Artist Study – Jon Tonks

Jon Tonks is a British photographer based in Bath, England. His work has been featured in The Sunday Times, The Guardian and FT Weekend Magazines, Monocle, TIME LightBox, the British Journal of Photography etc. He been shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing National Portrait Prize and in 2012 was Judges Choice at the AOP Awards. In 2014, Tonks was presented with the Vic Odden Award by the Royal Photographic Society for his first book Empire, a journey across the South Atlantic exploring life on four remote islands – relics of the once formidable British Empire. The book was hailed by Martin Parr as one of his best books the year.

Tonks was born in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands (UK) in 1981, and took his first job as staff photographer on a local Midlands newspaper in 2005. Two years later he undertook an MA in Photojournalism & Documentary Photography at London College of Communication, and now continues to work on his own documentary projects and for a variety of editorial and commercial clients.

This photographer appeals to me because he is a contemporary documentary photographer who has had success both in his commissioned work and commercial work. Traditionally, a documentary photographer is unlikely to be successful at both types of practise. This is evidenced by his book being published, where his work is housed and the competitions he has won or been shortlisted in. Additionally, validation by renowned BJP and a senior person in Magnum Photos adds to his credibility.

Tonks’ work has a clear theme visually and conceptually. Looking at his images, immediately, without reading any additional text I was able to decipher that he was looking at something related to Britain. This type of visual clarity is something I am striving for. His work reads well individually and as a series. Tonks spent 5-6 years documenting this work of personal interest and out of it arose a book, gallery exhibitions and prints. He has other series of work on his site but I will be focusing on his British Empire work.

The following 3 images will be used for detailed visual analysis.

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Image 1: Nigel Haywood

  • The lighting in this image playfully creates an air of royalty – mimicking commissioned royal portraits during the reign of the British Empire
  • I think this is a successful and well executed image. Every detail has been considered – clothing, furniture, wallpaper, decor, the mirror, lighting and accessories. It is a well directed image and the model has a good facial expression and posture.
  • The main focal point of this image is Nigel Haywood, it is a portrait and he is central in it
  • The image has been composed using symmetry, Haywood and the mirror can divide the image in half. The ‘busiest’ area of the image is the middle, the foreground is less busy with the background being the quietest area of the image. This had to be carefully considered as stereotypical tools for portraits such as vignetting or wide aperture have not been employed here. Decorations have been employed with the a warm colour palette with reds and white very present in the image.
  • Natural light may have been used as a filler for this image with flat artificial lighting being employed for visual consistency
  • The intention of Tonks is to portray an aspect of the British Empire – regal portraits with importance of furnishings, poise and oozing royalty. This is contrasted by the slightly humorous facial expression.
  • This image is in the distinct style of Jon Tonks. He does project based work in different locations combining landscape, object and portraiture.
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The Victory was the first pub to have a CD jukebox in Stanley, a feature that arrived in 1991. From the book “Empire” © Jon Tonks

Image 2: Pub

  • I think this is a successful image. Attention to detail was very important in order for this image to work.
  • The lighting in this image recreates a British pub interior.
  • The image has been composed almost like traditional still life images. The detail is in the objects and repetition in the photograph (for example, flags of different sizes in different places).
  • Artificial lighting was used here
  • The intention of Tonks is to portray an aspect of the British Empire – a quintessentially British pub and it definitely works.
  • This image is in the distinct style of Jon Tonks. He does project based work in different locations combining landscape, object and portraiture.
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Sisters Peak, Broken Tooth Live Firing Area. From the book “Empire” © Jon Tonks

Image 3: Sisters Peak

  • The lighting in this image is different to the others, quite moody and atmospheric.
  • It is different image to the others preceding, it is not filled with objects/a person but it is still successful.
  • The main focal point of this image is the clouds with the mountain peak beneath it.
  • The composition is less traditional, the mountain is not the central focal point with other natural formations present in the foreground of the image.
  • It appears natural light was the main source for this image
  • The intention of Tonks is to portray an aspect of the British Empire within this series.
  • This image is in the distinct style of Jon Tonks. This appears to be an establishing shot as there are no features indicating something ‘British’ other than an implied territory.
Tonks, Italy, no date
Tonks, Italy, no date

