Exercise 1: Individual Spaces
Stacy’s passion is her garden, and as a landscape gardener by trade, it is also an example of what can be achieved in a typical suburban English garden.
Stacy is never comfortable at having her photograph taken, but asked to carry out the task in her garden she would most like to do, she fell into the pose naturally and with a smile.
My second subject is my wife Andrea. Andrea is standing outside the house of her mother, recently deceased, on one of the last few trips we will make there before it is sold. Unlike Stacy, this is a poignant moment for Andrea. Andrea and her mother never got on and were more or less estranged for the last ten years, only become less so, when my mother in law was diagnosed with cancer.
Sheila is a childhood friend of my wife. As a child, she lived in a house that was back to back with my mother in law’s house. In those days she was able to walk through the respective gardens to see Andrea. Unlike Andrea, Sheila associates the house with happy memories. Sheila is seen here recreating her journey for the last time before the house is sold.
All of these subjects were aware; this series could have only been done this way, and of course, they are all outside, and in particular, all in a garden. None of the subjects were comfortable sitters. I never asked them to smile, and they probably couldn’t naturally, if I had asked them to.
The series worked out better than I though it would at first. There is a beautiful symmetry in the portraits of Andrea and Sheila. I have no doubt that the symmetry would have been perfect if the third portrait was my mother in law, but of course that would never have been possible.
Project 1: The Unaware
Walker Evans (1903-1975) is described by Britannica Encyclopaedia (Brittanica Encyclopedia, 2020) as having perhaps more influence on the evolution of photography in the second half of the 20th Century than any other photographer. “He rejected the prevailing highly aestheticized view of artistic photography, of which Alfred Stieglitz was the most visible proponent, and constructed instead an artistic strategy based on the poetic resonance of common but exemplary facts, clearly described. His most characteristic pictures show quotidian American life during the second quarter of the century, especially through the description of its vernacular architecture, its outdoor advertising, the beginnings of its automobile culture, and its domestic interiors…Evans’s unswerving commitment to a direct and unsentimental style, free of dramatic vantage points and romantic glints and shadows, was a commitment to an art that concealed its art. On the level of style, his work might have been mistaken for that of a skilled if literal-minded commercial photographer. Evans’s idea of artistic style was expressed by Gustave Flaubert’s maxim that an artist should be “like God in Creation…he should be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen.”
“The guard is down and the mask is off,” Walker Evans wrote of his Subway Portraits, a series of subway commuters shot with a hidden camera from 1938 to 1942.
https://www.theartstory.org/artist/evans-walker/artworks/ [accessed 30th March 2020]
Evans strapped his 35 mm Contax camera to his chest and had rigged cable release in his hand, in order to be able to capture photographs of people unaware that they were being photographed. Some people were deep in conversation or immersed in their reading, or lost in thought, but most were behaving as one would on a subway, attempting to be anonymous or blend in, or intimate with their travelling companions.
The Guardian wrote of the image above and of the Subway series: “This woman, her face framed by a scarf and with her striking white hair and eyebrows, is in a dream, wandering off into hidden places of thought as the train rattles under the city. In theory, this photograph, taken as part of a calculated series – one person fitting into the mould left by the previous face, each given equal, unemphatic treatment – ought to be cold and anonymous, like a passport picture. On the contrary, Evans discovers the mystery in each individual.
This woman’s shadowed eyes, heavy features, head resting on hand and dense clothing suggest griefs and anxieties that are dramatised by the blur of lights, reflections and misty platform glowing in the train window behind her. The window is like a prison, adding to the sense of emotional claustrophobia; the passing, smeared lights are already fading memories.
Evans’s subway portraits are extraordinarily romantic images of New York. Each of them is a moment of encounter, or the desire for encounter; as far as we can tell from the pictures, the artist never reveals his project, never speaks to these strangers, though sometimes the subject catches his eye. In others, sitters are caught in moments of anger and menace; a youth in a cap looking frustrated, a grim newspaper reader.
