wolfgang Tillman’s exhibition at Tate Modern, we do not marvel at arranged compositions but are confronted with various angles of life standing still, focusing our attention on a variety of objects, activities and issues at the same time. One is essentially surrounded by life – still life.”
Angie Kordic, Editor in Chief of Whitewalls, writes (Kordic, 2016) “One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of this genre of painting and the reason why many still life photographers are attracted to it is the chance to explore the composition and lighting, probably much more than the topic of vanity itself. Because the medium of photography relies on light so heavily, still life of this kind provides a vast field of technical experimentation – in the manner of the Old Masters, still life photographers create the perfect contrast between deep shadows and penetrating light which highlights only certain objects. Their creativity is perhaps mostly demonstrated within the field of advertising and food photography, although many of them are dedicated to the artistic concept behind such a composition as well.”
Nigel Shafran (b 1964) first became known for radicalizing fashion photography in the 1980’s. His current work focuses on the still life details of everyday living-scenarios that are drawn from domestic spaces and the mundane world.
Jason Evans (Evans, 2001) writes of Susan Lipper’s Bed and Breakfast Project: “In 1998, on a commission from Photoworks, her tenacity was let loose on an unsuspecting West Sussex. The resulting document. Bed and Breakfast, oozes claustrophobia amid synthetic, pastel respectability. Which is nice. Hemmed in by petty-mindedness in peach, this testament to curtain twitching reverberates with tongue tutting and tradftion-lite. Lipper’s alien perspective reveals to us South East England’s idiosyncracy and disintegration with all the poise of shopping channel nonentities selling daytime crud. In between the porcelain figurines and mock tudor placemats, her landscapes implore you to turn on your heel; to get the hell out before the heritage damn breaks.”
Living Arrangements by Penny Klepuszewska is a set of still-life pictures concerned with the role of the home in the life of the elderly.
Exercise 1: Still Life
I have chosen to base my still life on the ideas captured by Nigel Shafran’s Washing Up project. Rather than limited my scenes to post washing up, I have chosen to show the spaces recently vacated by my wife. These still life scenes are both dynamic, in that they are created by use not by staging, and representative of the immediate life of my wife. They represent how the environment is shaped by her, and in some way, how I am impacted by her.
All of the images are taken with a Fujifilm X100V, set to replicate Astia film stock.
Project 2: Places and Spaces
The course text notes: “The terms ‘place’ and ‘space’ are subtly different. Although both refer to a physical area, the word ‘place’ refers more to a specific location which has become imbued with meaning and association (Ground Zero for example) whereas space refers more to a blank canvas – a continuous area of expanse without limitations.
When we talk about place it tends to be more specific, for example; “I have lost my place in my book” or “I’ve placed someone (or something) somewhere”. A place can be found on a map or located. When we talk about space we are often speaking about the potential of an area, or an imagined outcome, like a gallery space which can be curated and transformed into other worlds over and over again.”
Robert Harding Pittman writes about his project Anonymization (Pittman, 2012): “All across the world a uniform, homogeneous model of development, inspired by Los Angeles style urban sprawl – consisting of massive freeways, parking lots, shopping malls and large-scale master-planned communities with golf courses – is being stamped onto the earth’s topography. With this anonymous type of development comes the destruction of the environment, and also a loss of culture and roots, as well as alienation.
This globalized model of architecture does not respect or adapt itself to the natural or cultural environment onto which it is implanted. As we have seen in recent history, fervent overdevelopment has led to crises, not only financial, but also environmental and social, and some even say psychological.”
Exercise 2: Georges Perec
I sat in a café for an hour watching the people go by, observing the way they interacted, the way they held themselves, and in some cases seemingly how they though of themselves in relation to those around them. This was a COVID influenced scene and it was a cool, dry and sunny day. Not very atmospheric; not the kind of Saul Leiter scene that I love.
In this case, my mind is seeing the scene in black and white, Ilford HP5 (I’m old). If I were to make a photographic project out of it, I would use my digital camera (a compact APS-C), hand held and I would try and create two versions: B&W street style and colour Leiter-esque style. Both handheld and semi-discreet, aka HCB.
