“At the water’s edge” ANSEL ADAMS @ THE NATIONAL MARITIME MUSEUM

entrance to the National Maritime Museum

entrance to the National Maritime Museum

It takes me four hours to reach the National Maritime Museum from my home, a journey involving 6 trains! The building is impressive, set in Greenwich (billed as the prime meridian of the world) on the southern bank of The Thames, not a part of London I know well yet one with an obvious history.

There is a charge for the exhibition, only £6 for a student, and I buy the catalogue, another £20 (no student reduction!). The desk is at the entrance to the museum and information about the exhibition is illuminated on the walls with a poignant quote by Ansel Adams … ”

Ansel Adams was considered the master of black and white photography and not without good reason for although his artistic approach is now rather dated (one OCA tutor has referred to his school as “anally retentive”), he did help to evaluate a system of correct exposure that made it possible for him and many others to make accurate exposures and hence record what they wanted to on film; known as the Zone System, his approach transposed did help to evaluate and process digital images although his understanding of film is now largely redundant. When I began photography, I learnt much of the basics from the approach of Ansel Adams.

entrance to the exhibition showing a list of points drawn up by Ansel Adams

entrance to the exhibition showing a list of points drawn up by Ansel Adams

The exhibition itself is housed in a basement gallery; outside there is a shop selling Ansel Adams bric-a-brac (I succumb to an Ansel Adams mug and a pen since my other pen is not functioning) while inside white walls merge with occasional flashes of pink. I do not find myself thinking much about the many walls and alcoves of the gallery space since I am immediately taken in by the magnificent quality of the prints. This is what I had come for – to see prints by Ansel Adams in all their tonal glory!

The prints are drawn from prominent collections across the U.S. and many of those on display are famous images; only one image is not an Ansel Adams original namely Diamond Cascade, Yosemite National Park, 1920. Although not a particularly impressive image, Ansel Adams’ thought process about it is as he attempted to … “in some way, interpret the power of falling water, the light and airy manner of the spray particles, or the glimmer of the sunlit water.” Around this time he wrote to his father that “photography is limited, you know, but I am hoping for results.”

They images are all connected to water which for Ansel Adams was “mysterious, ephemeral, and transitory” and he photographed it repeatedly.

Ansel Adams’ images can be dismissed as being pictorial, modernist in a post post modern age, yet any apparent triteness might seem irrelevant when one sees such work as original art objects where one can not help but see differently. Magazine even art books can not do justice to such work and although the catalogue that was produced for the exhibition is good quality, it does not accurately evoke the vision of this master photographer – in fact, glancing at the images in the book they seem flat in comparison.

One of the first photographs that engages me, if I had only seen this one image and spent my whole time looking at it my visit would not have been wasted, is titled “Mirror Lake, Mount Watkins, Spring, Yosemite National Park” and was made in 1935. There is a full range of tones here with some deliciously black trees in the centre (the exhibition surprises me by the use of what Ansel Adams would presumably have referred to as Zone 2 and Zone 1 – dark areas where detail is barely visible) and glowing mid-tones where the water reflects the sky. I notice a few spots … so Ansel Adams was not perfect but then art does not have to be since it points to something beyond.

The next print is of Surf, Point Lobos State Reserve, California and was made in 1963 – this has a wonderfully abstract feel with deep blacks and bright whites.

On a wall facing these prints is a map of the United States showing the places where Ansel Adams photographed – almost all are in the West but he did visit a few locations in the North East such as Cape Cod.

As an artist, Ansel Adams tends to be viewed as a photographic modernist who broke free from the constraints of the pictorialist tradition. The brutality of the Second World War which was photographed much more extensively than the First World War and made pictorialism seem rather too idealistic – photographers like Ansel Adams adopted a more modernist approach with it’s emphasis on contrast.

As a teenager, he found school increasingly difficult and was not responding; this lead to his father sending him to see the “Panama – Pacific – Exposition” for a different kind of educational experience. A print he made at this time is exhibited – it shows the pictorialist influence since it is soft focused almost abstract yet recognisable as a record of a physical space. Although Ansel Adams occasionally made photographs  such as Rainbow Falls (1929) like those of the pictorialists who believed that photographs should look like paintings, he abandoned and rebelled against this art form when he became a photographer.

A photographic print from 1918 of Helmut Rock, Land’s End, San Francisco was made when he was only 16 and although the breaking waves are soft in rendition, the rock itself is not and stands out from the swelling sea around it.

An early innovation was “Parmelian Prints” (a fictional term) for a special kind of paper that gave fine art results and lead to a book by Ansel Adams of prints from the High Sierras (1927) in which can see the beginnings of Ansel Adams’s highly developed style of image making.

The exhibition is divided into sections of which “Sea and Surf” is the second (the first being referred to above is called Beginnings). Ansel Adams writes that “In capturing bursting spray from rocks … the photographer must be hair-trigger alert for the moment … ”

XXXX

As I move through the exhibition I become aware of the quality of the prints which is really while I have come as there is more than one book of Ansel Adams in my home. One thing that strikes me is the presence of deep blacks; what makes them so effectively deep is the whisper of detail that makes one feel one is looking at something rather than staring into space. One reassuring fact about this exhibition is that since the prints were made by Ansel Adams, he must have been reasonably happy with them although he was constantly reworking negatives to different effects.

In Foam (1960), one is initially attracted by the design of this natural subject, yet what makes the picture so attractive is the full range of tones and detail amidst the blacks; there are times when the contrast in Ansel Adams’s work seems to contain too much contrast, to be rooted in the late Modernist approach, but original prints help to allay this emphasis. Ansel Adams was of course faced with the limitations of technology and although he worked with Kodak in his time to develop it, there must have been times when it held him back in his creativity.

