“Shooting the Past’ is a film by Steven Poliakoff about a photographic library.
Another Poliakoff film that dwells on the photograph is Almost Strangers (2001) also known as Perfect Strangers (in the U.S.)
Early last year, I went to a show of Roger Ballen’s which featured a video called “I Fink your are freaky”…
Watching the video viewed by billions “Gagnam Style” I can not help but notice obvious similarities …
Apart from similarities in beat and jerky dance movements, ducking in water also features in both videos.
This was my third attempt to attend a Creative Writing Day organised by the Open College of the Arts. I was tempted to spend the day with the friends I had overnighted with but considering that others may have been refused a place because of my request to attend, I left early in the morning to take the train to London, a tube across London and then another train to Alton in Hampshire from where Jane Austen’s home can be reached by a short taxi ride. I looked around the station to see if there might be other people coming but there seemed to be no one, so I took the taxi by myself. On arrival, I looked around outside the house and still seeing no one went into the reception area and enquired of the lady there if there was a group of students present.
She replied that the tutor had left a message to say she was taking tea in a tea shop across the road; Cassandra’s Tea Shop is named after Jane Austen’s older sister. I did not feel like going into the tea shop since there was not going to be time for a cuppa and noticed a small group of women talking outside the gate into the house.
These turned out to be the OCA group but rather smaller than I had expected – 2 students only and one tutor, Liz Newman aka Elizabeth Kay. Another student, Patrizia, joined soon after. We had planned to see the film about Chawton first but needed to wait for the next screening.
In the meantime, we visited the old bakery that stood apart from the main house and walked around the garden for awhile before seeing the film which gave a good account of the house, something of Jane Austen’s life and her success as a novelist.
The house itself was full of items evoking the era in which Jane Austen lived. Of most interest, not only to me but others in the OCA group, was a quilt made by Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. A beautiful object and it was interesting to see that Jane Austen had other talents.
We lunched together in the garden and chatted partly about the OCA but also about writing. Not being on an OCA writing course, I was not really involved but it was interesting to hear that creative writing students faced the same kind of problems as photography students. One subject was having to cut down and edit text, something I have become familiar with over the years since I do write to accompany my photographs. One student considers herself poorly assesssed in a previous module but there is nothing the tutor or ourselves can do other than listen to her complaint.
After lunch, we go to listen to John Mullan talk. A Cambridge scholar of English Literature, he has written extensively on Jane Austen and speaks with great humour. I find it hard to follow his talk since it dwells on details from the novels I can not recall exactly. I feel that I have somehow missed Jane Austen although I have read some of her books.
A cup of tea together in Cassandra’s tea shop might have been a good way to end the day but everyone is getting ready to leave and so we say our goodbyes although Liz kindly runs us to the station in Alton. As it happens, there are delays so we have to get a taxi to Farnham where we wait about an hour for a train to London. Patrizia, Laura and I have a cool drink in a pub garden nearby.
It has been a worthwhile day. I feel I understand Jane Austen and her world a little better. For instance, so much of what she writes about in her novels is autobigraphical. Yet Jane Austen remains for me a slightly distant figure, one whose wit I can appreciate but not fully comprehend. Seeing the films of her novels has perhaps distorted my vision as I have difficulty in distinguishing them from the novels.
Jane Austen is still a national treasure and there is talk of putting her on a bank note; as an old friend of mine pointed out, Jane Austen’s brother ran a bank that failed so it might not be that appropriate although in today’s present financial climate it would not be out of place. On the way to the study day, I saw someone reading a tabloid that carried a title “Did Mr.D’Arcy have bad breath?” while since this day, I have read that a statue of Mr.D’Arcy as played by Colin Firth has been erected in a city pond.
In regard to creative writing, I do not think it needs to be about fiction; it might be about facts as long as the author has a kind of spring in their step !?
Finding myself in Oslo for a day, I decided not to visit the Edward Munch Museum but to head towards the Nobel Peace Centre to see an exhibition of photographs; I think that photographs are more at place in a centre like this than a museum or art gallery. I did find myself wondering over the political implications of this exhibition and whether it is really about European identity as much of the work is more personal in nature. Yet this exhibition asks whether there is a European identity rather than attempting to assert it and features 12 different photographers from 5 different countries. It is the first in a series of planned exhibitions by EPEA that is concerned with socially relevant issues to be developed and discussed by talented young photographers with reference being made to questions of cohesion and unity as well as aspects of diversity in Europe. The exhibition consists of a series of photo-essays.