On the death of Robert Frank in September 2019, Peter Schjeldahl (Schjeldahl, 2019) celebrates his life in his article The Shock of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”:
“It may be impossible to convey to people who weren’t percipient in the early nineteen-sixties the profound, exulting shock that Robert Frank’s “The Americans” delivered to me, among many others, at the time of its release. The book, which was published in the United States in 1959, ranked with Dylan, Warhol, and Motown as a revelation something like a celestial visitation and something like being knocked off a cliff into a free fall so giddy as to obviate any fret about hard landings. The toughest part, from today’s perspective, was that the impact of Frank’s pictures had only passingly to do with their social, political, and otherwise thematic content, now so serviceable to this or that mode of critique. We were formalists then, and anti-formalists—not alternatively but both at once. Frank had exalted photographic form by shattering it against the stone of the wonderful and (oh, yeah) horrible real.
Tri-X film! So fast: 400 A.S.A., forgiving of movements of the camera and its targets. It could seem as if Frank threw his Leica into the world and let it catch what it could, which happened, without fail, to be something exciting—fascination, pain, hilarity, disgust, longing. . . . No limit to the variety of feelings, with the one uniform rule that they be bleedingly raw.
I think of the preface that Jack Kerouac wrote to “The Americans”: a period piece, indulging Beat longueurs. Kerouac falls in love, like a sap, with Frank’s image of a beautifully sad elevator girl. But refinement of neither emotion nor rhetoric was at issue. Immediacy was all. The best of Kerouac meshes absolutely with the best of Frank, though a generation short of the photographer’s honesty: a view of life not only in the moment but in the instant. First impression, only impression. First thought, only thought. Where are we going? We’re gone.
Frank, who died on Monday, at the age of ninety-four, arrived in New York from his native Switzerland in 1947. What had happened as American complacency after the Second World War came apart at the seams is that the existing America—the roads, the diners, the ditches—crashed into unprepared consciousness. No time to catch breath. Breath lost, left—really, abandoned—to phenomena branded by fire on the brain and the heart and, thanks to Frank, the retina. In a world desperate for help, nothing could be helped, because anything noticed was over with already.
Frank’s nakedness to what was to him an alien land terrified us, and we were joyous. In a way, this amounted to a callow extension of American exceptionalism—postwar national hubris, only negative. Tragedy with its foot to the floor. We were special, all right. Also fucked. Sure.”
[Note that WordPress censored the use of Robert Frank’s iconic picture from “The Americans”, and is not shown below]
Alicia Josten writes of Stephen Shore (Josten, n.d.) : “Stephen Shore was something of a prodigy as a photographer. Born in New York City in 1947, he learned about and practiced photography from the age of six. In 1958, Shore was given a copy of Walker Evans’ book American Photographs. This book had a profound effect on him, introducing him to a descriptive visual language of place. At the age of fourteen, his work was bought by Edward Steichen for the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. From 1965 through 1967, Shore worked in Andy Warhol’s studio, the Factory, a formative experience that allowed him to experiment with combining documentary and conceptual modes in the laconic style characteristic of his later images. In 1971, at the age of twenty-four, Shore had a solo exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first accorded a living American photographer.
Shore emerged in the 1970s as one of the major exponents of color photography, shooting bleak yet lyrical scenes of the North American landscape. Documenting everyday settings and objects, from hotel swimming pools and televisions to parking lots, gas stations, and deserted roads, Shore exhibited an ability to transform commonplace surroundings into compelling works of art, working with a subject matter similar to Walker Evans. Between 1973 and 1979, Shore made a series of road trips across North America, documenting the vernacular landscape through his view camera, and taking a more formal approach to photographing than in his earlier work. A number of these images later formed Shore’s now-classic book, Uncommon Places (first published by Aperture in 1982 and republished in 2004 and 2007). These images arouse recollections of experiences, but in an artful, carefully crafted and calculated manner. His images are made with a large-format camera, which gives his photographs a precise quality in both color and form that has become a signature trait of his work. Shore’s use of the large-format camera and innovative color printing has made him one of the most influential photographers to emerge in the last half of the twentieth century, credited with inspiring numerous contemporary photographers.”
Consider the following:
- Where would you choose to do a project of this scale given the chance?
- What would you choose as your subject matter?
- What worlds would you like to create?