An interesting series of photographs was made from the same position at the top of a cliff looking down at the sea; these are called Surf Sequence, San Mateo Country Coast, California 1940. One might recall the time and motion studies of another photographer, Edward Muybridge, yet what is striking here is the interweaving of abstract design and the physicality of the scene.

Another section is “Coast” about which is written … “what I am trying to do in pictorial photography … is the representation of material things in the abstract or purely imaginative way.” He has made a series of close up photographs of ruined artefacts in Shipwreck Series.

There is a section of giant mural like photographs; one might assume that these are digital blow ups but in fact, they were made by Ansel Adams using an enlarger projected horizontally across to paper hanging on a wall; since there was no paper large enough, this work was printed on more than one piece of photographic paper. While the joins are visible on the large prints they are not obvious.

In the “Rivers” section, there is quote by Ansel Adams that says “I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music.” One of the exemplary images here is called Maroon Bells, Near Aspen, Colorado 1951 in which there is a balanced range of tones from black to white.

Equivalents form a kind of sub-section along one wall. Equivalents refer to the ability to express personal experience through photography, an approach initiated by Alfred Steiglitz and developed through his horizon-less cloud photographs made between 1923 and 1934. The emphasis is on making an emotional statement rather than a mere record of the real. An example of this from Ansel Adams is Nevada Fall, Profile, Yosemite Valley in about 1946; this image graces the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Apart from the development of photographic aesthetics, Ansel Adams was also concerned with technical innovation in the development of the Zone System which helped in the ability to create accurate exposures with a controlled gradation of tones such as in the glimmering grey of some mid tones. One can see this in a classic Ansel Adams photograph called Mirror Lake, California circa 1950.

“Waterfalls” another section starts with the following quote which is also to be seen advertising the exhibition … “A great photograph is one that fully expresses what one feels, in the deepest sense, about what is being photographed” …this also references the notion of equivalents.

Ansel Adams’ photographs are full of natural power particularly in images containing waterfalls – there is often a strong contrast between the soft falling water and the solid gnarled rocks.

Although I do not own an Ansel Adams original, I do own a print made from one of his negatives by someone else. This is “Early Morning, Merced River” which seems here to be much less contrasty than mine; the reproduction in the catalogue lacks the necessary bite of contrast seen in the original.

There is mention of f64, a group of photographers that included Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham to which Ansel Adams also belonged; it only lasted for 3 years during the 1930s and was concerned with an extended depth of field in which both near and far objects could be seen simultaneously in detail. It was an attempt to picture the world as the camera sees it rather than the human eye.

Another section is called “Rapids” and here Ansel Adams is quoted as saying “I want to take pictures. I am tired of moving my fingers up and down under the smug rules of past ages … I want to express myself freely, individually … ” The one that catches my eye here is titled Cascade, Yosemite National Park and made in about 1968; the water seems to sparkle with light and the stones in some parts are jet black although this image is in fact included in the next section called “Surfaces and Textures”  wherein Ansel Adams is quoted as saying “no one has ever approached the full possibilities of the medium” which presumably refers to the extraordinary power of a tonally adjusted image.

The section “Snow and Ice” shows more evidence of incredibly rich tones enhanced by careful composition; for instance, “Frozen Lake and Cliffs”, a favourite of Ansel Adams which he describes as a poorly developed negative.

Of “Geysers” Ansel Adams says the “Geyser steam is vague in shape and texture … it should be treated with delicacy.”

“Clouds and Reflections” is another section about which Ansel Adams writes “Water, while quite transparent, has considerable reflective powers as everyone who has stood by a still pool must know. “Grand Prismatic Spring” is an image that strikes me for it’s wonderful balance of tones and was made in about 1942 while the well known “Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite NP, California” made in about 1937 is another extremely impressive print and image.

The photographs by Adams are not perfect (for instance, one can sometimes see softness at the edges resulting from the design of lenses from that time) yet they possess amazing qualities of both composition and execution.

A photograph of the Golden Gate before the bridge was built is an interesting image since it was taken shortly before construction began in 1933. For Adams, this image was a favourite since it reminded him of childhood years spent in the Bay area.

The photographic images of Ansel Adams grow on one. It can take time to work out what they are actually about and when one does, one perhaps experiences something that might be called art. His prints are more than just images, they are also art objects and in this Adams perhaps confounds critics like Walter Benjamin.

Personally, Ansel Adams was a photographer who inspired me to “make” rather then “take” photographs and even though his modernist black and white approach is now dated, it is still encouraging.

entrance to the National Maritime Museum

entrance to the National Maritime Museum

A blog by someone else of the exhibition can be read here

Advertisements

Portraits by Man Ray (at The National Portrait Gallery)

20130217-entrance to the National Portrait Gallery-20130217-London-_MG_8744

outside the National Portrait Gallery

I was initially excited by this exhibition but after a brief look through the catalogue began to feel that this was an exhibition of pictures of important people rather than a photographic exhibition; one might expect this from the National Portrait Gallery, an institution that is geared to recording the presence of the famous and the eminent.

After saying goodbye to a friend with whom I had had lunch and seen the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2013, I went down to the other end of the National Portrait Gallery to see the ticketed Man Ray exhibition; it was a sunday afternoon and quite crowded when I entered but the gallery slowly emptied and before leaving I was able to walk around quickly taking it all in together. However, my main impression of the exhibition was from certain works that struck me.

