Hard as it is to say goodbye to summer (even the sweaty, trash-scented New York kind), there are rewards to be had from fall. It’s the time when summer blockbusters give way to Oscar-contending movies, when publishers release books by heavyweight authors—and, in the same “back to school” mode, when galleries put on serious and noteworthy shows.
On a recent trip to Chelsea, I saw three very diverse, but equally interesting, photography shows. From a charming look at the history of self-portraits to a contrasting duo of street photographers to a deeply affecting meditation on abduction and absence, these exhibits showed how photography can cover a wide array of subjects and an even wider emotional range.
ME: Photographic Self-Portraitsat Ricco Maresca aims to give a historical context for our current culture of selfies, showing that artists and regular folks have always delighted…
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Pablo Inirio, master darkroom printer at Magnum Photos in New York. I was thinking about that interview recently as I heard the news of Kodak’s bankruptcy and pondered the precarious status of “old media” like books, film and silver gelatin prints.
As Magnum’s printer, Inirio gets to work with some of photography’s most iconic images. In his small darkroom, the prints lying casually around include Dennis Stock’s famous portrait of James Dean in Times Square (right) and a cigar-chewing Che Guevara shot by Rene Burri. Intricate squiggles and numbers are scrawled all over the prints, showing Inirio’s complex formulas for printing them. A few seconds of dodging here, some burning-in there. Will six seconds be enough to bring out some definition in the building behind Dean? Perhaps, depending on the temperature of the chemicals.
Jeff Wall is an artist renowned for large-format photographs with diverse subject matter. It encompasses urban environments and tableaux vivant that mimics the complexity and size of nineteenth-century paintings. This aspect of his practise lends itself to his training in art history at London’s Courtauld Institute.
Wall started producing large, backlit photographs after seeing an illuminated advertisement from a bus window. He had recently visited the Prado, Madrid, and combined his knowledge of the Western pictorial tradition with his interest in contemporary media to create one of most influential visions in contemporary art.
Wall calls his photographs, after Charles Baudelaire, ‘prose poems’. This description emphasises how each picture should be experienced as opposed to illustrate a pre-determined idea or a specific narrative. His pictures may depict an instant and a scenario, but the before and after that moment are left completely unknown. This allows the viewer to become involved in the deciphering of the photographs meaning. Naturally, it follows that diverse interpretations would emerge upon different audiences responding to his work.
The prose poem format allows any truth claims of the photograph – the facts we expect from journalistic photography – to remain suspended, and Wall believes that in that suspension the viewer experiences pleasure. In addition to the light-boxes, Wall has made, since 1996, black-and-white prints, and has recently begun to print large-scale colour inkjet photographs.
Below are the 5 images of his that I find the most interesting/relevant to my intended body of work. Following that are evaluations and influences for my practice to consider.
Each image is uniquely composed and loaded with societal issues. What is most interesting is that the majority – if not all of these images, were composed by Jeff Wall to convey a particular issue. Yet, without being told that they were ‘directed’ they are assigned a meaning. For example: ‘racism/racial slurs’, ‘apartheid within the USA where segregation of black individuals was prevalent’, the importance of unpaid workers etc. Each of these images, if put on posterd/ads and ran as campaigns would be successful visually for the clear theme they seem to stand for.
My next concern would be of how ethical it is to direct an image that may stand for a prevalent societal issue. The end result would be similar if not identical to street photography however, a lot more instruction and ‘bias’ was involved in the directed photograph.
For my personal practice I wish to envisage the size and scale of the images I take and not wait until ‘printing/post-production’ to consider those factors. In addition, I would like to pay as much detail as possible to what is inside of my frames when shooting – what adds detail, what enhances and what detracts? This is particularly hard when doing fast paced street photography but, it is not impossible.
“I fell in love with the process of taking pictures, with wandering around finding things. To me it feels like a kind of performance. The picture is a document of that performance. ”
Alec Soth b.1969 is a Magnum Photographer whose distinct style is documenting performance photography. When I first saw his images I felt like I was ‘waiting for the next scene’ almost like watching a movie. When I did some research into his photographic style the reason became clearer.
He photographs large geographical territories (Mid-West USA) with various subgenres – nature, people etc but has a way of making the process seem like an adventure and the photograph becomes the document. His photograph reminds me of childhood movies like Huckleberry Finn and bear a feel reminiscent of that story. He currently has a brilliant exhibition at the New Media Space, Science Museum – Gathered Leaves (review soon to follow) and was featured in the British Journal of Photography October 2015.
Below are some of his images I found interesting as well as a personal reflection.
USA. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 2002. Patrick, Palm Sunday.
USA. Vasa, Minnesota. 2002. Charles
USA. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 2000. Kym, Polish Palace.
COLOMBIA. Bogota. 2003.
I will be considering his technique of capturing a still and making it appear ‘as a scene/living picture’ in my personal practice. Sometimes a photographer is unable to translate a sense of movement without obvious tools such as shutter speed simply because one frame does not always tell the whole story. Instead of using this point of view I will consider how my ‘one shot’/series can tell the most exciting part of the story.
Another iconic thing that Soth has done is find the most ironic juxtapositions/locations for the relevant portraits [see above the Palm Sunday photography]. Whilst street photography should not be directed as such – locations and subjects will be carefully considered in my framing.