I think I would like to portray a nation of great diversity, one that is both modern and at the same time continues to carry out outmoded activities. In my mind this is represented most strongly in the Scandinavian countries, for example Sweden, where the American-esque hillbilly coexists along side the modern PC, design-ethic loving urban dwellers of the cities.
Paul Gaffney has been investigating different ways of experiencing and representing landscape, drawing on Arnold Berleant’s theory of a ‘participatory approach’ to landscape, in which the artist, environment and viewer are considered to be in continuous dialogue with each other.
Gaffney’s intention is to communicate to the viewer, his experience of immersion in nature.
The British Journal of Photography says (BJP, 2017) of Alec Soth’s project Sleeping by the Mississippi :
“Sleeping by the Mississippi has been ranked with the great representations of the United States, including Walker Evans’ pictures of the depression, Robert Frank’s harsh vision of the 1950s and, more recently, the colour work of Soth’s former teacher, Joel Sternfeld. Shot over a period of five years, Sleeping by the Mississippi is a trip along America’s ‘Forgotten Coast’, the neglected banks of the country’s longest river. In 46 immaculately-composed colour images, Soth travels from the frozen northern reaches of the river to the fecund squalor of the Mississippi Delta.
Along the way, Soth shows landscapes, interiors and portraits, most of which have a dreamlike and drained atmosphere. He alludes to religion, race, crime, sex and death, showing the lost hope, loneliness and unrealised dreams of the people he meets. “I live near the beginning of the Mississippi and have always felt a pull to it,” says Soth. “I used to run away when I was 5 or 6, pack a suitcase with books and run away from home. I’d only get a few blocks but it was the whole Huck Finn process, where the north is home and the south symbolises the exotic.
“In the beginning the project had nothing to do with the Mississippi,” he continues. “It evolved from a project called From Here to There in which one picture lead to another, linked by an idea or a theme. In the process, I travelled down the Mississippi, and I got to thinking that the idea was too gimmicky. So I shifted to the idea of the Mississippi being the link.”
But Sleeping by the Mississippi is more about the spirit of wandering and peoples’ dreams than the river itself. Throughout the project, Soth asked his subjects to write down their dreams, and this can be seen even in the first image in the book. A photograph of Peter’s houseboat in Winona, Minnesota, it shows the northern reaches of the river, where the exotic has not yet taken hold. It’s winter and the banks are covered in snow but, Peter writes “I dream of running water”.
… Indeed, one of the strengths of Soth’s work is his openness to people and ideas. He portrays people often at the fringes of society, who could be considered freaks or oddballs, but captures their ordinariness. He puts this down to the dynamics of the large-format camera he carried, which he says changed the whole relationship between him and his subjects.
“I normally don’t have a camera with me when I approach somebody, so immediately it’s less threatening,” he explains. “Then people ask me about the project and only then do they see the camera. It’s big and old-fashioned and my head is covered by a dark cloth, which also changes things. They can’t see my face, so the situation becomes more relaxed. Because it takes so long, you have a conversation with them and the result shows.
“Sometimes I asked if I could go into people’s homes and take their pictures there,” he continues. “Some of the interiors in the book started as pictures of people, but then I found their homes were more interesting. Obviously you can’t just ask people to go into peoples’ homes and take their pictures.”
Once inside, Soth rearranged interiors in his quest for the perfect composition. It’s an approach that means some of his images are too perfect and too contrived, giving some of his photographs the feel of an installation. It’s a criticism Soth recognises. “I think the weak point of the book is the lack of in-between pictures,” he says. “It’s too bam-bam-bam, too many iconic images following iconic images with no softer pictures in between. But at the same time, for me it’s really important to keep the number of images low. I want to remember the book in my head.”
Personal circumstances also influenced the work Soth produced. “My mother-in-law lived with me and my wife for years while she was ill with cancer and during a leave of absence she got very, very ill. I was at her deathbed and it changed my work. I became more courageous and the death theme emerged very strongly.”
Death is everywhere in Soth’s work. There are cemeteries, gravestones, memorial murals and a landscape of the cobbled banks of the Mississippi where the singer Jeff Buckley swam to his death. An old hospital bed in a deserted farmhouse echoes the time Soth spent at his mother-in- law’s death bed, while a sad portrait shows Lenny, a muscle-bound construction worker and erotic masseur, whose teenage son had recently died in a traffic accident. “My dream,” wrote Lenny, “is to live to be 100 and still look the way I do now.”