Man Ray started photography as a way to copy his own art work; it developed partly by accident when his partner, Lee Millar who also became a well known photographer, opened the door in his darkroom resulting in the “solarising” of a print, an error that Man Ray liked and further developed. Some of his most well known solarisations were made of Lee Millar.

The exhibition consists of portraits by Man Ray, the National Portrait Gallery being the location of this exhibition necessitates this, yet the photographer’s approach to his sitters is not predictable and one is struck by his innovative approach. Many of his sitters are well known people of his time not from the world of celebrity but from the Arts.

Marcel Duchamp, Dadaist founder and famous for exhibiting a urinal, was photographed in 1916; he was also photographed later as a transvestite.

These images were made in New York during the First World War; later Man Ray moved to Paris where he was to photograph many people famous at that time such as Pablo Picasso, the artist, with his “intense, intransigent look” which was made using the lsat plate (cameras of that time used a more complicated process involving single sheet fed film as the recording media) of a session in which he copied Picasso’s work.

Man Ray had learnt to work in studio-like conditions in which he had control of the lighting and was hence able to create the creative effects he wanted.

One of his landmark images is called “le Violon d’Ingres”; made in 1924, it shows the openings of a violin body superimposed on the back of a nude. With imaging software, this kind of work is quite easily accomplished but at that time it was a highly skilled act made in the darkroom. The vision was also novel and indicates Man Ray’s involvement with the Surrealists.

In 1923, Man Ray photographed another expatriate American, the author Ernest Hemingway who was also living in Paris at that time.

“Noire et Blanche” is a series of photographs made with the young French model “Kiki de Montparnasse” (his partner between 1922 – 28). These images are not only noteworthy for their use of black and white but also a mask with the apparent isolation of the head from the body.

Some of the photographs in this exhibition are pleasant surprises as one puts a face to someone one knew of; for instance, I am familiar with the music of Erik Satie and so a portrait of him from 1924 is instantly engaging. Other images mean little although they may be appealing such as the photographs of the Maharaja and Maharani of Indore from 1927.

Another stage in the life of Man Ray was initiated by his affair with Lee Millar. She was modelling for Vogue magazine for which Man Ray photographed; it sees the start of his “solarised” prints which became a kind of trademark. In 1930, he photographed her by a window with the lacework over the window throwing a maze of patterns on her upper torso. Apart from formal assignments, Man Ray worked on other topics such as suicide.

Another of his subjects from this time was Le Corbusier, the architect, who looks upward and out of the frame as if surveying one of his buildings. Man Ray also photographed himself and these self-portraits are dotted throughout the exhibition space.

There is a portrait of Salvador Dali from 1929 in which his subject looks quite ordinary although the prominent moustache is evident; later photographic portraits of Dali have been more like performances!

An example of the way Man Ray reinvented his work continuously can be seen in a couple of prints from a Lesbian portrait; one image is soft while the other is much clearer and sharper. There is another distinctly “gay” image from 1933 featuring the overtly feminine features of Meret Oppenheimer.

There is another print showing a line of fellow artists including Lee Millar and Max Ernst that tumbles down to Man Ray who crouches at the bottom with his head sticking out from beneath Lee Millar’s armpit.

Coco Chanel is photographed posing in a dark dress set against a light background.

There is a 1933 portrait of Pablo Picasso, this time a portrait of a more formal nature, the subject engaging with the photographer.

Man Ray worked for magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and there is a portrait of Gertrude Lawrence from the december 1936 edition of the latter. The subject sits against a black background, another example of a “bright” face looming out of a darkness.

Virginia Woolf was photographed in 1934 and it was this image that helped to make her famous; it is probably posed but gives the impression of being a spontaneous moment. Also in 1934, Man Ray photographed Alduous Huxley, another great author and like Virginia Woolf, a member of The Bloomsbury Group.

There is a catching photograph of a circus performer who poses between the legs of Lee Millar, a reminder of the fun performer and his fellow artists must have had behind the scenes.

During the war years and after, Man Ray was in Hollywood and made some beautiful photographs yet I was unable to recall these people; it seems they had faded from memory as their fame left them. In another self-portrait, this time from 1946, Man Ray styles himself as a painter from the Left Bank of Paris.

After the Second World War, Man Ray returned to live in France and one of his last great photographic images is of Catherine Deneuve, the French actress. He also photographed Pablo Picasso again in 1955, this time a much older man yet still with enough vigour to look upon Jacqueline Roque his mistress.

At first, this extibition looked a bit dreary, black and white images from the past of people no longer alive, but as one looked closer a different impression arose. The National Portrait Gallery is perhaps more interested in images of well known “historical” figures that are part of a shared heritage than the photography that went into their production yet this exhibition also bears testament to Man Ray’s photographic virtuosity.

side entrance to the National Portrait Gallery

side entrance to the National Portrait Gallery

Format Festival 13 @ Derby

I wanted to see The Format Festival at Derby and decided to postpone a visit to India so that I could attend a visit with The Open College of the Arts. I did however, find myself wondering about their choice of photographers to view; there seemed to be much bigger fish such as Ed Burtynsky and Simon Roberts (as it happens there was only about one photograph each by these photographers) to see while the OCA choice was of photographers I had not heard of. It is of course always good to see work that one is not familiar with and hence my interest in the OCA which seems good at nudging one in all directions.

Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Derby Museum and Art Gallery

Anyway, I decided to take the train to Derby the day before and see something other than what the OCA wanted us to see and Brian Griffin whose work is showing at The Derby Museum and Art Gallery seemed the obvious choice; he is one of the most high profile photographers at the festival and although I have heard him speak before, I have not seen any of his exhibitions. He has famously denied being an artist.