The first body of work I look at covers a wall to the left of entry and is called “Midnight Milk”, a study of motherhood by Marie Sjovold (b.1986). The coloured images are varied and include nudes (both child and breasts that are inlaid with a pattern of veins) and more abstract images like a toy squirrel perched on a bar of soap that help to evoke childhood . The photographer is concerned with the role of the mother in her exploration.
Another photographer whose images greet one on entry is Gabrielle Croppi (b.19740), whose photo essay is called “Metaphysics of an Urban Landscape” and is composed of high contrast black and white photographs; he is the only photographer to do an all black and white portfolio although there are other black and white images in the exhibition. These are staged in cities around Europe and focus on monuments with models being added for dramatic effect. Mostly 1 or 2 models are used in each image, heightening the sense of drama. Of his personal approach, Croppi says that “It emphasises that the understanding and the deeper meaning does not stop with the act of seeing.”
Catarina Botelo (b.1981) travelled from Lisbon to Istanbul to make a series of images in bath houses (hamams); people do not feature only some of the objects found in such places, the tools of the trade which have been modernised hence we see a lot of plastic implements. These are superb colour images revealed by a soft light giving a painterly feel particularly in image *2 which shows a couple of bottles, realistic in their translucency. Her training is in Fine Art and her themes have been described by Sergio Mah,a Portuguese academic and curator, as “the experience of memory and issues of gender, the body and intimacy.”
(b.1982) is from Amsterdam and has photographed acrobats assuming the form of sculptures as if they were museum exhibits; she admits the influence of Greek sculpture which she considers to be at the foundation of European culture. She does not pretend to have an eye that captures the moment rather she is interested in the forms the human body can assume and there is humour underlying her work. This body of work is titled “Models of Surfaces.”
Jose Pedro Cortes (b.1976) has had a number of photo-books published and for this exhibition, created a photo-essay called “Costa”about a beach resort to the south of Lisbon where people go to relax yet are surrounded by detritus from suburban neglect. This is one of the largest displays in the exhibition; of the work, Sergio Mah writes “His visual heterodoxy can be regarded as part of the more subjective tendencies of photographic reportage, a genre which allows one to cross over and fluctuate between conceptual and lyrical intentionality and the performativity and spontaneity inherent to the photographic snapshot.”
Pietro Masturzo (b.1980) comes from Naples in Italy and body of work, Retour Parti, takes as it’s starting point a letter found in his grandmother’s house which relates much about his grandmother’s life and origins which were in Odessa to where he returns in an attempt to discover something of her roots. There is a video showing of the artist driving around Odessa which is situated in a small cubicle in the centre of the exhibition space where there are also a number of photographic images; the technical quality is not good but this work is imaginative and atmospheric. One called “composition” is a collection of 36 images, uncaptioned vignettes of the photographer’s search for his grandmother’s world.
Frederic Lezmi (b.1978) who lives and works in Istanbul, has travelled around Romania, one of the newer additions to the European Union. He portrays contemporary life in contemporary Romania where Western and socialist notions of economy collide. The body of work is called “Complex Proeuropa” and Lezmi also upholds the complexity of the photograph, evident in his images.
Rune Eraker, the curator, is a documentary photographer, known for his work in Norway and abroad, and his views on this exhibition are aired in the exhibition space. He sees the photographs as examples of the way young photographers interpret the European identity although surely this was the not the intention of this group of photographers some of whom are clearly making personal statements.
Monica Larsen, (b.1977) has photographed 2 young women who have moved from Lithuania to Fenmark where they know the state will look after them; colour photographs depict moments in the lives of these two subjects. Called “Closer in the distance” the body of work explores these two women’s sense of displacement, as the photographer is “investigating psychological and social aspects of society through nuanced documentaries about everyday life.”
Hannah Modigh (b.1977) produces what to me is the finest body of work; called “Whispering Howls” it is about a group of 12 to 15 year olds and their first experiences of what adulthood is about. The photographer lives and works in Stockholm and part of the text is her diary from when she was 15 which details the insecurity she felt at that time. Her subjects seem to be going through similar experiences since a few look forlorn if not lost (the cover of the catalogue shows a largely naked adolescent with eyes closed and mouth held in an expression that is almost a grimace) although some embrace each other and so seem to be having an easier time. In her diary, Modigh wrote, “”I think most young people have poor self-esteem. We need encouragement, but instead it seems as though grown ups hold us teens back. They just want to control us and to shape us to be like them.” also “You know you are alive through suffering. When it hurts, you become aware that you are alive.”