Each of these travellers through the dark tunnels is someone you want to know more about, someone whose fleeting presence is subtly fascinating – yet Evans doesn’t elaborate, he just photographs someone else. The seriality implies universality: everyone is part of the same collective life. These people hurtle through the dark, thinking their private thoughts, suspended between moments of their lives, all in the same subterranean gloom.”
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2002/sep/14/art [accessed 30th March 2020]
This review of Evan’s project accurately reflects my own feelings when looking upon his work. One can almost feel the more traumatic and depressing aspects of her life, and it would not be a stretch to create a whole biography from this one image.
Angier notes (Angier, 2015, p. 82) that the work of Evans touches on both surveillance and the voyeuristic gaze. According to Angier, Evans characterised himself as a “penitent spy and apologetic voyeur”.
Martin Parr (born 1952) is a Bristol based documentary photographer, photobook collector and member of Magnum Photos. He is known for his projects documenting social classes in Britain. Parr’s 1998 project Japanese Commuters shows the world of Japanese commuters travelling home from work, presumably after a very long day, with commuters catching up on much needed sleep. All the subjects are shot square on from a seated position, with all subjects asleep with head bowed, unaware of that their image has been taken.
Philip-Lorca di Corcia developed the technique of fixing a high powered strobe light to scaffolding in Times Square, New York, activated by a transmitter attached to his camera. He used a long lens, providing both anonymity and compression of the background, thus isolating the subject. The resulting candid portraits make look posed at times but were always covert.
The Museum of Modern Art writes of the project: “… he captured unwitting pedestrians in a burst of light from more than 20 feet away. Since diCorcia worked in broad daylight, his subjects did not notice the strobe’s flash. The person caught within its light is highlighted in great detail, while the surrounding crowd recedes into the background. In describing his process, diCorcia said: “I was investigating things: the nature of chance, the possibility that you can make work that is empathetic without actually evening meeting the people.” The artist pursued this project over the course of two years, taking more than 4,000 photographs, of which he selected only 17 to include in the series…
In 2006, the Heads series became the center of a debate between free speech advocates and those concerned with protecting an individual’s right to privacy. One of diCorcia’s subjects sued the artist and his gallery for exhibiting, publishing, and profiting from his picture, arguing that it was taken without his permission and therefore violated his right to privacy (and his religious beliefs). DiCorcia countered that he did not seek consent because, “There is no way the images could have been made with the knowledge and cooperation of the subjects.” The artist ultimately won the case.
Free speech advocates argue that street photography is an established form of artistic expression and that the freedom to photograph in public is protected under the first amendment to the United States Constitution.”
https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/philip-lorca-dicorcia-head-10-2002/ [accessed 31st March 2020]
Tom Wood was born in 1951 in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. He lived and worked in Merseyside between 1978 and 2003, before moving to his current home in North Wales.
Between 1982 and 1985, Wood photographed on dark busy nights in the now-demolished Chelsea Reach nightclub in New Brighton. The photographs were only possible because Wood was accepted as a regular who was known to many of the clientele.
Almost every Saturday between 1978 and 1999, Tom Wood travelled from his home in New Brighton by ferry and bus to Great Homer Street market, just outside Liverpool city centre in the North West of England. He would photograph the people passing through the market, then travel back on the bus, taking pictures the whole way.
The New Yorker’s photography critic, Vince Aletti, once described Wood’s style as “loose, instinctive and dead-on” adding “he makes Martin Parr look like a formalist”.
Parr and Wood were photographing New Brighton at the same time during the early 1980s. Parr claimed: “I am a documentary photographer, and if I take a good photograph in the process, that’s a bonus.” Wood stated: “I’m interested in good photographs, and if they document something, so much the better!”
While I can appreciate Parr’s perspective, I lean more towards Wood’s perspective. I have been more interested in the aesthetics than the narrative in the past, though I am conscious that this is changing as I undertake my studies. Perhaps by graduation I may pursuing documentary photography over “beautiful” images, though I hope I am able to find an oeuvre that masters both.