After a visit to the tourist office in the centre of town, I make my way to the museum and art gallery, an ordinary looking building with a friendly staff. The Brian Griffin exhibition is a short lift ride up to the second floor. The photographs are hung around the room and in the centre is an elongated seat on which is left a comments book – “he makes people look like zombies!” “the guy in the corner of that photo looks out of place!” etc reminders that there are many ways one can respond to photography.

Still Waters exhibition

Still Waters exhibition

Still Waters” is the title of Brian Griffin’s document of leading figures from the workplace in Derby. In the making of these images, Griffin drew inspiration from a collection eighteenth century portraits of Derby people held by the museum. Of his craft, Griffin said in 1980 “portrait photography brings two people close together in an intimate relationship, where the photographer takes on the role of the sensitive manipulator“; he is considered to be the most influential British portrait photographer of the last 30 years with an ingenious approach supported by flawless technical ability.

Outside the entrance to the exhibition is a time lapse sequence showing the shoots Griffin made in the various places where he photographed thte “workers”; there is an array of lights as well as reflectors and flashes. However, one wonders exactly what the relationship was between Griffin and his “sitters” since there seems to be little if any engagement between photographer and subject. In fact, the subjects also seem to be separate from each other, stuck in their own worlds unable to relate. This is perhaps the most striking aspect of these images and one questions whether it is contrived or the result of the photographic moment. It is perhaps part of the photographer’s signature, the “disconcerting edge” and “twist of the surreal” that apparently leaves the viewer mesmerised? It is not clear the extent to which those being portrayed are responding to the photographer or just being themselves.

Another body of work grew out of this project and Brian Griffin also displays a group of black and white prints (originals were shot in colour) entitled self-portrait which are a group of still life featuring pairs of objects shaped to represent part of the body. There is a sensitivity here not found in other images and the viewer is allowed a more intimate relationship with the photograph.

20130315-OCA vitit to Format 13-20130315-Derby-_MG_9156

In another gallery is a body of work by Andreas Meichsner that wins the Paul Hill Award; it is a rare combination of the “dead pan” seriousness of the German School and humour subtly injected with a kind of clinical skill. The title of the work is TUV which is The German Association for Technical Inspections; it shows various instances of products being tested such as three men standing on the edge of a sofa, another holding an umbrella in front of a wind blowing machine etc There is a sense of the absurd here yet a certain beauty; the viewer is intrigued and possibly disconcerted.

Neither exhibition really inspires me though it is always good to see well produced work. Griffin’s archive will surely prove to be a valuable one and one is struck by the drama inherent in the imagery.

dinner at QUAD

dinner at QUAD

In the evening, I make my way to the Quad where there are a number of exhibitions on display that the OCA is due to visit tomorrow; after a meal, I decide to see Ken Loach‘s film “Spirit of 45” which is about the tremendous wave of optimism that struck the UK after the Second World War. A Labour government was voted in and the National Health Service was started. It was the UK of my mother’s salad days and I wanted to understand a little more about the aspirations of those days and the way the dreams of that time have been shattered by the rise of a consumer lead market place where costing is prominent. The blaming of Margaret Thatcher for all this seems misogynistic though it was the Conservatives who heralded the onset of change while the Socialists are no longer a power to be reckoned with since the Labour Party has abandoned their principles. I slept through much of it yet it did seem a balanced view of Britain since the war.

After a night at The Hallmark Inn near the station in Derby, I woke for breakfast and left the hotel at about 9.30 a.m. to walk the whole way to Derby University’s Markeaton Campus where a few students were already starting to congregate in the cafe there. I sat and had a cup of tea with Cedric Sherwood who is more advanced than myself in OCA studies; I recognised his name from chats on the OCA website. He is at Level 3 and making a body of work about the peculiar side of England and it’s empowering nature. He later wrote this about the visit …

An enjoyable and informative day and well worth the effort of getting up at 6.00 a.m. although by midday I had had enough and decided to head home. There comes a point, for me, where further viewing is counter-productive. Perhaps it is something to do with age but more likely that I felt that there was too little time for personal reflection after viewing and discussion by the group of any individual photographer’s work.

There is also the tendency to talk a photograph to death. I recognise that the purpose of a study visit is to discuss both the subject matter and how the photographer has achieved the stated aim but is it not possible to just enjoy the image for itself. Speculation is all very well and good but it is just that – speculation. There is a tendency for us all to try and explain everything – to fit the object into our world view – but if there are 16 people in the group there are going to be 16 (and possibly more!) world views. I have very strong views about Moira Lovell’s work (bit unfortunate really because she is my tutor) because of personal experience of the Miners Strike through relatives who worked in the industry and of those who were charged with the difficult task of controlling the more violent elements.The point is not that I think Moira’s view is ‘wrong’ (there is no such thing as a wrong view) but my world view gets in the way of me seeing it through her work.” (For Moira’s work and discussion, scroll down to fifth photo!)

Gareth Dent, Rob TM, Nigel Monkton

(from left to right) Gareth Dent, Rob TM, Nigel Monkton

Gareth Dent briefs us at the beginning of the visit

Gareth Dent briefs us at the beginning of the visit

Soon after 11.00 a.m., we sit at a long table and Gareth Dent introduces us to the day; music blares from a live performance nearby but it does not stop us having some kind of conversation. With formalities over, we make our way to a balcony upstairs to start viewing photographs which are hanging from the wall. I am already feeling tired but the conversation that gets going between students and tutors revives my spirits; this is what these study days are really about, stimulating thought and receiving informed views of the photographs on show. The work we are being asked to see is the choice of the tutors and Gareth Dent but neither of the tutors were in agreement about what to see.

