Category Archives: Research & Reflection

Guinea: Waiting for Justice

An open-air exhibition titled Guinea: Waiting for Justice is currently taking place in Geneva in the park next to the Paquis ferry stop. The exhibition of photos by Tommy Trenchard shows people who were caught up in various atrocities committed by the government of Guinea with a special focus on the massacre on 28 September 2009 at Conakry Stadium which led to the death of at least 157 people.

Tommy Trenchard: Mamadou Saliou Diallo.
Photographed at the exit to the stadium where he was almost crushed to death during the massacre of 28 September 2009.

The photos are colour, large (approx 2m on the long edge) and typically show the subject centre frame and located in a context which is meaningful to them. This might be the stadium itself where the violence happened or in one case, the subject is standing on a bridge where her father was hanged as the alleged instigator of a coup.

Each photo is presented in a structured way: the title (usually the subject’s name) appears to the left under the photo. Central is a short description of the location and a short caption. To the right is a longer text, usually a few sentences which give the story in the subject’s own words – usually a story of torture, rape, being shot and how this has affected them.

Tommy Trenchard: Aissata Barry
Photographed in the stands at the national stadium where she was raped by soldiers on 28 September 2009.

From the point of view of Context & Narrative, this exhibition could be said to be classic documentary in style. There is no attempt to glamourise the situation – the point is to tell the stories of individuals rather then allowing us to hide behind anonymous numbers. The expressions are deadpan. The stories are told principally via the text which functions largely as anchor-text. The fact that the stories are told in the subject’s own words lends credibility. The text supports the image because it provides a subjective view of what the person went through, rather than the more objective view (facts and numbers) that we might expect from the mainstream press.

Tommy Trenchard: Hadja Rabi Diallo
Photographed on the bridge from which her husband was hanged on the orders of President Sékou Touré in 1971.

Following is an example of the supporting text associated with the photo of Hadja Rabi Diallo above:

“‘My husband was Ousmane Baldé, the finance minister. Sékou Touré accused him of wanting to take power. One day soldiers came to our house and said he had been arrested. Then one of our children heard at school that he had been hung from the bridge. When we heard it we cried. They kicked us out of our home and stole whatever they found.” (from the FIDH site)

All the photos are very dark – most of them taken at night or late twilight. The effect is foreboding and supports the narrative of suffering. The principle feeling I took away is that the suffering is not over because justice has not been done and there is little or nothing stopping these atrocities from recurring. The dark therefore represents lingering threat.

The external context of the photos is in extreme opposition to the internal context. The exhibition is placed right next to Lac Léman with an astounding view of the Jet d’Eau and (on a good day) Mont Blanc. A perfect representation of how the photos are displayed has a big effect on the interpretation. The effect is not to mislead, but to tone down what might otherwise be a heavy tale of suffering. The (probably unintended) message is: “don’t worry, it’ll be alright”.

Reflection

The use of the long text to tell the story of the subjects is powerful. Without the text, we would be left with a much shorter caption, which while it captures the situation, doesn’t explain what happened from the subject’s point of view and in their words. This is a powerful approach for certain situations and demonstrates clearly how text can work very well with an image, not to distract, but to reinforce.

Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art

This short piece is a summary of the PetaPixel article by John Mireles which was kindly shared by Clive White in an OCA forum (see here).

Summary of Article

The article presents a condensed historical summary to provide background to the situation. Beginning with the early days when photography was trying to establish itself as an art form, photographers attempted to replicate paintings because art was dominated by paintings. This produced the style known as pictorialism and is known as a soft, dreamy style. However, pictorialism wasn’t appreciated by all photographers. For example, Edward Western wrote a damning article in Camera Craft stating that “photography following this line can only be a poor imitation of already bad art” (Weston 1930).

The Rise of Modernism

With photographers “muscling into painter’s turf”, some commenters believed that the end of painting was near. The rise of modernism helped to resolve this conflict.  In the case of photography, the modernist idea was that photography should do what it does best – to capture the world in two dimensions. Weston (1930) argued that “the physical quality of things can be rendered with utmost exactness: stone is hard, bark is rough, flesh is alive, or they can be made harder, rougher, or more alive if desired”. Modernist photography is exemplified by sharp focus, large depth of field and technically correct exposure. Classic examples include the work of members of the f/64 group: Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and others.

