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.
Category: on Photography
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…
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.
Exciting news if you’re in England – my MFA course will be exhibiting at the Lightbox in Woking next month (I will have a couple of images in the show). There’s a lot of interesting and exciting work to see from a talented gathering of serious post-graduate students so, if you can get to Woking, come see the Gathering.
Al Zoe Leonard: Al río
The day after we went to Paris Photo we went to the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris and got tickets to the Zoe Leonard exhibit, Al río / To the River, recommended by classmates who had seen it the day before. It’s an immense show that goes on and on for rooms and rooms, vast expanses of white space, perhaps conveyed by the images above. We arrived late morning and were, initially, the only ones there, other than the guards. I was almost more impressed at the opportunity to wander through the vast, empty white space of the museum (reminiscent of my trips to NY’s Metropolitan as a kid, when it was often so empty you could go bowling without disturbing anyone) than I was by the photographs.
The images look at the US/Mexico border area, as loosely defined by the Rio Grande/Bravo. On each wall is a series of pictures, looking at a particular scene, over the course of time (seconds, or minutes, I would guess). Some of these are very affecting; cumulatively, they certainly are. But I was unable to guess at the reason for some of them. One entire room was dedicated to pictures of the swirling water taken, perhaps, over the side of a bridge. While they are far from identical, they are all the same. Another follows a man on horse from a distance, behind, as he travels a short way. The final room is a series of color pictures of a laptop showing security footage of people crossing a barbed-wire-surrounded bridge. No indication of whether this is a public website, or if she’d been granted access to a security control room. Beyond the brochure materials about the exhibit (shown at the link above) there are no placards, captions or other text to explain what you’re looking at or why – which is, in itself, a kind of statement, I suppose. I confess, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Of course, the same might be said of my series of images of the exhibit.
As always, click any image to see them all full-size.
It’s been a busy week for travel. Friday we took the train to Waterloo, then the tube to St Pancras, the EuroStar to Paris, and 2 Metros and a short walk to the hotel for Paris Photo. Walked about 8 miles around Paris before the Expo opened Saturday afternoon then wandered through the glorious (exhaustive and exhausting) expanse of it, along the way picking up a copy of Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures (the 2020 Aperture edition not the one at the link) and meeting her when she signed the book. Sunday walked another 8 miles around Paris including a stop at the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Zoe Leonard exhibit. Then took the 2 Metros back to Gare du Nord to get the EuroStar back to St Pancras, the tube to Paddington and the train to Bristol, then a short cab ride to the hotel for Monday’s collage workshop with Justine Kurland at the Martin Parr Foundation. The Workshop was an all day session with about 12 students. Justine was fantastic – very engaging, discursive, open, collaborative, erudite and discussions with her have really forced me to re-evaluate what I’m doing in photography and how I can better strive to achieve the level of artistic mastery that she displays in her work. In particular I think it is pushing me to start using film in medium or large format again and get serious about more deliberate photographic subjects. Martin Parr wandered in now and again and was truly charming, one of the few male photographers to reach out positively to Justine about her SCUMB Manifesto (which I had previously bought as a gift for my collaging daughter). In the evening she gave a talk to a packed house which walked through several of her projects and was again, insightful, engaging and inspiring.
The next morning the cab to the train station never arrived, the rain was dashing down as we trundled our suitcase to the bus stop, getting drenched, then sat in Bristol traffic and passed the train station where construction has closed the bus stop and walked back through the rain and puddles to Bristol’s Temple Meads train station, hustled to the ticket window to upgrade our tickets for an earlier train we needed to catch to Paddington. Then the tube to Waterloo and the train back to Farnham where, panting, I just made it to my lecture on Queer Theory. Alas, rain had seeped into one of our bags and badly damaged the cover of Girl Pictures although, at least, none of the pages or images seems to have been harmed.
All this by way of excuse for not posting. More pictures to process and post soon.
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