Artist material and processes

There is no clear description on Tonks website to indicate whether he works analogue, digitally or both. I will be making assumptions  based on the aesthetics of his images. The square format, colour palettes and the fact that this was a long term overseas project suggest to me that Tonks was working analogue. Mamiya 6/7 being possible camera bodies although a Hasselblad or any other type of camera could have been used and the images cropped accordingly. When travelling for photography access to charge up camera batteries is not always guaranteed but as photographers work more post 2000s with technological improvements becoming more global this could have changed.

Tonks, colour management, no date

On Tonks website, there are videos and a lengthy description of the printing process, colour management and book printing process. A printing house in Italy is employed, the images are no bigger than 8×10 in the book (confirming my suspicions about them being cropped for online galleries).The colour management software Pantone is employed with the CMYK space (for printing) though compatible RGB spaces have been invented by the said company. The process of printing is a very slow one to guarantee colour accuracy across every piece of finished material.

 

Tonks, Advice, Italy, no date

What have I learned from Tonks and how will I apply it?

  • Attention to detail is critical for any successful artiste and I will be ensuring that I am as meticulous with my work from creation to completion.
  • Clear visual communication – if my idea is about a particular location in London, make sure that the images have key features of it and leave ambiguous features for a series as opposed to standalone and reject images with no message.
  • Remember to allow space for local people to interact with me (outside of my camera) and photograph what I see around me- not just what I think I am looking for.
  • Find a lab and stick to it. I love the customer service I have received at Genie Imaging. They have digital and analogue facilities, they do fine art printing, the attention to detail is superb as well as a lot of industry experience so that is where I will be getting my work printed from now on.

References:

McCauley, A. (2013) Forgotten spaces: Jon Tonks’ search for empire. Available at: http://time.com/3796499/forgotten-spaces-jon-tonks-search-for-empire/ (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
O’Hagan, S. (2013) Empire by Jon Tonks – review. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/dec/29/empire-jon-tonks-photography-review (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Padley, G. (2015) Jon Tonks. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/tag/jon-tonks/ (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Tonks, J. and Hole, T.J. (no date) Jon Tonks Portfolio. Available at: https://www.jontonks.com/ (Accessed: 26 October 2016).
Tonks, J. and LensCulture (no date) Empire: A personal history of British dominion – photographs by Jon Tonks. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/jon-tonks-empire-a-personal-history-of-british-dominion (Accessed: 26 October 2016).

 

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My Personal Photography Brief

See my previous post for an explanation.

  1. I am documenting the regeneration happening in London; it is a current issue; also, an extension of my project from last year (The Lines that Divide)
  2. This will be shot in London – the specific area will be selected as I continue shooting, London is a big place!
  3. Previously, I was using a Nikon Fm10 and Canon AE1. I’ve been challenged this year to see if I could transition my practice digitally to save money. I will decide on using a Canon DSLR very soon but will still try to capture on film as well.
  4. Key influences (I have to select a total of 10) I am currently on 2 – see my previous post Idea Moodboard . Attention to detail RE composition, a deeper meaning in photographs, photographing a popular topic in a unique way.
  5. Creating a moody atmosphere, strong highlights and shadows (heavy contrasts). This will be achieved in the editing – push processing was implemented in the darkroom. This aesthetic will now have to be achieved in the digital darkroom.
  6. None unfortunately! I work with natural light, no flash or additional lighting.
  7. (See image below) as an example from my previous project (which influenced this one) for the type of aesthetic I wish to achieve. Quite moody photographs, coming from a concerned approach so there will not be image/subject objectivity.
  8. Documentary photography – this will cross over into architecture, portraits, city landscape and maybe still life. The images have to have the same look and feel. Nowadays people are less strict about a series containing both colour and black and white images. If this affects the visual authenticity then it this method will be abandoned for a slightly more traditional approach.
  9. 10 – 12 images (out of 40-50) from this work will feature in my final exhibition and it may receive press coverage. Newspapers, journalists and other people in the art world will view it. All the pictures from this series will be published in a book. I will make money from it by making a limited edition and keeping numbers very small. This will ultimately impact the way the series is edited and print/publishing decisions.
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Gabrielle Guy, A shadow, Lines That Divide, 2016

Idea Moodboard

Moodboards are very beautiful things for visual people but sometimes, even these need a bit of moderation. For my Final Major Project (which will be a stepping stone into the photographic industry) I decided to limit my initial moodboard to just 2 artists, yes 2!