David Monteleone (b.1974) lives and works in both Russia and Rome and has photographed illegal immigrants from Tunisia as they make their way to Europe; these are imaginative photographs, snapshots that imply rather than tell a story. Called “Harregas”, the photographer actually travelled with these immigrants and from the experience learned, that the “experience is a profound fragmentation of existence in a sequence of time” and realised that “perhaps, in a period of a changing world, the personal identity with all its experiences may be the stronger element.”
I missed part of the exhibition that was in another alcove of the exhibition space but was able to see this work along with the rest in the excellent catalogue accompanying the exhibition, Here Linn Schroder has made photographs in the U.S., a reflection of the influence of the U.S. in Europe; She states “Photography makes the world legible and can also visualise an outlook on the world … a photographic gaze is both diffuse and firm.”
I had not planned on seeing this exhibition, I had just noticed it was running when passing through Oslo, the capital of Norway.It is encouraging to come across such work that takes European identity as a theme at a time when Europe is in a state of economic crisis and the United Kingdom is seriously considering breaking away from it. Looking at this work, I am reminded of the European message as being something worthwhile rather than punishing to it’s members.
A second visit to the Genesis exhibition this time with the Open College of the Arts. I am interested to understand the work better and also to take on board some of the criticism being levelled at Salgado; for instance, the head of OCASA (the student association of the college) apparently thinks poorly of it so is not present today though it would have been good to hear his views.
I have been asked to give a short talk to get the discussion going at the student meeting afterwards and have therefore prepared a short brief based on comments by a previous OCA tutor, Jose Navarro, as well as views expressed by Parvati Nair, the speaker we are going to hear after seeing the exhibition.
OCA tutor, Robert Enoch, starts the ball rolling by mentioning the role of Vale Mining in the sponsorship of this exhibition. According to Wikapedia, it was “Elected world’s worst company in January 2012 by the “Public Eye People’s”, award that refers to human rights and environment, held since 2000 by the NGOs Greenpeace and Berne Declaration.” This does make the exhibition open to wider debate and yet I do not see this as a reason for dismissing the exhibition. After all, it might be understood as a way to draw companies that seem to be ignorant of environmental concerns into the debate. Personally, I find it notable that some other body with more green credentials was not willing to sponsor Salgado’s work.
Before entering the exhibition, I ask for a press pack as a student who keeps a blog about exhibitions seen. I am refused point blank. These are only for journalists and have to be pre-ordered! I had previously tried emailing the museum and received no reply.
Robert Enoch asks us to consider both form and content; tonality, visual drama, design, the play of light and dark are all themes present in this work. He asks us to be critical. I don’t disagree with this yet to read a photograph rather than just look at it does require a degree of subjectivity on behalf of the viewer.
There is initially some discussion of the technical side of Salgado’s work, a request for EXIF data which is not given as is the case in most exhibitions. This is perhaps an interest typical of the amateur and yet among photographers it is a valid question. Salgado’s modus operandi is described in a recent interview from the BJP, March 2013. He has been shooting with a digital camera since 2008 and so much of the Genesis work has been shot digitally although Salgado has kept to a similar way of working by not viewing images on screen and making contact sheets. The digital files are processed to produce similar effects to Tri-X, the film Salgado used to use, with a software programme called DXO.
This study visit though was not really about technical considerations but more concerned with a wider reading of the work on show. Salgado’s photographs are wonderfully composed and an education for anyone interested in making photographs (much of the OCA course is concerned with the practical application of photography) yet for some the aesthetical appeal of Salgado’s work presents problems since it is seen as a misrepresentation of reality. For instance, the first photograph one is likely to see on entering shows a section of iceberg that has a varied display of forms from an archway to what looks like the corner of a castle, all beautifully printed with dark rich tones evident in the sea that balance the lighter tones of the ice itself. While I can see that the way photography selects minute views of reality and then blows them up as representations of the real while changing the way they look, it is surely a mistake to dismiss this since art is about aesthetics and photography can be art.
One might of course consider that the aesthetics is being over done here. Salgado is a trained economist, an education that Parvati Nair says accounts for the subjects he chooses; he has worked primarily as a photo-journalist and undertakes advertising assignments on a regular basis. He can be hired for $30,000 per day! Some of the images do look a bit unreal though such as one of a group of seals accompanied by a single gull. Here the furry exterior of the foremost seal looks as though it has been manipulated possibly with an HDR technique; the blacks in the seal’s body may have been too dense and hence it was considered necessary to correct this. However, much of Salgado’s work can be seen as a lesson in making photographs and looking at his work, students start recognising the use of compositional aides such as lines notably diagonals, points and the isolation of the subject matter.
