Karl Blossfeldt – an early approach to nature photography

Hypochaeris radicata Hairy Catsear Young Leaf n.d. Gelatin Silver Print 30.1 x 25.8 cm

Hypochaeris radicata
Hairy Catsear
Young Leaf
Gelatin Silver Print
30.1 x 25.8 cm

If I give someone a horsetail he will have no difficulty making

a photographic enlargement of it – anyone can do that.

But to observe it, to notice and discover old forms, is something only few are capable of.

Karl Blossfeldt

This was an OCA study visit and with two tutors, Robert Enoch and Rob Broomfield on hand, we were able to enjoy an informative view of the exhibition; it seemed the discussion never stopped and climaxed with a group discussion around the table in the Whitechapel Gallery cafe afterwards.

I found myself running a few minutes late but as I left the station a call from behind came from fellow student Brian who I had not seen for sometime; it seems his venture into wedding photography has not lead him to quit the OCA. Other familiar faces greeted me on arrival as the group waited outside. Of these, one was Robert Enoch who tutored me through a couple of Level 1 modules.

a friendly welcome from OCA tutors and staff

a friendly welcome from OCA tutors and staff; Robert Enoch on the right

This visit interested me because it was about an early form of nature photography. Nature photography does not seem to get a lot of critical appreciation although it is a very popular form of photography often featuring in the media. Someone who has written about it for The Guardian is Parvati Nair

Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) who made his photographs at a time when black and white was the only option is described as “a self-taught photographer, Blossfeldt used this newly emerging medium in support of his argument that all forms created by man had their origins in nature. Building a series of cameras with interchangeable lenses, he was able to examine his botanical specimens in unprecedented, microscopic detail revealing their tactile nature, intricate forms and uncanny characteristics.” His technical mastery can not be overlooked and anyone who has tried macro photography will surely appreciate this. Furthermore, Blossfeldt was working at a time when film was not so well developed and the processing of it somewhat experimental; it was not until the mid-nineteenth century with photographers such as Weston and Ansel Adams working with Kodak materials that photography started to approach being an exact science. Yet Blossfeldt also had an artist’s eye, in fact he was a sculptor who made photographs of plants to educate his students, and it was this approach that really made his work stand out. Recognition did not come however until the end of his life.

Tutor Robert Enoch asked us to look at the exhibition and ask questions concerning the way Blossfeldt achieved what he did as well as asking us to consider whether there was an underlying theme to the work; tutor Robert Bloomfield mentioned the cultural context of Blossfeldt’s work in regard to Modernism defined as “A general term used to encompass trends in photography from roughly 1910-1950 when photographers began to produce works with a sharp focus and an emphasis on formal qualities, exploiting, rather than obscuring, the camera as an essentially mechanical and technological tool” and the New Objectivity defined as “a reaction to both Expressionism’s subjective pathos and Abstraction’s rejection of reality, by means of its objective-realistic impetus and the emphasis on a factual approach to the object” with the work taking on the form of a revelation (we see things we would not see ordinarily, the optical unconscious of Walter Benjamin) and being part of the avant-garde of the time.

At the beginning of the exhibition, as I was making notes of what was written on the walls about the work, a member of staff informed me that I did not need to write down what was written because it was in the press release; unfortunately, this did not turn out to be the case and I think the remark was probably prompted by those who wanted to photograph these text panels. This was a reminder of the conflicts that exist between exhibitors,galleries and visitors which in this case spoiled my effort to understand the work and put it in context. I did however manage to get some information after correspondence with the gallery via email who kindly supplied the Blossfeldt images seen here.

There is a 1929 quote from Walter Benjamin that describes Blossfeldt’s work as “an entire, unsuspected horde of analogies and forms in the existence of plants” which comes from a lesser known essay called “News about Flowers”. Another horde was rediscovered in the 1980’s.

Adiantum pedatum Northern Maidenhair Fern Young Rolled-up Fronds n.d. Gelatin Silver Print 29.9 x 23.8cm

Adiantum pedatum
Northern Maidenhair Fern
Young Rolled-up Fronds
Gelatin Silver Print
29.9 x 23.8cm

One of the first images I look at is a collage of Ferns (Ferns 1 – working collage 14 – made sometime before 1928 and consisting of 22 silver gelatin prints on card), a mosaic of fern photographs, in which the the plants take the form of ornaments rather than merely being reproduced. One might think of the unimaginative photographs of Darwin’s Finches with the dead birds placed simply in a line; Blossfeldt however is creating something with his records. He did not consider himself as creating art (art photography at that time was dominated by pictorialism) yet his background in sculpture obviously gave him the necessary flair. As Blossfeldt wrote in his Art Forms in Nature, “The plant may be described as an architectural structure, shaped and designed ornamentally” and further, “If I give someone a horsetail he will have no difficulty making a photographic enlargement of it – anyone can do that. But to observe it, to notice and discover old forms, is something only few are capable of.