Following my summer placement at Magnum Photos, I decided it would be a good place to start. This moodboard incorporates a ‘traditional’ photographer and a contemporary one who work in different ways – colour and black and white but are both documentary photographers who employ location and natural lighting in their work. In addition, they fit into the sub-genre of street  photographers. Their names are Alex Webb (the colour photography) and Matt Black (black and white).

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(filename is lecturers name – ignore that bit) – picture references available separately

When I was opened up to the influences that Webb had when studying and learning photography (Professional Photography magazine) he studied masters such as Cartier-Bresson who did not work in colour. This was a critical point for me. Whether or not a photographer has the same working practice as you – either in content or aesthetic there is always some principle that you can take away.

I had the privilege of assisting the setup of the New Blood Magnum exhibition and I was immediately drawn to Black’s work. The pictures he had on display were documenting the ‘Geography of Poverty’. For these he used poignant pictures and a key statistic/caption. The way he presents his work and his approach help give this series and unusual and more profound meaning than stereotypical documentations of poverty and hardship so frequently employed.

This moodboard was a good starting point for me because it challenged me to find similarities/differences between two photographers, whether it be in their work, practice, aesthetics or their approach. It allowed me to dig deeper and to challenge the way I work. I would recommend making a moodboard with a limited amount of photographers, artists (whatever it is you are looking at) as a starting point for a new project. It will force your eyes to be opened.

Final Year of Photography Degree!

So, the end of the final road begins. These past 2 years have been interesting as a Photography student. When you are completing placements, juggling freelancing and studying it can be hard to juggle all the information that is given to you and process it into something you can actually follow.

There are 3 things that I have learnt that have helped me a lot, they’ve been said over and over again but I don’t think the light fully switched on until final year so I will share them briefly below.

  1. Write down EVERY idea you have. As trivial as this sounds, there will be stages of growth in your development as a photographer. I now look back at ideas I had from the first year that I was not ready to shoot – I didn’t have the technical skills, the creative eye and quite frankly enough industry experience to attempt such a project. Writing it down tells your brain this is something important – not something I will be wasting time by doing and you’ll be surprised how much inspiration you can get after revisiting old ideas.
  2. READ like it’s going out of style! (I will elaborate this one further on in my blog) but when you are not making work, spend time looking at other creative work, journals, photographic magazines that explain how the successful live and think, books, films, paintings even music. You will find that when your reference these creatives in your work, your interpretation of it changes as you add your own flavour to what has been done before you. Saturate yourself in creativity, it helps you become more original.
  3. NEVER be afraid of failure. I cannot stress this last one enough. There will be some projects you try and you take some absolute sh*t pictures (at least I have) but this is all a part of the process. My editing in my early stages of learning  Photoshop was poor, and I had to submit some of this work for graded assignments. The feedback I got – though uncomfortable at the time, forced me to improve and to learn from what had gone wrong. It has been quite crazy how quickly the past 2 years have flown by, and I am glad that I attempted and failed the things I did at a time where it was less critical and I had a safe space to ‘fail in’. I can assure you that I’ve not made the same mistakes twice!

This year as I write my blog, I will be including more pictures, personal reflections and sharing tips for those creatives who wish to bridge the gap between student and professional and are unsure of how to go about it.

Welcome to my blog and please, don’t be afraid to leave a comment – I will reply.

Research & Development – Jeff Wall

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.

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A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai), 1993

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.

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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.


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Research & Development – Alec Soth

USA. Vasa, Minnesota. 2002. Charles
USA. Vasa, Minnesota. 2002. Charles
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.

Reflection:

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.

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