Exercise 2: Covert
I used my Fujifilm X100V for this exercise, a popular camera for use in street photography. It has the advantage of being small and quiet, with a tilting screen that allows waist level capture, providing the illusion that camera is not in use. Its disadvantage is that it has a slightly wide-angle lens.
I took a series in the street and a series in the supermarket. I chose a series from the letter as it provided better consistency of background.
I am not practiced at this form and though zone focussing would be commonly used by street photographers, I chose to let the camera focus itself. The focus is therefore rarely spot on.
Project 2: The Aware
“From the towering buildings of Chicago and its urban inhabitants to grass and weeds in the snow, Harry Callahan (1912–1999) is regarded as one of the most influential figures in post-war photography, yet his work is little known in the UK.
Callahan disregarded the limits of conventional landscapes to give equal focus to both broad perspectives and individual details. His work is grouped into three themes which he described in 1975 as ‘Nature, Buildings and People’. Linking all three is his wife, Eleanor, whom he met in 1933 and who became his most photographed subject. She appears indoors, within the city landscape, as a lone figure on a beach and emerging from the water as in Eleanor 1949…His work is a personal response to his life, encompassing what he saw, felt and experienced. Unlike many photographers of his time, he didn’t give himself conceptual or technical limitations, instead seeing his practice as a ‘lifetime project’ – a constantly evolving journey.
This can most easily be understood by grouping his work into three themes, which he described in 1975 as ‘Nature, Buildings and People’, and to which he repeatedly returned over his 60-year career. The key thread linking all three is his wife, and most photographed subject, Eleanor, who he met in 1933 and married three years later. She appears nude, clothed, in close-up, in silhouette, with their daughter Barbara inside their home or outdoors dwarfed by the towering urban landscape, a lone figure in the distance on a beach or emerging from the water. These images show his dedication to the subject of the female form, but perhaps more importantly portray their relationship and the central role Eleanor had in his life (Eleanor 1949).”
https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/display/harry-callahan [accessed 6th April 2020]
Although the course text uses Callahan as an example of a more complicit relationship between subject and photographer, it also identifies a particular component of his work, that of the physical separation between subject and photographer. Roswell Angier also notes (Angier, 2015, p. 85) that although Callahan’s work was influenced by Evan’s Subway project, Callahan used a telephoto lens to maintain a physical separation. Unquestionably aware, the subjects may never the less felt less threatened.
Julian Germain spent 8 years taking pictures of the quiet, contemplative existence of Charles Snelling, an elderly man living alone in a small house in Portsmouth. In his book Every Minute You Are Angry, You Lose 60 Seconds of Happiness, he shows these photographs alongside pages from Snelling’s own photo albums.
This study is a model example of critical engagement with the subject over a long period of time before the photographs were taken.
Daniel Meadows has spent a lifetime recording British society, challenging the status quo by working in a collaborative way to capture extraordinary aspects of ordinary life through pictures, audio recordings and short movies. He is best known for his 1973-74 journey around England in the Free Photographic Omnibus when he travelled 10,000 miles in a converted double-decker and made 958 portraits in “free studio” sessions in 22 different British towns and cities.
Daniel’s work has been exhibited widely both in the UK and on the continent of Europe. Born in Gloucestershire, England, in 1952 Daniel studied at Manchester Polytechnic 1970-73. Photography projects from that time include The Shop on Graeme Street in Moss Side (1972), also two collaborations with fellow student Martin Parr: Butlin’s by the Sea in Yorkshire (1972) and June Street in Salford (1973).
Daniel taught documentary photography with David Hurn in Newport (1983-94); photojournalism (1994-2001) and digital storytelling (2000-2012) at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies. In 2002 Daniel won a BAFTA Cymru for the digital storytelling project Capture Wales.
Meadows and Parr decided to work collaboratively to photograph the residents of June Street in Salford, using a single tripod and the college Hasselblad, a jointly credited project in which who actually pressed the shutter had little relevance. June Street was in Ordsall, an area that was scheduled for redevelopment. Meadows and Parr chose it in particular because it was one of the last streets to provide location exteriors for the nation’s number one soap opera Coronation Street. From then on Granada TV would film all exteriors in its Quay Street studios on a newly constructed set. The idea that this way of representing the ‘reality’ of northern working-class life would thenceforth survive only in fiction, was something that intrigued Meadows and Parr.
