Exercise: the manipulated image

Brief

Instead of using double exposures or printing from double negatives we now have the technology available to us to make these changes in post-production, allowing for quite astonishing results.

Use digital software such as Photoshop to create a composite image which visually appears to be a documentary photograph but which could never actually be.

To make a composite image you need to consider your idea and make the required amount of images to join together.

Upload the images and decide which image you’ll use as your main image and background. Use the magic wand to select sections of image from the others you wish to move into your background image. Copy via layer and drag into the background. Do this repeatedly until you have all the pieces of your puzzle in place. In order to make it more convincing, use the erase tool on each layer to keep the edges soft and to create a better illusion. Be aware of perspective and light and shadows for the most effective results.

Research

In thinking about my response to this exercise, I did some research, starting with the suggested Peter Kennard Photo Op series. I also took inspiration from the C&N blog of a fellow student – Andrew Fitzgibbon (see here) – who had a nice response to the exercise showing something that didn’t exist, but which could exist. I liked this idea of stretching documentary photography just a little bit to show something plausible, yet non-existing.

Following on from Wendy McMurdo’s Young Musicians series, I also look at her more recent Algorithmic Children work where the manipulation becomes much more obvious and we move into the realm of fantasy.

Wendy McMurdo - Algorithmic Gym Hall (iv), 2015

Wendy McMurdo – Algorithmic Gym Hall (iv), 2015

Christopher Relander

Christopher Relander from Jarred & Displaced

Doing some Google searches eventually landed me at Christoffer Relander’s site and his Jarred & Displaced series. I really liked the idea of somehow taking nature and preserving it in a jar. Relander explains it like this: “I play with the idea of being an ambitious collector; conserving my environments into a large personal collection. Most landscapes are from where I grew up, on the countryside in the south of Finland, where my roots still lie. Separation anxiety to my childhood is simply what absorbed me into this project.”

From this inspiration came my idea of playing on the concept of the classic Swiss “chocolate box” landscape. Why not put such a landscape in the box? It’s a gentle take on the phrase “it does what it says on the tin”.

Response

fake-image

As luck would have it, I managed to find a Swiss chocolate box with a picture of the Matterhorn (known as Mont Cervin in the French speaking part), which I paired with a photo I took quite a few years ago. I spent far, far too long wrestling with layer effects and managed to get a kind of a glow. I think it more-or-less puts across the idea. The chocolates went to a good cause.

 

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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 photobook (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

Exercise: Defining the Real in the Digital Age

Brief

Read the section entitled ‘The Real and the Digital’ in Wells, Liz. (2009) Photography: A Critical Introduction (4th edition). Abingdon: Routledge, pp.73–75. You’ll find this on the student website.

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth? Consider both sides of the argument and make some notes in your learning log.

Response

Note: after not having much success finding the article on the student site, I used instead the section titled “Defining the Real in the Digital Age” in Wells (2015).

Does digital technology change how we see photography as truth?

As Wells points out, “we have always known that photographs are malleable, contrived and slippery, but have, simultaneously, been prepared to believe them to be evidential and more ‘real’ than other kinds of images”.  If any doubt remains about just how long people have been tampering with images, the website Photo Tampering Throughout History is mandatory viewing. And yet, many people who well aware of such alterations still cling to a belief in some kind of connection between photography and objective truth. It is this kind of self-deception which is particularly interesting.

Joel Grimes - Jenifer Ann Burnett, Salton Sea

Joel Grimes – Jenifer Ann Burnett, Salton Sea

Roland Barthe’s conception of the nature of a photograph that it is trace of an event in the world was already on shaky ground considering the quite amazing manipulations carried out with film, but with digital technology, the illusion is completely shattered.

How does his concept hold when thinking about composited images (e.g. Joel Grimes)?. What about images constructed entirely using software? We could try and finesse the situation by saying that they are digital images –  they’re not photographs because they fail the basic definition of “painting with light”. That sounds a little desperate and old fashioned.

It’s possible to say that truth is an independent concept which is not dependent on photography in general and that any connections we had in our minds between the two was simply naive. We don’t demand that a painting or sculpture be “true” in any sense, so why should we demand it of photography?

Having said that, if we look at specific sub-genres of photography, we could say that truth is a very important, even essential, aspect independent of the exact medium: analogue or digital. Professional photography such as medical imaging (x-rays, for example) or crime scene photographs have a very specific purpose: to reveal detail and to be objective in order to allow decisions to be made. As Wells says, “It is possible to argue that the authenticity of the photograph was validated less by the nature of the image itself than through the structure of discursive, social and professional practices which constituted photography. Any radical transformation in this structure makes us uneasy about the status of the photograph.”

Perhaps the time is long overdue to drop any pretensions of objectivity and just think of photography as a medium for the creation of art, like any other medium. Susan Sontag (quoted in La Grange, 2005) noted that “photography, like other art forms, increasingly defines realism as not what is ‘really’ there, but what the artist ‘really’ sees. The answer is simply in our definitions: photography (excluding the sub-genres discussed earlier) never was about truth – it’s about art and there are no requirements on art to be truthful at all.

References

La Grange, A. (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 23 Nov 2016)

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 23.09.15)

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.

Exercise: Sarah Pickering – Public Order

Brief

Look at some more images from this series on the artist’s website.

  • How do Pickering’s images make you feel?
  • Is Public Order an effective use of documentary or is it misleading? Make some notes in your learning log.

On purpose, I looked at the full set of Pickering’s images in the series on her website before reading the course notes. I had a strong sense of unease, wondering what was the story behind these images. The boarded-up windows plus some burned-out buildings made me think of Northern Ireland, although I did notice that the boarding-up of the windows and doors seemed to be a little too neat. At some point, it became clear that some of the buildings were just facades, which made me wonder if I was looking at a film production site – clearly this is not a real town.

Pickering’s work could be called documentary photography only in the sense that it captures a certain place in an unbiased way – we could imagine standing at the same locations and seeing for ourselves what Pickering captured. On the other hand, it is misleading because things are not what they seem. The key thing which is lacking is the context.

Douglas Hurn puts it very well in On Being a Photographer (2001):

“The fact remains that if I were called, or called myself, a documentary photographer it would imply, to most people in this day and age, that I was taking pictures of some objective truth — which I am not.”

Hurn makes the point later that the link between his observations of reality and “truth” are tenuous at best and that “the only factually correct aspect of photography is that it shows what something looked like — under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the same as the underlying truth of the event or situation”.

What Hurn is saying is that there is always an element of subjectivity and interpretation and that our ideas (more in the past than in the present) that photography provides a truly objective view is not correct and never was. But it is precisely this interpretative sweet spot that Paul Seawright looks for in his series Sectarian Murder and we can imagine that it’s the same area that Sarah Pickering was looking for in Public Order.

Liz Wells (2015) makes the point about how ideas of documentary photography have evolved. She uses a quote from William Stott to illustrate what documentary meant in 1930s America: “The heart of documentary is not form or style or medium, but always content”. She goes on to say that “there was an assumption that the world was productive of facts and that those facts could be communicated to others in a transparent way, free of the complex codes through which narratives are structured.” Quite clearly, as Hurn also points out, these ideas are dated and the boundary between documentary photography and other styles is not so clear as we might have thought back in the 1930s.

References

Hurn, D. & Jay, B. (2001) On Being a Photographer: A Practical Guide. (3rd edition). Washington: LensWork

Wells, Liz (ed.) (2015) Photography: A Critical Introduction [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.com (Accessed on 23.09.15)