Jose and Gareth discussing RJ Fernandez

Jose and Gareth discussing RJ Fernandez

The first set of photographs are by RJ Fernandez and called Moving Mountains, a reference perhaps to the Biblical phrase “If you had faith, you could move mountains!”. These images relate to an area of the Philippines where mining has literally eradicated mountains and local, indigenous tribal people have been dispossessed. There is however, little evidence in the images to suggest this and one is left looking at images of which the meaning is not clear. Certainly, industrialisation of the landscape is obvious yet beyond that there is little to go on. It is complex work and the images are attractive such as the diorama giving an aerial view of a dam being built. The photographs themselves are not of high quality and might even have been made by a compact came and yet this itself can be part of the work.

Next in line is a series of photographs from around the world by Louis Quail of people at their desks. Like other of the work in the festival, it does not relate directly to the theme of Factory, yet it is a good example of people in the work place and as a typology, quite fascinating as each person and their individual space is different. One recalls the work of Anna Fox called “Workstations” and wonders about the manner in which these photographs were made; there is no obvious sign of head on flash while the people themselves look unposed. One can look at these images for sometime and still find new interest. Does it have a particular message? Perhaps to emphasise the restrictions of such an environment. The prints are unframed and square, hanging loosely from the wall.

Daniele Cincinpini has produced a series called “10 Minutes” which is apparently the average length of time a worker has for a break, a statistic I find questionable.. The images show different people taking breaks from their work; most sit in a semi-contemplative state, presumably unwinding. OCA tutor Andrew Conroy is drawn to this body of work. Some images contain clocks, a direct reference to time; in the workplace, the time one puts in is often valued more than one’s skills. There is a sense of the pressure of work in these images, of workers who looked phased.

Interestingly, the series of photos that most inspires debate is a series of text based images by Christopher Steel of which those present are equally divided over. The writing all relates to the workplace with messages asking people to leave their food alone; the atmosphere is one of hostility and mistrust between fellow workers with a sense of the working area being subject to control. These very ordinary texts have elaborate and obvious framing perhaps to make up for the fact that these are really documents rather than photographs.

The final series of photographs we look at are by Sandra Hoyn which document child labour in the tannery businesses of Kanpur in India; the title for this body of work is called “Poisonous Business”. The emphasis is on the children, perhaps to draw sympathy from the viewer since what we call child labour is perceived differently in Asia where such children are often getting some kind of an apprenticeship which many other children will not. The theme seems rather hackneyed and the old discussion of how these kind of images have desensitised us to their subject matter is brought up; I refute this view because as Susan Sontag says in her book “Regarding the pain of others“, it is more a matter of such images reminding us of our numbness rather than causing it. What is the real purpose of these images? Will they stop us buying leather? Probably not but they are likely to spread awareness of the situation to others and contribute to awareness of the situation. Of this series, the last image seems the most striking with the face of the boy looking directly in camera; we are aware of him as an individual.

view from the balcony of the reception area at Markeaton Campus

view from the balcony of the reception area at Markeaton Campus

The group leaves this part of Derby University and walks towards the centre of town and into a place called Deda where there are a number of exhibitions on show. I chat with Jose about one concern I have with this festival – that there are no captions to any of the photographs not even titles. It seems to be an unwritten certainly unpublicised rule for the festival. The result is documentary photographs that leave one struggling to find meaning to. This is of course deliberate since photographs hung on gallery walls (or just the walls of corridors as is frequent in this festival) are being presented as art and hence should allow the viewer the freedom to contemplate rather than being directed by a caption that will direct the views gaze in a certain direction. People tend to see different things in a photograph and it would be unfortunate if this was prevented. Jose and I also chat a little about ebooks which I am starting to make.

At Deba, Andrew Conloy introduces us to black and white work by Ken Grant who photographed his area of Liverpool extremely intimately on a physical level, getting really close to his subjects so that often bodies are only partially represented as the centre of action is between them such as in the image of a young girl cuddling a dog who lies on the ground beneath other people. There are echoes of Martin Parr’s The Last Resort here but also of Chris Killipp who also worked in black and white around this time. These photographs are large and graphic and show more empathy than Parr’s work and goes beyond the ideas of the Scouse stereotype.

discussing mineworker exhibits by Moira Lovell

discussing photographs of mineworker by Moira Lovell

Downstairs at Deba, we see a group of images by Moira Lovell called We Will Stand that are of former coalminers who have all been photographed at night standing outside their former places of work. They lost their jobs during the 1980’s after the Miner’s Strike (1984-5) that threatened to topple Thatcherism. Some of the photographs are of individuals, most are of groups and while their faces and bodies are illuminated, the backgrounds of such images are black like the coal they once mined; the effect is dramatic and though they might have been photographed standing outside the old collieries they once worked, this might have resulted in a rather hackneyed approach. Someone mentions a similarity with Dutch painting owing to the use of strong shadow. Certainly light plays an important part in these images.

Simon Roberts exhibit at The Silk Mills

Simon Roberts exhibit at The Silk Mills

During a lunch break, I make my way to the Silk Mills where the first factory in the world was situated; the its is now a museum space in which there is a small exhibition of Simon Roberts work. Made with a large format camera, his prints are impressive and I am drawn to seeing his work for this reason. There is a photograph from a series called “Let this be a sign” and in keeping with the festival, we are not told where the place is – however, the image shows us some kind of assembly hall in which most of the people are slightly blurred owing to a long exposure. One wonders what is going on here as many present carry cameras and and are using them. The print is literally nailed to the wall!