Art Forms in Nature book cover

“Art Forms in Nature” book cover

The Surrealists drew inspiration from his work and George Bataille used Blossfeldt’s photos in his book “The language of flowers”; all this is a reminder of the way a photographer’s work can be re-textualised in unpredictable ways. His work can even be considered alongside the work of Gerard Richter who likewise kept a photographic sketchbook in his Atlas. As Walter Benjamin wrote of Blossfeldt that “he has done his part in that great examination of the perceptive inventory, which will have an unforeseeable effect on our conception of the world.”

Another aspect of Blossfeldt’s work is that he is extracting the plants from their natural environment, placing them in a clinical situation to make reproduction possible. The objects increased sometimes as much as 40 times their life size appear to be something other than they really are; for instance, someone sees bees in one image and yet it is flowers one is looking at.  A photograph entitled Water Avens looks like one of them could be a lampshade! One is reminded of how easy it is to project ideas onto images.

Regarding Blossfeldt’s work, one can think of other artists such as Albrecht Durer whose work sometimes featured plants in detail though none as detailed as Blossfeldt. Photography has the ability to see what the human eye cannot! Karl Nierendorf commenting on this work mentions the “fluttering daintiness of a Rococco ornament; the heroic austerity of a Renaissance candelabra; the mystical, tangled arabesques of Gothic flamboyance etc”

Technically, macro photography is faced by a problem of focus and in particular depth of field; it is not easy to show the whole object in detail. Blossfeldt circumvented this by taking his subjects into the studio and isolating them with a plain background. Yet Blossfeldt was not trying to create art through his work rather a reliable record.

One OCA student remarks that the photographs look dated, are a bit ugly and seem to be in a time warp. There is laughter. I can see her point of view because to me Blossfeldt is limited by his equipment and other materials; it may be that his photographs differ so much in contrast and tonalities because he never achieved the control that was to come later when American photographers like Weston and Adams developed their system of exposure and development sometimes referred to as the Zone System Some of Blossfeldt’s prints look rather grubby, the shadows have a tendency to become dense while bright highlight areas do not seem to exist; the differently toned backgrounds might simply be a result of different development times though it may be that he used different coloured backgrounds. One wonders what the comments might be if these images were shown at a local camera club … “what I would suggest mate is use Ilfoduck developer and print on Bogdog paper … gives fantastic results especially if you then tone the print in a pint of Real Ale!’ etc etc

It has been noted that Blossfeldt’s work seems to grow out of darkness; Nierendorf writes that “Just as nature, in the monotony of its eternal growth and decay, is the embodiment of a dark, grandiose secret, so is art an equally incomprehensible organic second creation ...”

The following comment by George Bataille gives some idea of what looking at such work might involve … “the sight of this flower provokes in the mind much more significant reactions, because the flower expresses an obscure vegetal resolution.” Yet how significant are these forms?

group discussion in the gallery cafe

group discussion in the gallery cafe

After we have seen the exhibition, we make our way to the gallery cafe, get some refreshment and talk amongst ourselves awhile until the tutors start a general discussion.

There is mention of the danger of over-egging work, of reading too much into the images we see. We discuss work by Martin Usborne who has done a series of photographs on dogs in cars, professionally created images in studio-like settings. Is it cruel? The dogs are cared for.

Robert Enoch then asks us all to comment on what makes a Karl Blossfeldt a Karl Blossfeldt !? There is the use of black and white materials (the only choice that Blossfeldt had in his time) and a camera which he made himself. He was a sculptor, a botanist, a recordist – aspects of his persona that come out in his work. He was also a teacher and this presence seems to have come out in the consideration of his work; we are a group of students still learning from his work about a hundred years later.