“’Living Like This’ is Meadows’ account of his adventures in the ‘Free Photographic Omnibus’ between September 1973 and November 1974, when he travelled to 22 different towns and cities offering free portrait sessions and collecting stories. In recounting the book’s many tales, the 23 year-old is clear about his documentary ambitions: I hope everyone who reads the stories will be able to enjoy a snatch of life as it is lived by someone else. For it is only by appreciating each other’s circumstances that we can hope to improve our world.”
Exercise 3: Same Model, Different Background
I chose to use my wife as the model, partly because of the intimate bond we have. I have used three archive images that demonstrate that bond.
I did not set out with a particular narrative in mind, only with a view on my choice of my model, hence allowing me to use some archive images. However, each image still provides some information about the character of my wife. I will leave it up to the viewer to extract that for themselves. As I am comfortable in the presence of my wife I had no difficulty in carting out this exercise.
The Portable Tent Studio
“To this day, one of the most influential photobooks ever made is Irving Penn’s Worlds in a Small Room. It is noted for the photographs, which show Penn’s immaculate, premeditated style, his concern for geometry, and the balance of light and dark elements. But it is equally monumental for the profound way in which the photographer attempts to engage the world.
The elements of this engagement are present in Penn’s first project. Wrapping up a 1948 photo shoot for Vogue magazine in Lima, Peru, Penn chose to continue on to Cuzco while the rest of the crew flew home for Christmas. After three days in bed with altitude sickness, Penn woke on the forth day with renewed energy. Walking the streets in the centre of town he encountered a photographer’s studio with sheet glass for a roof and open on the north side, a daylight studio. Penn paid off the owner and rented the studio for three days. In an important reversal, Penn photographed the studio’s clientele, but rather than take money from the subjects, he paid them to let him take their photographs. The results are a powerful, evocative engagement with an unfamiliar culture. Edward Steichen has said the photos “richly render the timelessness and human dignity of a people.””
https://imageonpaper.com/2013/07/21/review-worlds-in-a-small-room/ [accessed 7th April 2020]
“The studio became, for each of us, a sort of neutral area. It was not their home, as I had brought this alien enclosure into their lives; it was not my home, as I had obviously come from elsewhere, from far away. But in this limbo there was for us both the possibility of contact that was a revelation to me and often, I could tell, a moving experience for the subjects themselves, who without words—by only their stance and their concentration—were able to say much that spanned the gulf between our different worlds”
Irving Penn, Worlds in a Small Room (1974) Grossman Publishers.
Gone Astray Portraits borrows from the 19th century street portrait convention of using painted murals as backgrounds to photograph city dwellers. Each sitter is carefully styled and propped to assume an urban generic type, on close examination each subject shows signs of wear, from ripped tights to bandaged wrists. The title of the series is taken from a Charles Dickens text, Gone Astray 1853 which is an account of a young child lost in the City of London. A story filled of references to anxiety and vulnerability and to people leading double lives.
http://clarestrand.co.uk/works/?id=100 [accessed 7th April 2020]
Exercise 4: Same Background, Different Model
This is possibly the least successful of the exercises. The backdrop – another garden – is probably a lazy choice, and not at all creative. Arguably the subjects (I’m one of them) are natural, direction was light enough that all the sitters could choose their own pose.
Arguably, a better choice would have to select a backdrop that was inherently interesting and not prosaic, such as a subway train shown in the text. This path would have led to a covert street exercise.
However, all that said, my objective was to experience the various forms of portraits and this form is as valid as any other.
Angier, R. (2015). Train Your Gaze. London: Bloomsbury.
Brittanica Encyclopedia. (2020, March 30). Evans Walker. Retrieved from Brittanica Enclycopedia Biographies: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walker-Evans