At the QUAD, where I had been the previous evening, we see work by Caroline McNally which is hung on the wall of a staircase making it a little difficult for us to view it together. This kind of imagery has been described as “forensic landscape” since it shows close ups of bits of the landscape, in this case mysterious looking circular well holes and machinery that accompanies it. The series is called Earth is Room Enough and the text that accompanies the images takes a hardened ecological stance. There is a certain ethereal beauty to these images that look as though they have been cross-processed as cyan and magenta are prominent in them except for one that is just brown. One feels one might be on another planet in these scenes. What is this imagery really trying to say? Might it not be a little gimmicky? A reminder that photographic work can result in different points of view.

There is an interesting series of four urban wildlife prints by Patricia Van De Camp of wild animals in disused factories; we see deer inside these old buildings also a rabbit sitting in a doorway.

discussing work by Tim George

discussing work by Tim George

Before we leave Quad, Jose discusses three photographs by Tim George. This is conceptual work that is technically excellently photographed and yet the idea of occupational stress of the market place is also well conveyed. It seems appropriate that they are in a narrow corridor making one feel a little hemmed in as one views them.

Delhi Doormen - exhibit by Jane Delarney

Delhi Doormen – exhibit by Jane Delarney

We walk on to our final destination, The Chocolate Factory. This is a factory that stopped functioning a few years ago and still retains the atmosphere of the factory about it. I first notice work by Janet Delaney who has photographed doormen in Delhi; these images are varied but quite straightforward yet the introduction to the series is puzzling – it talks of how globalised commerce has put the established work force at risk. I do not quite understand this remark and wonder if the photographer or person responsible for captioning the body of work does either; often those in the West are naive about the rarities of the so called Third World and impose their own sense of morality upon it. Jose comments that the people in the images must have a very lonely job. This is perhaps a feature of the workplace that the festival brings out, the hardships that people undergo in their daily jobs.

We are pointed out the work of Chris Coekin who has made a series of posed documentary photographs of people at work using machinery. A reference is drawn with the paintings of Soviet Realists who painted the ideal worker. There is an obvious collaboration between the photographer and the subjects with gives a sense of freedom. The images are well lit and are all printed to the same size and none have frames. A vinyl record player sits to each side and once is invited to play a disc especially made by the artist that adds some appropriate background noise to the photos.

Another general point to observe about this festival of photographic images is the large variety of approaches to the subject of Factory; in my view, some do not meet the brief yet they are still images of the workplace and it is interesting to see the different interpretations.

The last group of images we are asked to look at as a group are by Ian Teh and picture Chinese mineworkers. They are an example of a body of work possessing a certain intention, having a mark of authorship, conveying a message. There is visual cohesion to the 8 photographs present. The images break a lot of compositional rules, a few can be describes as blurred, yet they manage to retain the eye of the viewer. Two of the images that strike me are the more conventional, focused shots – one is of humans working quite small in the frame surrounded by giant machinery and steam while another is of coal workers and their barrows, the scene having an eerie light to it. The more abstract images are also appealing in a more complex way such as the broken mirror on a wall that reflects the clear image of a worker while a human shadow falls nearby. The final three images are portraits of individual workers.

After the group has dispersed, I look at work by Sebastian Liste of life in Brazil. Jose finds this problematic in it’s voyeurism and use of imagery that creates a gap between subject and viewer. There is a photograph of a man penetrating a woman, his body is arched, her legs are splayed … what purpose does this voyeuristic image of a private moment convey to us? There seems to be no message and the image is shallow.

My final visit at this festival is to the Blurb Factory where there are a number of Blurb books on display. I would like to spend more time here but am now starting to feel tired having walked about 4 miles around town and only eaten an apple since breakfast. It is time to catch my train home and reflect on what has been a very interesting festival that I have found stimulating.

Derby Railway Station - being photographed by the police!

Derby Railway Station – being photographed by the police!

Other student have also blogged about this visit! Namely RobTM, Alet Roux and Steve Estill

Considering Beauty

Recently, on visiting an exhibition at the V+A Museum, I found my response to beauty in certain photographs was being muted perhaps because it was personal (the male gaze) yet also because it was deemed politically incorrect!

The Open College of the Arts had posted on this sometime previously …

According to Scarry, although rarely clearly articulated, there are two distinct political arguments against beauty within academic circles.

i. our preoccupation with beauty draws our attention away from social injustice (and making the world a better place.)
ii. The act of looking at a beautiful thing turns it into an object and thereby devalues it.

There are good grounds for these arguments (for example, the second comes out of feminist theory) but Scarry goes on to counter both, making the case that, on the contrary, appreciation of beauty increases empathy and results in more justice. Hence the title of the lecture.

Alison ???, the OCA tutor responsible for the post continues …

It’s impossible to define what is beautiful in terms of subject matter as this differs dramatically according to time and culture. Mountains were seen to be execrable and deformed aspects of nature at one time, and sublime in another. A photograph of a mountain scene now can often appears cliched. Although it’s difficult to describe, it is possible to talk about beauty with some shared agreement in terms of its qualities and the impact. We all know it when we see it (or hear it, or read it!)

Elaine Scarry talks about a beauty that is not trite, self conscious or complacent. The effect of it on us is undeniable. It takes us out of ourselves and places us “in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world.” She calls this experience “a radical decentering.” This allows us to see the world in a way we haven’t seen before. And that has got to be something worth talking about.