Some question the photographer’s presence and suggest he might be compromising the wildlife he is recording. I have heard from nature photographers (and experienced the same recently in the Arctic) that much wildlife in these wild places is approachable particularly Albatrosses which Salgado has photographed; the birds in these images have not been photoshopped the animals are merely not reacting in the way that those used to the vagaries of man predictably do. This is part of what the exhibition is about, a part of the planet where nature rather than man is dominant although it is of course under threat. Another image with a wonderful design is of Chinstrap Penguins on the South Sandwhiich Islands, photographed in 2009. One is looking down a cliff face over the penguins onto rocks below.
One question that is asked about nature photography is the carbon footprint of the photographer; can the work the photographer is doing really justify the use of natural resources and the pollution they might be causing in these remote areas. In the case of Salgado one might assume it is since his work will be seen by millions and the environmental message behind the images is going to make people consider the dire implications of humanity’s present course. Working with a company like Vale Mining is perhaps an example of how those ignorant are starting to see things differently althoough one might also take the view that such a company is merely salving it’s conscience.
Walking around this exhibition for the second time, I find myself struck again by the quality of the work on show. These are photographs one look at again and again. In a considertion of Salgado’s work one surely can not overlook the sheer enjoyment that his work can give. His portrait studies of people who live remote from what most viewers would call civilised ways in communities that have barely changed for hundreds if not thousands of years are insightful. Here we see not archetypes but real people, characters who may look strange to us and yet are human in spite of their primitiveness.
A stunning view is titled “Kamchatka, Russia, 2006” and shows a landscape below a layer of cloud as well as a mountains cape above it. It looks like two photographs made into one and there may well have been some difference in the image processing of the two yet this shot can not help one feel somewhat spellbound at the difference between what is down here and in a certain sense familiar and that which is above the clouds. At times, one can not help but question some of the compositions in which the obvious horizon is not horizontal as one might expect. The lop-sided view can help as a compositional device such as in a view of seagulls and coast where the photographer is apparently shooting from a boat yet in one of the images used to promote the exhibition as a whole and found on the cover of the Taschen catalogue, the apparent symmetry of the river winding it’s way along a deep valley is undermined by the slanted horizon in the background. This image was presumably made from a plane but that does not excuse or alter the composition.
After seeing the exhibition, we could easily have used up more than the hour allotted, we went to listen to Parvati Nair talk. This turned out to be a question and answer session which did not really allow the speaker to expand on her subject of Salgado and the Genesis in particular. She did however tell us that Salgado’s commitment was such that he travelled for 8 years to “pristine” parts of the planet to make this body of work. What makes Salgado one of the world’s greatest photographers, according to her as the only person to have written a book on the photographer, is that he has a panoramic vision as well as a conceptual orientation (although he is not a conceptual artist) by taking up subjects such as capitalism and it’s effects. When dealing with subjects like workers (the subject of a previous body of work) he not only portrays them as ants on a landscape he also closes in and portrays individuals whom he has got to know. Of primary concern is modernity and it’s socio-economic consequences.
As questions from the audience begin, OCA tutor Robert Enoch pops in his question about the part Vale Mining have played in the making of this exhibition. Parvati Nair replies by saying that photography suffers such consequences and that the ethical dimension of photography needs more considertion.
The Genesis exhibition differs from other exhibitions of Salgado’s work in the smaller images being used; more images are therefore in evidence. Does not this put an emphasis on quantity rather than quality? Perhaps this set of images is not so arresting as work from other bodies of work and there is greater emphasis on aesthetic images.Nair herself finds that the use of digital techniques is resulting in the over-working of photographs which often looked better in analogue days when this temptation was not there.
I ask Parvati Nair whether there are any particular images of Salgado’s that she likes. She refers to that of the blind woman which is featured on the cover of her book; for her it is a commentary on seeing which is what photography is about. Another photograph of a school child reminds her of her upbringing as a child in India.
For Parvati Nair, a key aspect of Salgado’s work is the way he handles light; her book about him is called “A Different Kind of Light.” I like her talk but she does not really get the chance to expand on her topic, the Genesis exhibition, which is dealt with at length in the last chapter of her book.
It seems Nair does not like the digital effects Salgado has started employing in his work.