Karl Blossfeldt’s work is certainly more than just a record, there is something else ticking away. Can his work really be described as “product shots” as someone suggests?

another Blossfeldt image; this one reveals a certain amount of depth

another Blossfeldt image; this one reveals a certain amount of depth

One remarkable feature of the prints on show is that they differ from each other; there seems to be no one way that Karl Blossfeldt uses. This may imply that he lacked professionalism and  certainly he lacked the sophisticated materials in use today; however, it is also evidence of his motive, focusing on the uniqueness of every plant’s form so that one starts to notice the difference between them. There is a lot of attention to the frame and one feels that Karl Blossfeldt must have spent a lot of time setting up his photographs since the compositional element is there. He does not have a flippant attitude! As Walter Benjamin wrote in News about Flowers (1929)…”These photographs reveal an entire, unsuspected horde of analogies and forms in the existence of plants. Only the photograph is capable of this. For a bracing enlargement is necessary before these forms can shed the veil that our stolidity throws over them.

image by Carl Blossfeldt - courtesy of The Whitechapel Gallery

image by Karl Blossfeldt – courtesy of The Whitechapel Gallery

Personally, I feel that one can not overlook the way that these plants have been pulled from their natural environments, extracted so that they fall under the clinical gaze of those who wish to study them. This is perhaps the “punctum” of Barthes operating in a different context to the one intended? Blossfeldt’s plants were dried, they lack the presence of life.

In many of Karl Blossfeldt’s images, there is side-lighting, apparently created by the way he worked in relation to natural light which presumably came from a window; there was no elaborate studio set up. The plants have a certain plasticity, lacking in depth but yielding iconic patterns.

Some images are like buildings such as those of Horsetail. One recalls the leaning tower of Pisa!

Blossfeldt’s images are based on observation. They are not whole images since their framing obscures part of the plant; the view of them is highly selective. Their purpose is the view of the sculptor not the interest of the botanist who might get frustrated at so many images of ferns!

What makes us so interested in natural forms? Their aesthetic appeal perhaps; author Parvati Nair goes further than this in her article on nature photography. We are adversely surrounded by man-made forms and need to absorb nature if only for natural benefit. Nature gives us a bigger picture, it is unpredictable unlike our socialised lives. There is of course the idea, upheld by Blossfeldt, that all man made creations reflect nature in some way but we often fail to see it in the architectural giants that surround us … the Gherkin building in London may be vegetative in composition but when standing on the ground looking up at it, one is unlikely to get this impression.

another of Blossfeldt's iconic images

another of Blossfeldt’s iconic images

His work with it’s ornamental emphasis has been linked to the Art Nouveau movement but this view is subjective; Blossfeldt is not considered as being part of that art movement yet is linked to the New Objectivism of which he is considered an unwitting part. Fertility symbolism might be considered as descriptive of his work yet sensuousness is not emphasised, his approach being more manufactured. The black and white emphasises different aspects of the objects such as curves and texture; there is a lack of translucence, a result perhaps of the limitations of the medium at that time. Heraldic is another term that might be applied to Blossfeldt’s work – some of his images remind one of carvings seen in churches.

The German character is in evidence – serious, sober, analytical. One recalls the work of contemporaries to Blossfeldt such as Maholy-Nagy and Renger-Patzch, as well as August Sander whose work is also based largely on straightforward observation; there is the later work by the Bechers who have photographed old industrial buildings such as water towers often with similar flat lighting that helps to bring out detail.

It is an exhaustive discussion and finishes some 3 hours after the start of our visit; many seem inspired and I know I want to explore this kind of work a little more.

My own work around Blossfeldt’s approach can be found in my other blog

Other students have also blogged about this event!

Here is Helen’s account … (she is the third from right in the group photo)

“Great tour yesterday at the Whitechapel Gallery. Thanks so much to Rob Bloomfield and Robert Enoch for their thought-provoking and enthusiastic guidance, and to all the students who participated. It was most enjoyable and I learned a lot. For anyone still unsure about attending one of these events: I cannot recommend it highly enough – it will really bring your studies to life and you’ll meet some lovely people, without being under any pressure to actively contribute.

Here is my write-up for anyone interested:

All comments welcome.”

This one is from Miriam … (includes her own Backgarden Blossfeldts”!)


Another good one is from OCA student Nigel Robertson …


As I reread this blog years later, I am working on an image that seems to fit the subject and so include it here …


from a series of “nature” images made in the wild using natural light


LANDMARK – landscape photography @ Somerset House, London

children playing among the fountains outside Somerset House

children playing among the fountains outside Somerset House

I could not let this exhibition slip by without visiting. While there is as yet no catalogue to accompany it, one is due to be published later in the year by Positive View Foundation who were the organisers of this exhibition as well as “Cartier-Bresson: a question of colour” and are due to deliver a number of other similar photographic exhibitions. The was however a flyer which explained the various headings for different sections of the exhibition alongside a map of the 17  rooms in which it was housed.