Another tutor, Peter Haveland, makes the following point …

The problem with beauty is that it is so slipery. This image is undoubtedly beautiful … but is it still beautiful when you know it is in Auschwitz and your uncle may well have walked on them?\Most people have debased beauty to mean some sort of super pretty and ownable in some way, a masculine (rather than male) fantasy in feminist critique and imperialist in post-colonial critique so difficult for postmodernists. Then again if beauty is truth and truth beauty and there is no fixed truth where is beauty?”

To this Alison replies …

“I think it is beautiful. What is it that makes it beautiful? I can see beauty in it even though I now know what it is. But I am sure I would not see beauty in it if it had been my uncle….. Beauty is “slippery” and problematic raises lots of questions but just because it isn’t fixed doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There seems to be something that is undeniable, and something that changes.

Another student mentions a book by the photographer, Robert Adams, “Beauty in Photography : In defence of traditional values” a book I possess but have not read; Nigel Monckton, the student in question, writes in reference to this book that … “beauty is something that creates Form from chaos.”

Tutor Peter Haveland again chips in …

The objection to the use of ‘beauty’, however inconvenient, has much to recommend it.
A post-Modernist would have argued that beauty implies an absolute and universal quality and that nothing is absolute or universal thus, like truth and reality, it is a redundant term. Feminists and post-culturalists argue that beauty is a social construct, a product of the dominant ideology and as that ideology is colonialist/imperialist and patriarchal then the term contains these objectionable elements within it and is anti-progressive . Post-postmodernism, when it settles down, may well take a different view of beauty but what these objections do suggest is that beauty, as a term, is often a lazy term, excusing us from a more complex analysis and discussionof the subject thus described. If the objection does no more than make us think before we speak, like objections to sexist, ageist, racist etc. language then it has more than a little value.”

… and continues …

Actually I have no problem with beautiful but it is good to contemplate how words have been hijacked, gendered, devalued and how this affects the way we think. I rather hope that post-post-modenism moves away from the arch-cynicism of recent decades.

It is left to Alison to sum up …

I think this has been a great discussion. The consensus seems that there is something which can be called beautiful, although it is not possible to define what it looks like as it is interpreted differently across time and culture. And that there are good reasons for being careful about how we use the word. It’s also interesting as Peter suggests to wonder how post-postmodernism will interpret beauty!!

Enough on this subject from me at present; as usual there are no straight answers to such questions concerning the nature of beauty!

Tom Hunter in Hackney, London

20130302-AMANO - Tom Hunter talk-20130302-London-_MG_9080

Tom Hunter, photographer, talking to OCA graduate students

Tom Hunter is a photographer I have been aware of since seeing his seeing his photograph “Woman Reading a Possession order” which is an overt reference to a painting by Vermeer, part of the Dutch School. The chance to hear him talking seemed too good an opportunity to miss and so early one morning, I left at dawn to catch a train to London. It was surprisingly easy to reach the Bootstrap Gallery, a 3 month old project a short walk away from Dalston Overground station.

20130302-AMANO - Tom Hunter talk-20130302-London-_MG_9049

The converted building where the workshop was held

The OCA crowd were already in evidence and Sharon Boothroyd, a tutor from the OCA let me in through the security doors. I needed to visit the Gents and following a sign went up to the top of the building in search of one. At the top was a door which lead onto a landscaped garden rooftop; from another building nearby I heard the whistle of a Mynah bird. This was obviously a wrong turning but it was an interesting spectacle.

20130302-AMANO - Tom Hunter talk-20130302-London-_MG_9057

the rooftop of the building in which the exhibition was held

Sharon, OCA tutor for the day, has written the following on her Photoparley blog about Tom Hunter …

Tom Hunter’s photographs permit the viewer an instantaneous and unashamed pleasure in looking.  Then, once we are drawn in, they deliver a punch of meaningful content. These large scale prints are grounded in the eye-opening realities of life in East London but at the same time speak to another world; one of beauty, thought and celebration. It is this blend of documentary and art that is so fascinating.

Not long after I found myself in a studio waiting for Tom Hunter to appear. There were a couple of dozen of OCA students. When Tom Hunter started his talk, he asked if we were “A” level students and it was left for me to pipe up, “No, undergraduates!” though it was difficult to notice many if any people under 40. Three cheers for adult education!

Tom started by saying that as a child, his father had a darkroom in the garden, and it was here he experienced the magic moment of seeing a photograph he had taken of his sister materialise before his eyes. It was however not until he was 23 that he picked up a camera and start taking photographs again. Initially, he took pictures of people coming to his stall in a part of Hackney where he lived; usually, markets are not easy to make photographs in but since he was sitting and snapping people who were coming to him, it worked well and encouraged him to do a course at LCP (London College of Printing).

As he photographed his surroundings, he became interested in local issues at a time when Hackney was a very different place to the one it is now; he found it a warm and welcoming place, a vibrant community. It was considered to be almost a ghetto at the time (with ruins of Second World War bombing) yet for Tom it was a “living” place with a recognisable community even if many people were living in squats. He made a model of his house into which he inserted 5by4 transparency photographs and this was appreciated not just by friends but officially and the piece now belongs to The Museum of London. The area has experienced massive regeneration since those days of the late 80’s and a house that was once offered by the council for £5000 recently went for £2.4 million; Tom does not consider himself as a successful businessman since he might have cashed in on this!

The acceptance of his work lead him to make the career decision to be an artist and he began to photograph his friends and neighbours many of whom were considered at the time to be anti-social elements of society, dispossessed people.