I start the discussion afterwards with a short talk at the suggestion of Robert Enoch by saying that I thought it would be worthwhile for the OCA to visit this exhibition since it is too easy to see an exhibition and pass it over, to consume rather than consider it and it is surely an body of work worth considering. I mention Jose’s article in which he can’t make up his mind over Salgado who he admires for the awe,sadness,admiration,anger of his work but finds the visual language rather simplistic Do not get to finish my talk (it apparently lacks structure) but would like to have finished by saying “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!” by which I mean “Please don’t let your criticism of Salgado spoil your enjoyment of his work!”
I find it hard to follow the group discussion which seems rather opinionated. The involvement of Vale Mining, a company that has been lampooned by Greenpeace and others for their deplorable environmental record, is a complex question and while it appears to reek of hypocrisy, getting companies like Vale Mining to sponsor nature photography could be a way to encourage them to think more about the environemnt. Such sponsorship of nature photography is not uncommon and seems to be a small step towards educating those who think that the environment does not matter. There is a political edge to the exhibition and this complicates any reading of it. A
re the photographs respectful to nature? A good question. I think so, others apparently did not. As Parvati Nair writes … “In a different light” and somehow the OCA chat does seem to embrace this.
There is suggestion that this is a retirement portfolio, that the message is not being conveyed since we are left in doubt as to what it is and that there is nothing new in the approach since has not Attenborough done it all before? What is Salgado trying to say?
Robert Enoch gives us a demo of the way images can be converted to black and white in Photoshop and then burned and dodged for further effect. Images can be converted using the black and white adjustment layer but also with a Gradient Map …
“PHOTO PROCESSING TUTORIAL NOTES:
The most appropriate use of these techniques is in image correction or to subtly shift compositional balance. It’s possible to take this too far and end up with a painting rather than a photograph.
I can’t teach you how to use every image processing program out there, but I can give you a few pointers here to help you on your way.
1. Making photos black and white: you can either use the Black & White Adjustment Layer, which is advised in all Photoshop work as it is non-destructive. Always save your files to Photoshop format (PSD) so that the layers are saved. You can also use the Gradient Map Adj. Layer (with a black and white gradient) which tends to preserve the contrast of the original image well. You can also go to Image> Mode> Grayscale, but this is a permanent change. Obviously this doesn’t matter if you Save As “Landscape_1_B&W”.
2. Split-Contrast: a difficult technique in the darkroom which is far easier in digital, whereby the image is given different contrast (Curves or Levels) in different areas of the picture. This can enhance Depth and help achieve a better compositional balance. Use a Curves Adj. Layer, a subtle S shape will increase contrast, an inverted S will reduce contrast. In the Layers palette, the rectangle to the right Curves is a Layer Mask. When you use the Brush to paint on this layer with Black, you are removing the effect of the Curves layer from the image, i.e. returning it to the way it was before you increased or decreased contrast. You can also use the Gradient Tool to mask parts of the image. This can be useful with burnt out skies. If you use White (Press X to change from black to white) you are removing the ‘masking’ and so will affect the image with the Adj. Layer.
3. Dodging and Burning is about selectively lightening or darkening parts of the image. The Dodge and Burn tools are destructive in Photoshop, so here is a better way:
Create a New Layer.
Edit> Fill> 50% Grey. You should also be able to press Shift F5 to do this.
Change the Blending Mode of this layer to Overley.
Now use the Brush tool on 5 – 10% to lighten (White brush) and darken (Black brush) areas of the image. This was very evident in Salgado’s ice berg picture. You can then reduce the effect by reducing the Opacity of that ‘Dodging & Burning’ layer.
Try not to over-do any of this, as Salgado and his assistants evidently have – we all noticed that! Most photographers use these techniques but not in a way that you would notice them. This is because there is a danger that the Form (design) of the picture becomes more prominent than the subject itself. This is tantamount to being a CRIME for a social documentary photographer! You do notice them a lot in fashion/commercial photography and particularly weddings/portrait photography, where the ‘ideal’ is favoured over the real!!”
After the discussion I feel somewhat let down. The result of seeing a hero destroyed? I do not think so rather Salgado is a photographer I want to better understand and to do that I need to discover him for myself. I continue to read Parvati Nair’s book, in particular the last chapter which discusses this body of work.
After the day ends, I find myself on a train with fellow student Siegfried who also wrote about the visit.
Another resource is an interview with Salgado on his work as a documentary photographer and it’s place in the documentary tradition as well as Salgado talking about his own contribution to the environment. Michael Freeman has discussed the alternative prints to this exhibition made on platinum paper.