On the cover of the flyer was a photograph of a red river running through a desolate landscape. The suggestion is of pollution and one presumes this image has been used because the red colour immediately draws the attention of the viewer. Later, I learn that the original photograph is by Ed Burtynsky whose work stands out as some of the best in the exhibition; previously I had seen his “Oil” exhibition.

The following quote is displayed prominently at the entrance to the exhibition.”Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world.” Arthur Schopenhauer

The press download that comes with this exhibition informs me that the exhibition is in two parts namely fact and fiction; I am not aware of this as I work through the various rooms of the exhibition which have their own subject titles. What is more obvious is that while landscape was once considered “to show what was beautiful in the world, a way for photographers to capture things people don’t always get to visit but want to see” while nowadays the emphasis in landscape has moved away from romanticism  to more realistic interpretations in which buildings and even people may feature prominently.

a photograph I made recently in Donana Natural Park that would most likely come under the landscape genre

a photograph I made recently in Donana Natural Park that these days would most likely come under the landscape genre

The first section of the exhibition was titled “Sublime” which is understood to be majestic yet also contain awe. My personal understanding would also include the “transcendent” but this is a quality that might well apply elsewhere. Photographs I saw here were Baltic Sea, Rugen (1996) by Hiroshi Sugimoto which was a large canvas mostly monotone but did have some detail at the bottom that suggested water; a photogram by Susan Derges made in 1997 of a close-up of a small section of shoreline; there is a black and white print of crashing waves with foam by Dodo Jin Ming; Canal Estuary,Padstow, Cornwall by Simon Roberts made in 2007 as well as a multi-image piece of the Grand Canyon by Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe which contains a black and white inkjet of an Ansel Adams view which they are extending – it is an interesting piece that addresses the development of photography (see below) …


In the next section, entitled Pastoral, Simon Roberts has a few more pieces, a reminder that the divisions created for this exhibition are arbitrary. Pastoral is defined as relating to the country or countryside and suggests the idyllic.

from "We English" by Simon Roberts

from “We English” by Simon Roberts

There is a large photograph by Elger Esser of the Sacramento River, USA (2007) in which the colours are distorted giving a rather too yellow hue; this reminds me too much of typical over processing and I can not like it. I do however like the black and white work of John Davies whose excellently printed photographs are of Easington Colliery both in 1983 and 2004, the latter showing no signs of a colliery at all but a green space; they are presumably made from the same point.

John Davies also spills over into the next section with a photograph of the Trafford Centre in Manchester, UK made in 2005. This section is titled Witness which refers to the ability of photography to be a witness to a an event or situation.Robert Bourdeau has photographed a couple of industrial towers (the work of the Bechers is apparently being referenced here) behind which trees stand (a narrower example of landscape) while there is a partial view of a landscape by Stephane Courturier as the photographer makes an image of a ruined house in which there are gaping windows. Mark Power has photographed a couple hugging on a beach beside what looks like some kind of look out tower and yet looks somewhat absurd standing on the beach. The image is from Poland and leaves one wondering as to it’s meaning.

The next section is called Landmark, a term that implies a reference point that gives one a sense of the surrounding environment; Landmark is a term the photography critic Liz Wells has used to denote landscape in general. Here, theimages are largely cityscapes and include a black and white photo, looking down on the Gherkin, which appears white rather than dark, looming out from the maze of buildings that surround it. Called “Site_Specific_London 12 2012” it is by Olivio Barbieri.

Nadav Kander has 2 prints; one of a flyover being constructed and the other of a partially destroyed military housing area. There is also a well known image by Mitch Epstein of the BP Carson Refinery, California, 2007 which includes a giant image of the American flag; I have seen this somewhat humdrum image in other galleries (such as OPen Eye in Liverpool and The Saatchi Gallery in London) and although it is full of import, I do not find it does much for me other than communicate an idea of what American power might be.

The next section is called “Scar” which implies some kind of blemish or obvious mark on a landscape. The first image that strikes me in this section is of a slum in Mumbai by Robert Polidari; in a way, it is rather a stereo-typed view of Indian povert that one might expect from a foreigner to the country yet it is an original representation, apparently made by stitching a number of images together which results in an awkward, uneven edge to the frame. There is also an image by Ed Burtynsky here which to me is perhaps the most brilliant piece in the whole exhibition. Composed of warm mostly reddish hues, it is called Pivot Irrigation 15 and is an aerial view that makes the landscape look like an intricate pattern worthy of a piece of modern art; the viewer may pause for awhile as they try and work out the actual meaning of the image. This section also contains the dyptych by Burtynsky, part of which is used to advertise the exhibition.

