Almost 100 years ago, Alfred Stieglitz famously published a series of photographs called “Equivalents” of clouds. I never quite got them. Walker Evans said of them, “Oh my God. Clouds?” according to Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment. He describes them as not being meant to document the sky at the time Stieglitz photographed them but, rather, they were equivalents of Stieglitz’s interior state. Dyer contrasts this with Richard Misrach’s Non-Equivalents, which specifically do document the state of the sky. Many others have riffed on the Equivalents, including Vik Muniz. So, I’ve never quite gotten pictures of clouds. Then on a 5-mile walk, under a cloud-laden, leaden sky, I saw these skies like Bob Ross was showing you how to paint the sky with a big soft brush and I thought they were imminently photograph-able. You be the judge.
Last week we conducted some group tutorials on our projects. I showed various things I was working on, including some of my seesaw inequality images and explained why I was dissatisfied with them and not sure they were worth continuing. Suggestions from my group included:
- Use Photoshop to lengthen the seesaw and dramatize better the gap between my capitalist and proletariat.
- Re-shoot in London with skyscrapers behind – a graphic illustration of the inequality that exists there.
I’m not sure any of those is really having the desired effect but I took a stab at them in Photoshop, crudely lengthening the seesaw and then inserting a shot I had taken of skyscrapers in London last spring into the background, a couple of different ways. It was fun to play with, though still not quite as clear as what I was hoping for:
On Politics and Photography
My internal debate about how deliberate and composed I want my images to be continues. One purpose of planned pictures for me is that they be overtly political, in the sense that they make a contribution to the betterment of life on Earth (unlike my working career, spent helping companies wring dollars out of pockets).
Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment remains indispensable, with an encyclopedic knowledge of (Western) photographers. Commenting that Walker Evans was explicit in his policy of “NO POLITICS whatever.” Dyer then footnotes Cartier-Bresson saying in the 1930s, “the world is going to pieces, and people like [Ansel] Adams and [Edward] Weston are photographing rocks.”
There’s a point for the deliberate politics side! On the other side, of course, there’s always Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels.
After setting up yesterday’s post on my foray into ‘intentional photography,’ I came upon Geoff Dyer’s* The Ongoing Moment at school. So whilst I am busy aiming at intentional photography, Dyer quotes Dorothea Lange to the effect that, “to know ahead of time what you’re looking for means you’re then only photographing your own preconceptions, which is very limiting.” A page later he quotes John Szarkowski saying Garry Winogrand’s best pictures “were not illustrations of what he had known, but were new knowledge.”
But does this mean I should simply continue wandering about with a camera capturing sights that look interesting? It seems to me anyone can do that (and with excellent phone cameras most people do!). My pictures might be slightly better crafted than theirs, based on my years of experience and technical knowledge, but not necessarily any more interesting to an audience than their own pictures already are to them. What’s the point of an MFA if all I’m doing is capturing ‘new knowledge’ that I don’t ‘know ahead of time [is] what [I’m] looking for’?
I’ll continue to ponder this dichotomy, perhaps in these pages. Stay tuned…
* I was already highly favorably inclined towards Dyer after having read his novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi – highly recommended.
This semester I wanted to start work on much more deliberate, composed subjects. Most of my photographs, for the last 50 years or more, have been just what I happen to have seen. Now I want to create work that shows my intent, leveraging my skills. My subject is inequality both economic (wealth, income inequality) and social (ethnic and sexual inequality). The first scenario I came up with was to have a capitalist (think of the Monopoly Man) at the top of a seesaw, held there by the labor of proletarians at the other end. The shoot was a couple of days ago.
Needless to say, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. I had asked classmates to join as my models and many agreed. However, the day of the shoot our all-day workshop was cancelled due to teacher absence so I had to reschedule since many people were not on campus. I had planned to shoot with the Pentax 645 film camera as well as the Fuji digital. For lighting I planned to use 2 flashes on light stands, triggered independently by transmitters on the cameras, the Pentax tripod mounted. In the end, I couldn’t get the extra flash I needed for the Pentax. I tested the trigger for the Fuji at home the night before but on the day nothing I did would get it to work, so I wound up shooting with the flash on the camera. We started the shoot around 5:00 pm as I wanted it to be somewhat gloomy and the sky cooperated, however it was quite chilly, which was rough on the models (and my hands) and the ground was quite muddy, limiting what I was prepared to ask them to do. Here are a few images from the shoot and notes from my journal on what could be better (click any image to see them all enlarged).
- Lighting. Obviously, not getting any of the flashes or triggers to work is a big problem but more significantly I need a much better understanding and control of how the light is falling. In the shots above I’ve had to reduce the highlights on the faces significantly and introduce a diagonal linear gradient for the bottom right of most of the images to reduce excessive light on the grass and mud in the foreground. There is also the problem of the shadow under the seesaw and in a few other places, suggesting the need for some reflective fill.
- Costume – compared with, say, Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen and Belgravia, this looks childish and amateurish. I’ve used unsubtle masks to darken the Capitalist’s red sneakers to black (in some of the images) but it’s either obviously blackened or the white trainer laces are showing. Really need to think about the capitalist attire as well as the proletarian attire.
- Models – Again, using Karen Knorr’s work as a model, I should use professional models in appropriate attire. Need to think about how the models can represent the ethnic/sex aspects of inequality, too. I can probably still use students, but I’ll need to wait for finer weather and really choose models and attire carefully and deliberately in advance to meet the picture requirements.
- Composition – Lots of problems here. The seesaw isn’t long enough for the height difference needed to dramatise inequality, so the idea doesn’t come across. So, either the concept doesn’t work at all, or I need a much longer, higher seesaw, which will introduce another set of compositional problems. The angle of the shot might need to be entirely different, looking up at the capitalist from behind/beneath the proletarians, for example, or looking down from his end. There’s not enough room at the low end of the seesaw for all the people I want, so they’re spread out, again weakening the gap between the 2 ends. The muddiness also meant I couldn’t really ask my classmates to get down as low as I might have liked.
- So, a disappointing outcome but a lot of learning…
And… I’m back
So progress continues on the projects and I hope to have some work to show here soon. In the meantime, there’s no harm in continuing to document my peregrinations around Farnham and the occasional foray further afield. But I think we’ll start up with just 1 post a day, rather than the 3 I’ve been managing for the last 10 years or so…
I was struck by the light shining through my recycling bin-liner.
As my photography grows more deliberate and less what-I-happen-to-see-passing-by-in-the-street, there will probably be less of it. At the moment, for instance, I have no new images to share.
On the one hand, I’m sad not to be maintaining my practice of frequent, daily posting, based on my deliberate habit of carrying my camera in hand almost everywhere I went; on the other, I look forward to producing much more intentional work. Stay tuned. As the current semester takes off I’ll be posting progress here.
Centre for British Photography
The Centre for British Photography opened just last weekend so I went up to London to see it. Our course leader, Anna Fox, had one of her books featured (My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words), as well as a role in the exhibit you see upon entering, curated by Fast Forward, of which she’s the Director.
It was an interesting mix of strong conceptual work and, in the basement a more traditional set of documentary photography, The English at Home, by well known names in British photography (like Martin Parr). I was particularly taken and inspired by the Jo Spence exhibit and Heather Agyepong’s Wish You Were Here. If you’re in London it’s well worth a look.
My MFA class has an exhibition at The Lightbox in Woking running now and I have a couple of images from my Meadowlands series in it. I traveled there last Sunday to see it. If you’re in the UK, please come by and see it, thru February 5th. Click any image above to see them all enlarged.
Last leaves of Autumn
Against the clear, deep blue sky.
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