In the world of painting, modernism took an entirely different direction:

“If the function of painting was no longer the realistic reproduction of the visual world — that was photography’s job now — then it became free to pursue other, nonrealistic representations of time, space and form.” (Mireles 2017)

Mireles gives a couple of examples of modernist painting: Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. So while both camps embraced modernism, the results were entirely different, leading to the situation where modernist photographers find it hard to understand their painter counterparts.

Post-Modernism and Beyond

Things get more complicated that this simple divergence, however. Mireles states that “while Modernism still rules in the world of professional and enthusiast photography, it has largely been abandoned by artists working with photography as a medium”.

Enter the post-modern world where suddenly what is in the frame may play a only a minor role.  Bull (2009) defines post-modernism (as the term is applied to photography) as “an approach to the medium that paid little or no attention to aesthetic content and focused instead on the cultural context of photographs”.

This situation causes even more conflict with modernist photographers. As Mireles says, “this idea that one must read additional documentation to understand an artwork contradicts those Modernist values held dear to photographers — especially the precept that an image should be complete in and of itself”. In art circles, no longer can an image be expected, or relied on, to contain a complete narrative. Increasingly, viewers are expected to have a comprehensive knowledge of philosophy, semiotics and popular culture as a starting point. They also have to absorb artist’s statements and other written material before actually getting to the photographs themselves. And perhaps there are soundscapes and overlaid video etc. etc. Rantoul (2016) points out that “for most works, separate the photographs from the words and you have no ability to comprehend what is going on”.

Conclusions

The article by Mireles concludes with the thought that modernist photography is stuck in a dead end. Great images will continue to be produced, but they will never be accepted by the contemporary art world. He argues that contemporary art will continue to change and develop, while photographers (at least those with modernist leanings) will be left behind. The challenge, then, is to decide on which side of this fence we wish to be on.

Reflection

Coming from what I now understand to be a strongly modernist, tending to minimalist, background myself, I found this article to help me gain perspective on the gap between modernist-derived photography and contemporary art. I have to confess that I am one of the many (very many, actually) who just don’t “get” much of contemporary art. When I am required to read a small book, or understand a photographer’s personal life in order to start to appreciate their work, I think somehow we’re missing the point. As Rantoul states “this resides perilously close to using the photographs as illustrations, really another field entirely”.

I feel there must be a middle ground. For example, Kaylynn Deveney’s work The Day-to-Day Life of Alfred Hastings, (see here) quoted in the course notes provides a good example. The text (mostly anchor-text, from my reading) works to support the images, but not overwhelm them.  Indeed, the photos can be appreciated without the text entirely, in my view. The photos themselves are well composed, well lit and mostly straight in style – in short, modernist. However, the addition of text and the strong narrative suggest at least a nod to the post-modern.

For my own work, I think I need to keep an open mind. I also need to understand that, while the photography might be poor from a modernist viewpoint, perhaps the whole package works from a contemporary art viewpoint. And therein lies the challenge – to appreciate both worlds.

References

Bull, Stephen (2009) Photography. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed 27 Feb 2017)

Mireles, John (2017) Why Photographers Don’t Get Modern Art. At: https://petapixel.com/2017/03/04/photographers-dont-get-modern-art/ [Accessed 06 March 2017]

Rantoul, Neal (2016) Opinion: A Disturbing Trend in Photography. At: https://petapixel.com/2016/05/31/opinion-disturbing-trend-photography/ [Accessed 11 March 2017]

Weston, Edward (1930) ‘Photography – Not Pictorial’, Camera Craft, Vol. 37, No. 7, pp.313–20. Available at: www.jnevins.com/westonreading.htm [Accessed 07 Mar 2017]

Danny Lyon: The Bikeriders

Danny Lyon, Self Portrait at the University of Chicago, 1960

Danny Lyon, Self Portrait at the University of Chicago, 1960

I’d only ever come across the work of ex-Magnum photographer Danny Lyon occasionally, and wasn’t at all familiar with it, so it was a real pleasure to see quite a number of his works, especially from his Bikeriders series at Paris Photo 2016.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Danny Lyon was born in Brooklyn in 1942 and is credited with being an photographer and filmmaker. His work is regarded as part of the New Journalism style, which involved the photographer being immersed in and a participant of the subject.