poster for the Landmark exhibition @ Somerset House

poster for the Landmark exhibition @ Somerset House

Other work includes two contrasty colour images by Michael Light and the imaginative views of David Maisel from his Lake Project series.

from The Lake Project (part of Black Maps, a larger body of work)

David Maisel from The Lake Project (part of Black Maps, a larger body of work)

David Maisel’s work is “straight” in the sense that his approach is that of an aerial cartographer; he does not seek to manipulate his photographs. The following is from the press release about this exhibition … “An interesting point which comes out of Maisers work is that he is creating a map from numerous vantage points, piecing together the human impacted world using cartography techniques. From

the air, his photographic maps do not look like the earth, they looks more like nerve endings , veins. disturbing pools of blood. It’s very abstract and many people do not believe that the work is real. However Maisel never uses post-production; what is seen in the photographs is actually there. Maisel has said that falsifying does not interest him and he fully trusts the photographic medium to reveal the truth.”

One can’t help wonder though what makes the colours in the image above the way they are!

Olaf Otto Becker presents an Arctic View of Greenland, a soft and dreamy image from his series “Above Zero” is of a melting glacier made with a long exposure: the Polar regions feature quite often in this exhibition being an environment that is deteriorating owing to climate change.

Amazon 10 (2000) by Daniel Beltra is an aerial view of destruction being wrought on forests in the Amazon – the trees that can be seen are blackened shells, mere marks on the photograph.

half of the dyptych by Ed Burtynsky

half of the dyptych by Ed Burtynsky

This section also contains the image by Ed Burtynsky used to advertise the exhibiton which is in fact the left hand side of a diptych.It was made in 1996 of an area in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada and the red river is a result of mining; it runs through a blackened landscape. There is little beauty here, the red river rather ripping through the desolate landscape.

In a small room, there is a video installation at this point which lasts over 50 hours (more than 2 days). The scene is a slowly moving river running through a late autumnal forest. I watch for 5 minutes and enjoy the tranquil scene. It was made by Jeffrey Blondes and is entitled Etang de Pezieres (2011)

The next section is called Datum and does not contain such attractive or appealing images. There is work by Dan Holdsworth; black and white images of sand dunes revealing their infinite variety of forms,aesthetically appealing and intriguing yet with a tendency to dullness. Other work by Holdsworth seems to be made by reversing negatives and using infra red. Luca Campigotto has made an image from “Likir, Leh, Ladakh, India (2007)” which is of a moonlike landscape with a lot of contrasty and unnatural tones; it is not easy to see what the photographer’s intention is here.

“Martian Landforms” by Laurent Cocket is an image from NASA of Mars, one of a number of purely mechanically produced images (there was no one looking through the lens at the time and hence no moment or view was chosen). A photograph of a man in the middle of a vast garbage dump with a river and township in the background is a triptych forming a panoramic view; it is a largely colourless view of desolation from Ghana and is by Pieter Hugo, a South African photographer.

After the datum section, I needed a break and took a bowl of soup at the Somerset House deli, reflecting a little on what I had seen but also glad of a break. One can get “imaged out”!!

The next section is called Control; this exhibition does not get any easier and a reminder of the many ways that landscape can be interpreted these days.

Atmos 2003 by Naoyo Hatakeyama is an image of billowing clouds yet the suggestion is of some kind of deadly emission. There is another image by Olaf Otto Becker, a photographer based in Iceland, of a vast concrete shute in Iceland that hangs over a cavernous gorge. A fence gives one the sense of scale that makes this photograph so striking along with the sense of the unusual. Toshio Shibata has contributed 2 black and white prints made in different places in Japan. They are somewhat abstract, it being difficult to determine the exact meaning. There is also a colour print which is clearer.

There is also another image by Ed Burtynsky which is another brilliant design as well as a photograph; this use of “lines” within the image to make something more than just an image is surely what photography is about.

The next section is “Delusion” which represents the use or overuse of colour to make defining statements. Thomas Struth features here with a view of El Capitain, Yosemite National Park, California made in 2009. The image looks slightly over-exposed and hence hazy; also included in the view is the road and the many other people looking at the great mass of rock. Photographing people looking is a theme in the photography of Struth. Robert Vout shows C prints from his series “New Trees” with the coloration boosted; the trees are shown in relation to man made constructions. There is an extraordinary image from Mark Power made in Japan in 2000; it features pink boats on Lake Mike from a series called Miyazaki.