His studies brought him into contact with such work as Dorothy Lange’s “Migrant Mother’, a Madonna and Child image, that speaks of the poverty that existed in the U.S. during the Depression era of the 1930’s. He also came across artists such as Vermeer of the Golden Age of Dutch Painting. At that time, Holland was defending itself from the Spanish and so while the map in one Vermeer painting might appear an interesting but tame reference, at the time such maps were illegal owing to the Spanish influence which claimed Holland as it’s own so this image was actually provocative. Yet what inspired Tom about Vermeer was the way he elevated the status of common and ordinary people. He has been doing the same thing through his own work. A work by Vermeer called The Art of Painting, has been transformed by Tom into a contemporary “The Art of Squatting”.

Another of his recreations has been of John Everett Millias’ “Ophelia” (1852) which is apparently the most popular art print in the UK. His own photograph is made in similar circumstances in Hackney – his Ophelia is a prone figure lying in the water surrounded by weeds while an industrial landscape looms in the background.

Some photographs he made of friends on old industrial estates ended up being exhibited by the MOMA in New York! Mimicking fine art paintings often provides inspiration for this kind of work.

Thomas Hardy has been a source of inspiration and fascination. Hardy’s heart wrenching stories of life in Dorset, the county where he grew up, encouraged him to do as Hardy did and collect local real-life stories from local newspapers. From these he constructed photographs. Tom is quite open about staging photographs in which he seeks to embody the issues of the day. He wants to seduce his audience and change people’s perceptions.

He has faced opposition from gallery owners who find his imaging too real, grotesque even and that it is morally wrong to make beautiful works of art out of a tragedy. Tom points out that they are no worse that many of the scenes portrayed in classic works of art.

One of body work came about when he visited Dublin in Ireland and is based on some lines of Ulysses by James Joyce; he photographed old Victorian bathing stations that were dotted around Dublin Bay. For this he used a specially fashioned 5by4 pinhole camera.

Another of his projects is of places of worship in East London and documents the different kinds of faith that exist in the area.

FIne Art works often help to give a narrative.

Recent work includes making a film of his locality from old people’s stories and memories of the area.

After he has finished speaking, we have a chance to put questions to Tom and I am the first to jump in with a question that concerns me about his work and which is partly provoked by his reference to fine art (often not obvious to the viewer) in a medium that often seeks to go beyond the limitations of the past; he sounds me out almost immediately and makes me aware of the kind of the preconceptions I have started to build up around photography. The following is from an interview with Katy Barron on Photomonitor …

For obvious reasons photography, especially in the 1960s with the advent of the 35mm cameras, tried to distance itself completely from the past. It was like a Communist revolution, stating ‘we don’t belong to the past and we have no relationship with it, and photography must be seen in its own right’. And they tried to sever the link, because photography in the 19th century was very much linked to painting, which they did very successfully. It came to a point in the 1990s when some practitioners became frustrated that photography could only be one way of looking at the world; 35mm hand-held. People began to question this and started looking back and re-interpreting photography so that it became more experimental.

Tom started to reference fine art by happenstance rather than intentionally. He was photographing inside using a large format camera which resulted in long exposures, all of which resulted in softer images and light that were reminiscent of the Dutch School paintings. He considers photography a bit disingenuous in the way it claims to be divorced from art when in fact everything from cave painting to sculpture and painting is part of it’s DNA.

Another point he makes is that if an artist such as Caravaggio was at work today, he would not be painting but more likely to be doing something like video.

Tom is a picture maker. He does not have great technical virtuosity and prefers simple equipment such as a pinhole camera. He thinks that digital photography has robbed photography of much of it’s innocence.

He has to work hard to hold down his job in photography. He finds himself concerned about whether new work will actually be accepted.

Coming from a later generation of photographers than Martin Parr, Tom has rebelled against what he considers to be “smash and grab” photography; he takes his time, communicates with his subjects. He does not answer to the “in your face” photographer stereotype or the techie. Like Art, photography needs to develop from one generation to the next.

It is important to be able to communicate with people if one wants to gain access to places. Need to be direct, straightforward and honest, able to explain oneself and what one is doing. When he gets refused, he sees it as an invitation to a discussion.

Tom Hunter's photographs on show

Tom Hunter’s photographs on show

He wants to involve people, the whole of society, in a debate in issues that are of importance. This has lead to him being dismissed as political (by Saatchi for instance who did however later take him on) as a kind of Billy Bragg of photography.

In fact, he is searching for a voice through photography.

Where many see ugliness, he sees beauty; he is attracted to beauty like the PreRaphaelites were but does not think it has conform to certain conditions.

The relationship between photography and reality fascinates him. As he says in an interview on Photoparley …

I love the way photography is seen as the truth but that truth can be so easily manipulated. Reality and documentary are at the core of my practice as it is in photography but I find more truth in fiction. So it’s getting the balance between reality and truth I find most exciting and illuminating. Too much fiction and the real history and lives are lost, too much dry reality and no one wants to hear their stories. Thomas Hardy got all the facts and wove them together in such a beautiful way, that the life of the peasants in Dorset became alive and the fiction becomes a reality. This is how I strive to work.

After the talk, we went to a cafe next door and chatted awhile. It takes time though for something like this to sink in and it was later in the day that I wrote it up in the cafe of The Photographers Gallery.

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

downstairs at The Photographers Gallery

OThe OCA blog of the event by Sharon is here while the pre-event blog is here

Other students blogs are by Shelley Holland John Umney