In 1968, he published what is regarded as one of his classics titled The Bikeriders. According to the Aperture website:

“The Bikeriders explores firsthand the stories and characters of the Chicago Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The journal-size title features original black-and-white photographs and transcribed interviews made from 1963 to 1967, when Danny Lyon was a member of the Outlaws gang. Authentic, personal, and uncompromising, Lyon’s depiction of individuals on the outskirts of society offers a gritty yet humanistic view that subverts the commercialized image of Americana.”

Louisville, Kentucky, 1966. Crossing the Ohio.

Louisville, Kentucky, 1966. Crossing the Ohio.

According to an article by Sophie Butcher for vice.com (2014), the book “is the result of Lyon following around the Chicago Outlaws motorcycle gang for four years and documenting their brutal but free lifestyle”.

In an interview with Sean O’Hagen (2014), Lyon explains that “they [the Outlaws] were outsiders and I was drawn to outsiders. From my involvement in the civil rights struggle, I knew the best way to get good pictures was to get involved. I was a participant who also happened to be a photographer.”

The images at Paris Photo were a small, but good selection from the series. While looking at them, I couldn’t help but think of Hunter S. Thompson’s book Hell’s Angels (1967). Thompson spent a year with the Hells Angels (this is the correct spelling – no apostrophe – in spite of the book’s title) during which he had an uneasy relationship with the group.  Sure enough, the Guardian article confirmed a link with Thompson – in the interview, Lyon mentions “I did once receive a letter from Hunter, in which he basically said I was crazy for joining the Chicago Outlaws”. Obviously Thompson had learned from his own painful experience which ended with a savage beating.

From a Context & Narrative perspective, the narrative is about the riders and their way of life and is more of a collection of portraits. The use of black and white throughout, mostly in landscape format, gives a sense of continuity. There is no complex symbolism, nor a sequential story, it is about the (male) riders, their machines and their women (probably in that order).

The images are straightforward, although somewhat romanticised. They show people who aren’t used to being photographed maintaining their caution. What is missing is the violence and extreme behaviour referenced in the two articles. Butcher (2014) comments that “ultimately, Lyon attempted to glorify the life of an American bikerider and all of its hardships. He recently told Photo District News, ‘In my America, people were all different, they were handsome, and everything around them was beautiful. And most of all, they were free'”. Given Lyon’s rebellious past, it’s easy to think that he photographed they way he did because he identified with them and respected their freedom.

References

Butcher, Sophie (2014) Looking Back at Danny Lyon’s Iconic 1960s Photos of Bikers. At: https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/danny-lyons-bikeriders-are-back (Accessed 10 Jan 2017)

Lyon, Danny (2014) The Bikeriders. Aperture

O’Hagen, Sean (2014)  Danny Lyon’s Inside Shots. At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/apr/20/danny-lyon-photographer-outlaw-bikers (Accessed 10 Jan 2017)

 

Karen Knorr: Gentlemen

After being introduced to Karen Knorr’s work in Expressing your Vision and in particular her series titled Belgravia, it was a delight  to see  her work Gentlemen, at Paris Photo 2016.

karenknorrAccording to her website, Karen Knorr was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany and was raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the 1960s. She finished her education in Paris and London. She is currently Professor of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey.

The work titled Gentlemen (1981-1983) was photographed in Saint James’s clubs in London and investigated the patriarchal conservative values of Britain during the Falklands war.

Gentlemen

Knorr explains the background behind the series on her website:

“I wanted to make work that used humour to explore attitudes prevalent amongst the English establishment in the 1980’s. Despite being Prime Minister and head of the Conservative party, Margaret Thatcher as a woman was not allowed full membership at the Conservative Gentlemen’s club ‘The Carlton’. Old Etonians, like the present leader of the opposition David Cameron, still belong to such Gentlemen’s clubs. It is in these clubs that behind the scene influence is still used to influence politics and business.”

Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have standards fallen.

Newspapers are no longer ironed, Coins no longer boiled So far have standards fallen.

Each black and white image is of luxurious surroundings, often but not always with a presumed gentleman. As in the series Belgravia, each image is accompanied by a caption.

The caption in this case is much more than a title. It is a short narrative that is illustrated and supported by the image.

Further Progress was needed, he conceded, providing the right Fabric for the advances they had made. To be a good Housewife and Mother merited great Commendation and had the unanimous support of members on both sides.

Further Progress was needed, he conceded, providing the right Fabric for the advances they had made. To be a good Housewife and Mother merited great Commendation and had the unanimous support of members on both sides.

Short (2011, p153) describes how “the viewer derives understanding from the context of images and text. Without the accompanying text, the image fails to communicate its full meaning and vice versa”.

By providing quite a detailed caption, Knorr is giving us a strong context in which to read the photo. Barrett (1997) makes the point that such a caption helps to make the interpretation explicit – not everything is left to the imagination of the viewer. He calls this “the information surrounding the picture in its presentation” or the “external context”.

Berger (2013) agrees: “In the relation between a photograph and words, the photograph begs for an interpretation, and the words usually supply it. The photograph, irrefutable as evidence but weak in meaning, is given a meaning by the words.”

Sontag (1979) agrees with is this idea of the relative weakness of a photo in conveying truth, but also points out that captions don’t necessary lock things down permanently: “In fact, words do speak louder than pictures. Captions do tend to override the evidence of our eyes; but no caption can permanently restrict or secure a picture’s meaning”. Her point is that captions can be separated from photos or even changed, and therefore the context for the viewer would change. In the case of Knorr’s photos, the change would be dramatic because the captions provide a great deal of background and detail.

You may meet Members in London and Fiji, in the Swamps and in the Desert, in the Lands beyond the Mountains. They are always the Same for they are branded with the Stamp of the Breed.

You may meet Members in London and Fiji, in the Swamps and in the Desert, in the Lands beyond the Mountains. They are always the Same for they are branded with the Stamp of the Breed.

There is a strong sense of continuing narrative implied by the captions and the accompanying image of luxury and power. The implication is, as stated by Knorr herself, that the privileged members of these clubs have considerable influence over how decisions are made both in the political and business worlds. Chilling.

References

Barrett, Terry (1997) Photographs and Contexts. At: www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf (Accessed on 9th August 2016)

Berger, John (2013) Understanding a Photograph [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 03 Oct 2016)

Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA

Sontag, Susan (1979) On Photography. Penguin

Gregory Crewdson: Cathedral of the Pines

Photograph by Christopher Peterson: christopherpeterson.com

Photograph by Christopher Peterson: christopherpeterson.com

At Paris Photo 2016, I had the chance to see some of Gregory Crewdson’s work up close and this included a selection from his most recent work, Cathedral of the Pines, which is also available as a phonebook (see References section).

According to the Aperture site: Gregory Crewdson was born in Brooklyn in 1962 and is a graduate of SUNY Purchase and the Yale School of Art, where he is now Director of Graduate Studies in Photography. His work has been exhibited widely in the United States and Europe, including a survey that toured throughout Europe from 2001 to 2008.

Cathedral of the Pines

Woman at Sink, Cathedral of the Pines Series, 2014

Woman at Sink, 2014

According to the Time Magazine article (Rachel Lowry, 2016):

“In 2011, fine-art photographer Gregory Crewdson left New York to live in a solitary church in the Berkshires. Coping with a difficult divorce, he found renewal in daily open-water swims and cross-country skiing on the wooded paths of the Appalachian Trail. There, he stumbled upon a trail called Cathedral of the Pineswhich inspired new images.”

The Barn, 2013

The Barn, 2013

Crewdson has a particular style, often called cinematic, which is very distinctive. He makes photographs in the same way as a movie director: with a large crew and careful control over lighting and composition.