The next stage is called “Hallucination” where there is evidence of Photoshop. “Orogenesis: Derain, 2004” is by Joan Fontcuberta and mirrored with a fridge magnet sized painting below. “Nasdaq_80-09” by Michael Najjer reveals a peak that has presumably been photoshopped as it looks like a man made instrument. Another image shows the remains of a house, now lying upturned in snow along with various other objects such as a car while more can be seen floating in a nearby lake; the scene is otherwise supremely peaceful yet the image servees to remind us that such peace can be violently shattered. There are 3 black and white images from Matthieu Bernard-Raymond’s “Monuments” series which although being archival pigment prints have been manipulated in some way.

The next section “Reverie” (I think of Debussy and would love to hear some music to help me on my way through this vast exhibition) contains a photo-book called “Sky Fallen” of which only 5 copies have been made; it contains 8 exhibition sized prints of landscape with 8 smaller prints of flora from them that run alongside. This book is connected to the recent James Bond film, Skyfall, and was made at the behest of the film’s producer. There are reflections of vegetation in water in Alex Hutte’s   photograph from Venezuela made in 2008. There is a man photographed floating in a pond in Leonora Hamill’s “Simone”. photos in this section tend towards abstraction and hence have meanings not easy to determine. “Lost City” by Yang Yongling looks like a traditional Chinese landscape print; 4 black and white photographs are used to create the effect with red stamps used to further emphasise the traditional theme.

Pierre Radisic shows 18 photographs of his own shadow falling on a variety of “landscape” backgrounds; they are interesting studies in the way the shadow changes size and perspective, changes brought about not just by the photographer varying his position and presumably use of lens but also by varying backgrounds.


photograph of suns taken from Flickr

photograph of suns taken from Flickr

There is a large mural (see above) of 1024 setting/rising suns appropriated from the internet site Flickr by Penelope Umbrico.

There is an amusing photograph of what appears to be the cross between a mountain peak and a carbon pencil with Swiss Made stamped on it; this image by Jory Brockmann and Nicholas Poulin was made as an advertising poster for Carane D”Ache.

Just as there was a quote on the wall at the beginning of the exhibition, there is a quote on the wall at the end, this time by Guillame Apollinaire …

Without artists, without poets, men would soon wary of nature’s monotony. The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed …

This exhibition leaves me feeling somewhat dizzy at the sheer size of it; there is so much to consider and so many works to take on board, to enjoy for their visual insight and also their meanings which need much longer to absorb. Since this exhibition contains a video 54 hours long, one can not claim to have seen it all.




The Photograph – a symposium at The National Museum, Cardiff

THE PHOTOGRAPH (symposium at National Museum Cardiff in conjunction with the Diffusion Photography Festival) – Friday May 3’rd  2013

Photographing another photographing Taunton Station

Photographing another photographing @ Taunton Station

Can one see the photograph in terms of the present? Try to ascertain it’s qualities without recourse to the past!

passengers on a train

passengers on a train

On the train to Cardiff, I hear a man talking about photographs that are “crisp and sharp” which sounds a very obvious way to consider a photograph; what however are the factors that make a photograph “sharp”? This is not so obvious as it might appear since it involves more than moving a particular toggle or two! Any technical consideration though is unlikely to occupy the minds of this conference which is probably going to have loftier theoretical aims.

There has been a debate on the We Are OCA forum in which the photograph has been called a lie. It seems a danger to project too much onto the photograph since it does not purport to tell the truth rather we tend to assume it does. Perhaps one can describe the photograph as a conceit.

The symposium at Cardiff however does not concern itself much with the photograph as such; it is not academic in approach rather the title of the event is a rather loose term used to refer to a discussion that revolves around the interests of those asked to talk who for the most part are very accomplished people who work in photography. Some of their statements do refer to the subject of the photograph which they approach in a contemporary context.

passengers on the platform @ Bristol station

passengers on the platform @ Bristol station

On the way there, there is a blocked line and I have to change twice around Bristol but still arrive in time; I get a bus to the National Museum. Another passenger hearing where I am going strikes up a conversation and tells me his son studied photography at nearby Newport and that photography seems to be a lot more conceptual these days. He is interested to hear about me and what I do unlike the photographer I meet at the symposium who comes up and sits down beside me while we are having a welcome cup of tea before the event gets going. He is about my age and doing a degree at a university unlike myself who is doing it via distance learning which of course takes much longer; we both like the work of Martin Parr and find ourselves outnumbered in this respect by fellow students who don’t like his work. This fellow student is having an exhibition nearby but it is not part of the festival; he advises I see the Tramshad gallery where there are three exhibitions on but the only one I get to see today is some microphotography prints which show blow ups of insect heads and wood bark. Some of these are fantastically enlarged with 0.01mm being represented by a few inches. Apparently not part of the Cardiff photo festival but an interesting exhibition worth seeing.