Soth’s dream was to make a great book. Having got his images together he produced 50 inkjet books in spring 2003 and gave them away. “People responded to them very quickly and soon publishers were interested,” he says. “I approached Steidl and the book came out. It was like a dream come true.”
Since then, Soth’s dream has entered the realms of fantasy. Rejecting the imprecations of the art world, he joined Magnum as a nominee. “I chose Magnum because I’m in love with that whole tradition,” he says. “I always remember what Capa said to Cartier-Bresson: ‘Don’t keep the label of a surrealist photographer. Be a photojournalist. If not, you will fall into mannerism. Keep surrealism in your little heart, my dear’. I do have the capacity to be self-indulgent and I can be over-poetic, so it’s really healthy to do assignments.””
Buildings and Architecture
Julius Shulman (1910-2009) was an American photographer known for his documentation of mid-20th Century modern architecture and urban development in Los Angeles. The artist captured the idyllic spirit of the postwar building-boom era in his photographs of modern domesticity, sometimes including the inhabitants of the homes in his shots—and was among the first photographers to do so.
http://www.artnet.com/artists/julius-shulman/ [accessed 8th June 2020]
Bill Owens’ project Suburbia was expansive and similar in scope to other journey projects, but concentrated on people in their homes in America in the 1950s and 60s. Where Arbus hunted out subjects like nudists and transvestites, whose images would reveal a “forbidden”, alternative America behind the American way of life of the 1905’s and 1960’s, Owen let many of his subjects select themselves; he advertised in a local newspaper that he was “working on a photographic project about suburbia. I would like to photograph your home, your children, pets or whatever.” Therefore, the people in his pictures identified themselves not only as suburbanites but also as suburbanites who wanted to be photographed as such.
David Spero is a British photographer known for his quietly contemplative enquiries into overlooked communities and the appropriation of space.
For Settlements, Spero spent 10 years documenting communities that aim to live with minimal impact on the environment. The series focusses on self-built dwellings, featuring structures erected in line with their residents’ ecologically sustainable, land-based living. These communities are almost entirely self-sufficient; they use recycled building materials, renewable energy sources and grow their own food. This body of work follows four low-impact communities: Tinker’s Bubble and King’s Hill in Somerset, Brithdir Mawr in Pembrokeshire, and Steward Woodland in Dartmoor. Each is home to between 10 and 20 residents who value close proximity to nature and a visceral connection with the land they inhabit. These photographs are a sensitive record of how these communities live, surrounded by lush green settings in dense forest that suggest an almost fairy-tale-like quality.
http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1386752/photograph-spero-david/ [accessed 9th June 2020]
In her series Neighbours, Finnish photographer Martina Lindqvist took photographs of isolated houses to interrogate her own relationship with home and what she sees as community. These may be interesting examples for you to research further if you are interested in representations of home.
BJP, 2017. Alec Soth is Sleeping by the Mississippi. [Online]
Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/11/alec-soth-mississippi/
[Accessed 07 June 2020].
Cotton, C., 2014. Something and Nothing. In: The Photograph as Contemporary Art. 3rd edition ed. London: Thames & Hudson, pp. 115-134.
Evans, J., 2001. Susan Lipper – No Vacancies. [Online]
Available at: https://www.susanlipper.com/text_bb_evans.html
[Accessed 02 June 2020].
Josten, A., n.d. Biography: Stephen Shore. [Online]
Available at: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/stephen-shore?all/all/all/all/0
[Accessed 06 June 2020].
Kordic, A., 2016. Still Life Photographers Who Give a Fresh Meaning to Vanitas. [Online]
Available at: https://www.widewalls.ch/still-life-photographers/
[Accessed 20 May 2020].
Pittman, R. H., 2012. Anonymization. Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag.
Schjeldahl, P., 2019. The Shock of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. [Online]
Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-shock-of-robert-franks-the-americans
[Accessed 06 June 2020].
Zenser, M., 2017. A Very Brief History of Still Life. [Online]
Available at: https://www.sothebys.com/en/articles/a-very-brief-history-of-still-life
[Accessed 19th May 2020].