This particular approach is noted in the Time article as being a result of his love of vintage films. On Crewdson’s Wikipedia page, he is quoted as citing the films VertigoThe Night of the HunterClose Encounters of the Third KindBlue Velvet, and Safe as having influenced his style. The pair of photos reproduced here are typical examples: everything is carefully arranged, the lighting is controlled to highlight certain elements and to hide others.

The Time article describes his approach in some detail:

“His movie-like productions have seen months of advance planning, with Crewdson verifying the placement of each tiny detail, from a wet sponge left on a countertop to a crumpled fleece blanket discarded beside a couch. Shot with large-format cameras, filming requires more than 40 crew members familiar with motion-picture-film equipment and techniques.”

In Photography and Cinema (2008), David Campany makes the point that “Gregory Crewdson makes narrative cinematic photographs, yet at the heart of all his spectacular productions is the same basic human gesture: an exhausted person standing or sitting, slump-shouldered and vacant”.

For me personally, Crewdson’s work is all about narrative. Short (2011) describes narrative as generally consisting of a beginning, middle and end. She goes on to say that “however, a photographic narrative may not necessarily follow this structure, for example, it may simply imply what has past [sic] or suggest what may happen”. Crewdson’s photos, and especially in this series have a sense of mystery. There’s a strong sense that something has happened, or may happen and we’re seeing just a part of a bigger story, in the same way as seeing a still from a film. His work is not at all about constructing a narrative post-hoc from a found situation, rather, it is about building the narrative from the ground up by taking careful control over all aspects.

Woman in Parked Car, 2014

Woman in Parked Car, 2014

If we look at Woman in Parked Car, 2014, we see a great example of narrative in action. The door of the car is open, suggesting that the driver left the car. The woman in the car is clearly lit which makes the link with the man in the house who is also highlighted. The door of the house is open, suggesting that perhaps the man was the driver. Are we seeing the aftermath of a fight? What has happened? What will happen? There is a sense of light everywhere – there are no deep shadows in the entire image – suggesting clarity, but in fact, there is no clarity at all. In the end, we are left with a sense of mystery, as is usually the case with Crewdson’s work.

References

Campany, David (2008) Photography and Cinema. Reaktion Books

Crewdson, Gregory (2016) Cathedral of the Pines. Aperture

Lowry, Rachel (2016) Discover Gregory Crewdson’s New Surreal Photographs. At: http://time.com/4166380/discover-gregory-crewdsons-new-surreal-photographs/ (Accessed 10 Jan 2017)

Short, Maria (2011) Creative Photography: Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA

Paris Photo: Matt Black

matt-black-bio-photoAt Paris Photo 2016, I was fortunate to see quite a large exhibition of the work of Matt Black. I have come across Black’s work in the past via websites and various publications, but this was the first time I’d seen his work in an exhibition context.

According to Wikipedia and the bio on his website, Matt Black was born in 1970 in Santa Clara, California. His work has explored the connections between migration, poverty, agriculture, and the environment in his native rural California and in southern Mexico.

He become a Magnum nominee in 2015 and according to the Magnum site “he has photographed over one hundred communities across 44 U.S. states for his project The Geography of Poverty. Other recent works include The Dry Land, about the impact of drought on California’s agricultural communities, and The Monster in the Mountains, about the disappearance of 43 students in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Both of these projects, accompanied by short films, were published by The New Yorker.”

Matt Black -Tulare, CA. The population is 59,278 and 21.4% live below the poverty level.

Matt Black -Tulare, CA. The population is 59,278 and 21.4% live below the poverty level.

One of the first things that hit me was the graphic nature of his imagery. Printed large, in high-contrast black and white, but with a careful rendition of greyscale, his work is quite imposing and eye-catching.

Matt Black - Allensworth, CA. The population is 471 and 54% live below the poverty level.

Matt Black – Allensworth, CA. The population is 471 and 54% live below the poverty level.

His photos have a strong sense of narrative and the story they tell isn’t pretty. It’s of poverty, hardship and people struggling to survive. It’s one thing for us to see such images of “developing countries”, but quite another when the images come from the heartland of the American dream such as California. The point is clear: all is not well in the land of the free.