exhibition of microphotography in a corridor

exhibition of microphotography in a corridor

The conference hall is a large auditorium with seats for a few hundred of which at least 100 seats are filled by delegates for the symposium. The theme is really “Where are we now?” or “What is the current state of photography?” and is about looking at the current status of the photograph in contemporary society.

audience inside the Reardon Smith memorial Hall

audience inside the Reardon Smith memorial Hall

The keynote, introductory speech is given by Richard Wentworth, a sculptor and internationally renowned artist, who also takes photographs of which he proceeds to show a selection. He talks about how he is going to project himself onto the audience and explains that this is what the other speakers present will do. He is interested in the fabric of life and above all power, what it is doing to us; we all have our own narratives, our reasons for being here. He talks about getting up early for our benefit and the morning walk he had before getting the train down to Cardiff, passing through King’s Cross where David Bailey, the photographer, lives with one of the furthest views in London, soon to be blocked by a new Google building. He continues to describe other places he passes by such as St.Pancras International while making various anecdotes about the places he sees. His first photo is of a baby as is the last and although he says he won’t be talking much about the images, he continues to chatter on. He takes a lot of photographs but is not that interested in photography; he knows a lot about it though and has some books on the subject. He claims never to have gone online and is afraid to in case he gets caught up in the pornography sites which he would find irresistible!! These days photographs do not take up much room (one of the few observations made during the day that relate to the symposium’s subject). He hates screens! He makes photographs and is aware of their multiple meanings. He regards photographs as a latter form of inscription, a form of marking. The camera is a tool. Taking a photograph is bit like scratching oneself. He is interested in the edge of things. Likes to photograph small sections of buildings against which is his main object of interest – the sky! He does not read fiction preferring his large collection of reference books. Everyone is an artist nowadays.

He mentions a few artists that inspire him … Carl Sandburg, Mondrian, Henry Moore, the art director Damien Hirst and Richard Hamilton, the photographer, who is mournful yet understood the pervasiveness of the photograph. Does not think of different schools of art rather the different way art is displayed. The camera has the capacity to capture the extraordinary in the everyday. Something sad about photography because it always relates to the past. Time runs out and yet Richard continues, saying he is coming to the end although he is in fact not nearly finished and so manages to over run by about 10 minutes, time that is never really recovered with the day running about 15 minutes late overall. Wentworth is not sure what his images are about, grumbles a bit (the F word is frequently heard), claims to suffer from Tourettes yet gives what is probably the most interesting and relevant talk of the day. A lot of his comments on photography are to the point.

panel for the CREATE session with Richard Wentworth mid-left making a photograph

panel for the CREATE session with Richard Wentworth centre-right making a photograph

He is followed by a session called “create” as three photographers (they are referred to as artists) talk about their work and consider “the conundrum of photography as contemporary art”. The photograph has been considered as art since around 1962 (to give it a date) owing to the work of John Swarowski at the MOMA in New York. The ambiguity of the photograph helps to make it art; it can be defined as art when it is not trying to communicate something in particular. I wonder again about the photographs I saw in the corridor coming to the auditorium – they convey precise information about insects, wood bark etc but also have artistic appeal since they do not show the original colours rather manipulated ones.

Daniel Blaufuks from Lisbon now working in the UK says he is exploring the link between photography and literature. He sees photography as a medium of memory and notes that photography is considering itself as it changes. Facebook and Instagram are fascinating yet the glut of images they produce are somewhat predictable. Ones perception of photography is more important than the way one uses it. Struck by a Bruce Chatwin novel that describes a collector. The photograph no longer has the same sense of dimension with images on phones, tablets, TVs etc His own work is varied ranging from a deserted factory, photos of a Jewish Refugee Camp, cyanotypes of the sun, a collection of Zepelin images and a collection of polaroids which are unique because they are one offs. He has also made a self portrait video based on an image by Man Ray. He says there is a need to relate to the history of photography as a medium to understand it fully. There is also a need to think about photographing rather than merely clicking yet to study photography and then start making photographs is a misunderstanding. One needs to consider what one is doing. There is a danger in thinking too much about the photographic process beforehand though – one needs to find the balance between thinking and clicking.