Matt Black - Sheep in a denuded wheat field. Mendota, California.

Matt Black – Sheep in a denuded wheat field. Mendota, California.

Some of his photos evokes the work of the Farm Security Administration photographers in the 1930s and 40s, but without the editing hand of Roy Stryker. The strong sense is that not much has changed in the intervening years and maybe things have even become worse.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Black said that “the Central Valley is this kind of vast unknown zone. These towns, these communities are right in the heart of the richest state in the richest country in the world. It’s halfway between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and yet, you still have conditions like these,” where poor communities are left with bad roads, dirty water, crummy schools and polluted air.

Matt Black - La Junta, CO. La Junta has a population of 7,077 and 31.2% live below the poverty level. (at La Junta, Colorado)

Matt Black – La Junta, CO. La Junta has a population of 7,077 and 31.2% live below the poverty level. (at La Junta, Colorado)

All of the photos are in black and white, some using a slight HDR effect to emphasise texture. The effect is of timelessness and of course, also a link back to the FSA series. The presentation is gritty, which suits the stories both within individual frames and across the multiple portfolios.

Most of the photos have captions which typically reveal statistics about the number of inhabitants and the level of poverty. The striking thing when looking at these captions is their geographical spread – certainly within Mexico, but also across the continental United States from east to west via the central states. The shocking levels of poverty (30% and upwards) tells a grim story of something badly wrong. Well worth seeing.

Mario Cravo Neto

256_42-mario_cravo_netoAt Paris Photo 2016, I was fortunate to see quite a large exhibition of the work of Mario Cravo Neto. I first came across his photos in the British Journal of Photography and found them to be quite eye-catching and unusual. Each one seemed to tell a story, but I was not lucky enough to know what it was about.

Mario Cravo Neto was born in the city of Salvador, Bahia in 1947. According to the BJP article by Sritharan (2016) written to introduce the exhibition A Serene Expectation of Light, Cravo Neto was the son of acclaimed sculptor Mario Cravo and he originally planned on following his father’s path. In 1964, the family moved to Germany to participate in an artist-in-residence program,  and it was there that the teenage Cravo Neto discovered the joys of photography.

The photos reproduced in the magazine were in black & white and to the usual BJP high production standards, but it was clear even from the magazine that there was a lot more to see.

Mario Cravo Neto: Homem com lagrimas de passaro, 1992 [Man with bird tears]

Mario Cravo Neto: Homem com lagrimas de passaro, 1992 [Man with bird tears]

The print quality was obvious at Paris Photo. Many of the prints were large – a metre or more on the long edge. The dynamic range from inky blacks, through carefully separated mid-tones and to brilliant whites was something special and can’t even be approximated on a screen.

Mario Cravo Neto: Sacrificio V, 1989

Mario Cravo Neto: Sacrificio V, 1989

This quality of light and shade is mentioned in the BJP article:

“The monochrome images play with light and shade to tremendous effect; when describing Cravo Neto’s photographs, famed Brazilian composer, poet and political activist Caetano Veloso said that his subjects seemed to be ‘caressed by the serene expectation of light’ – the source of the exhibition’s title.” (Sritharan 2016)

Mario Cravo Neto: Odé

Mario Cravo Neto: Odé

The subjects of Cravo Neto’s work are clearly unconventional, but are drawn from the world around him in Brazil. Sritharan (2016) quotes the curator of the exhibition, Gabriela Salgado, as stating that “all the elements in the pictures have a symbolic meaning. Cravo Neto frequently would incorporate birds  – roosters, doves, swans, guinea fowls – into his photos, not as mere props, each laden with their own meaning and used for certain rituals.”

Reflection

In the context of the current subject, Context & Narrative, it seems to me that the work of Mario Cravo Neto is important as the context (his cultural background and experience with sculpture) as well as his desire to communicate a story via the meanings in the photos are all relevant.

References

Sritharan, B. (2016) Finding transcendence through the image: the work of Mario Cravo Neto. At: http://www.bjp-online.com/2016/01/mario-cravo-neto/ (Accessed 26 Nov 2016)