The next photographer to speak is a Danish woman, Trine Sondergaard who likewise shows images of her work. She lives in Copenhagen and studied art before she took up photography, finding th camera a welcome buffer between her and the objective world she wished to represent. Her work included a series of photographs made over several years about people relating to nature (there are some images of people hunting but these are not elaborated upon), a series of monochrome portraits (sitters get to choose the colour of their monochrome) made after she grew tired of formal portraiture and wanted to explore certain mental states which lead her to pose her subjects as well as a series of photographs showing bonnets (Guldnakhe) being worn, the bonnets themselves being from an island called Strude and part of an eighteenth century tradition about which people, even in Denmark, were unaware; some of these bonnets involved the sitters being masked and so there is a contemporary link with Muslim women whose preferred head gear in Europe has caused such controversy. Another series explores houses that are no longer lived in. One is struck by the beauty of the bonnets, their fine detail and interesting history – painterly images! Wentworth is struck and says Trine has a great feeling for life.

Last is Gideon Koppel who wears a little black cap; his parents were both exiled German Jews and artists who settled in the UK. He is an internationally recognised artist who teaches at Aberyswyth University as well as having connections with Oxford University. He loves the cinema, sitting in a dark space and watching images flash by on a screen. His presentation is unfortunately let down by technology with jittering images and lack of sound. His current work is about a small town 5 miles north of Aberyswith called Borth which is just a couple of rows of houses facing each other, rather than out to sea, alongside the road that runs through it. He is unclear as to the meaning of his work, what it is actually about. We see a film of a man walking along the edge of a hill with two dogs as well as lines of sheep crossing over a hill side. He uses the camera to construct a flame around the world he percieves; he enjoys it’s mystery and wishes to hang out with that so consequently does not like to analyse his work very much. Again Richard Wentworth chips in, saying that photography is about acquisition and that the British Empire means we are all a bunch of crooks (although Wentworth is quite happy to receive a CBE according to his Wikapedia entry). Photography is a means of communication available to us.

Muslim women at lunch - they were referenced in Trine's talk

Muslim women at lunch – their head gear was referenced in Trine’s talk

There is a break for lunch and I manage to find a good salad in the bar as well as a bowl of Leek and Potato soup! In the afternoon, my concentration is not good and I doze quite a bit.

The next discussion is called “Curate” and is about “new contexts for curating the contemporary photographic image”  Diedre Mac Kenna has come down from Scotland to talk about “Stills” a gallery in the centre of Edinborough that works with the community by running courses and supporting artists; it is engaged in a variety of projects and receives funding from various sources. As had been said before, it is the ambiguity inherent in photography that makes it art – photography presently is in a process of transition.

Sue Steward writes about photography for The Evening Standard and has various other photographic interests including curating. Her talk is called The New Alchemists (contemporary photographers transcending the print) and discusses different ways photographs can be used – for instance, by embroidering or painting over them. She talks about Maurisio Ansri and shows a number of photographs.

There is talk about the peripherisation of photography by the digital world and dealing with things one can not touch. We are experiencing a decentralised moment in photography. There are an increasing number of photography festivals around the UK but a lot more in both France and the U.S.

Inside the Reardon Smith memorial Hall, National Museum Cardiff

Inside the Reardon Smith memorial Hall, National Museum Cardiff

After a tea break, the next topic is called “Collecting” which is of minimal interest to me although I do of course have my own collection. Michael Hoppen, a collector and gallery owner, says a collectable photograph is  one that changes one’s perception of the world, one’s point of view. Photography is still new being only 174 years old. A lot of different elements to photography which need considering.

The value of photographs in the art market has increased considerably in recent times; between 1998 and 2008, the market value of collectable photographs is said to have risen by 83% according to Jeffrey Boloten. A vintage photograph is said to be made by a photographer who was born before 1900, a modern photograph made by a photographer who was born between 1900 and 1940 while a contemporary photograph is made by a photographer who was born after 1940.

An interesting question; how did an Andreas Gursky photograph, the rather bleak looking, Rhein 11 (1999) come to see for over 4 million dollars? There are only 6 in existence and 5 are the prized possessions of museums with only one available on the open market. Thanks to Sebastien Montobonel for the insight!

The last speaker is Louise Shannon from the Victoria and Albert Museum who curates the digital photo-library there. Digital photographs do deteriorate so there is a vast problem around preserving them.

entrance to Cardiff station

entrance to Cardiff station

Art itself is a movement just as fashion is – the two tend to lead separate lives. A lot of art can become irrelevant as time moves on and taste changes. The market is fickle, not a reliable indication of what will last. Artists are very particular about the way their art is to be shown.

It is all about making rather than merely taking photographs! A fairly obvious conclusion to the day perhaps; it is easy of course to think that but what matters, for the photographer, is the ability to put it into practice.

writing up the symposium on my way home by train

writing up the symposium on my way home by train