Artist Study – Alec Soth

Alec Soth (b. 1969) is a photographer born and based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has published over twenty-five books including Sleeping by the Mississippi (2004), NIAGARA (2006), Broken Manual (2010) and Songbook (2015). Soth has had over fifty solo exhibitions including survey shows organized by Jeu de Paume in Paris (2008), the Walker Art Center in Minnesota (2010) and Media Space in London (2015). Soth has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship (2013). In 2008, Soth created Little Brown Mushroom, a multi-media enterprise focused on visual storytelling. Soth is represented by Sean Kelly in New York, Weinstein Gallery in Minneapolis, Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, and is a member of Magnum Photos.

Hi most recent solo exhibitions were in Douglas Hyde Gallery (Dublin, Ireland) 2016 and
Scotiabank CONTACT (Toronto, Canada) 2016 with an upcoming one in FotoMuseum (Antwerp, Belgium) 2017. His most recent press review was in April 2012 by Decter, Joshua for the Sean Kelly Gallery. Soth is also a visiting artist lecture in 46 venues across America and Europe.

Customers waiting for Walmart to open on a Sunday afternoon. Williston, ND
Walmart. Williston, North Dakota, Songbook, Alec Soth, 

Alec Soth who was notorious for his more isolated portraits has recently turned his lens toward community life in the country. To aid his research, Soth assumed the increasingly obsolescent role of community newspaper reporter. From 2012-2014, Soth travelled state by state while working on his self-published newspaper, The LBM Dispatch. Whilst doing this, he was on assignment for the New York Times. From upstate New York to Silicon Valley, Soth attended hundreds of meetings, dances, festivals and communal gatherings in search of human interaction in an era of virtual social networks.

With Songbook, Soth has stripped these pictures of their ‘news context’ in order to highlight the longing for connection. Fragmentary, funny and sad, Songbook is a lyrical depiction of the tension between American individualism and the desire to be united. I find this a very inspirational project. I was unsure what I was looking at when I saw the exhibition last year and after an internship at Magnum, I feel my understanding of this project has deeply improved. My project is long term and of a personal nature which is why I will be looking at Songbook, in my last artist study.

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Facebook. Menlo Park, California, Songbook, Alec Soth, 

Below are my 3 key images for visual analysis.

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Execution. Huntsville Prison. Huntsville. Texas. Songbook, Alec Soth

Image 1

  • This is a brilliant image.
  • The lighting in this image is even – it was taken at night time, though the light reaches the subjects closer to the photographer (left hand side of the image).
  • The main focal point is the line of men in uniforms. The whole picture in focus allows the reader to picture the next parts of the story or even what happened before. Moreso, than a picture of an electric chair or a noose would.
  • The light in this image appears to be artificial  – flashgun or continuous lighting. The light enhances the message this photograph is sending.
  • This is a typical image by the photographer and lends itself heavily to his fine art approach to narrative photography.
  • I think it is a successful image with the viewer allowed to engage in the photograph to piece together a story from what is happening.
  • The composition of this image is quite interesting – an off centre rule of thirds approach combined with leading lines (the men and the cables above their heads) has been taken. Without the light illuminating the left hand side, the message of this image would not be as strong.
  • In addition, the whole image in focus with the foreground and background being filled adds to the narrative. These composition choices appear to be intentional.
  • This image tells a story, the story is strong as a series and on its own.
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The Key Hotel. Kissimmee, Florida, Songbook, Alec Soth

Image 2

  • This is one of my favourite images.
  • The lighting in this image is quite beautiful – possibly taken at sunset. The lighting draws attention to the top of this building and slowly the eyes fall to absorb what is happening in the picture.
  • The main focal point is the clouded skyline. The whole picture (the details of the building and parking lot) plus the woman going into the hotel, form part of this urban environment and this is justification for not blurring out the background or getting closer.
  • The light in this image appears to be natural – coming straight from the sky. The light enhances the message this photograph is sending.
  • This is a typical image by the photographer and lends itself heavily to his fine art approach to narrative photography.
  • I think it is a successful image with the subject matter insinuated cleverly – the theme of loneliness and vast surroundings – in nature and in the town/places in it.
  • The composition of this image is quite interesting – an off centre and slightly cropped. Without the skyline, or lady in the photograph, the message of this image would not be as strong.
  • In addition, the whole image in focus with the foreground and background being filled adds to the narrative. These composition choices appear to be intentional.
  • This image tells a story, the story is strong as a series and on its own.
Off Highway 23, ND (Williston Basin)
Near Williston. North Dakota. Songbook, Alec Soth

Image 3

  • This is my favourite image.
  • The lighting in this image is quite beautiful and idyllic. It frames the house more interestingly than an evenly lit photography would. The subject matter is clear by the emotion it connotes – loneliness.
  • The main focal point is the house. The whole picture (the details of the grass, skyline and the land around) form part of this country environment and this is justification for not blurring out the background.
  • The light in this image appears to be natural – coming straight from the sky. The light enhances the message this photograph is sending.
  • This is a typical image by the photographer and lends itself heavily to his fine art approach to narrative photography.
  • I think it is a successful image with the subject matter clearly indicated not by what is in the image but by the feeling it evokes. Getting closer, further away or changing perspectives would have utterly altered the image and its meaning.
  • The composition of this image is quite interesting – an off centre rule of thirds approach has been taken. Without the light illuminating the building, the message of this image would not be as strong.
  • In addition, the whole image in focus with the foreground and background being filled adds to the narrative. These composition choices appear to be intentional.
  • This image tells a story, the story is strong as a series and on its own.
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Brian. Williston. North Dakota, Songbird, Alec Soth

Artist materials and processes

Soth is quite a ‘slow’ car photographer. He uses large format cameras like Wista and sets up in spaces he feels curious about. He fits his personal work around his commissioned work and this gives him the freedom and flexibility to explore. In a Vimeo interview, he says “the great thing about photography is what it can communicate when you let it”. All he does is set up the parameters in which he will operate. He will go to a place he is curious about, go an knock on a door he wants to know what is going on behind and that, he says is when the rewards start to come.

He left the photography style quite open, there are close portraits where he considers spatial awareness between the subjects and then there are photographic ‘miracles’ like the picture with Jesus in the skyline or establishing photographs where the distance matters a bit more. When the images are placed together in a gallery, there is something for everyone to take away from it – the more alone pictures related to human instinct or the contextualised portraits (oil worker).

Key elements taken for my own practise

As a result of looking at Songbird, I will:

  • Become a bit more creative in my photography practise. I will not worry about the type of materials I am using or how I photograph things to the point of obsession. I will allow my curiosity and instinct to guide my documentary photography.
  • Consider how else I can communicate in photography – leaving the story wide open and at other times quite closed, say things by how the photographs make people feel as opposed to focusing more on visual arrangements?
  • Consider which other publications – besides a book, can used to present the story of the people and communities represented and initiate a positive change

info (no date) Songbook (First edition. First printing) by Alec Soth. Available at: http://mackbooks.co.uk/books/1057-songbook.html (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Gallery, F. (2016) Alec Soth: Songbook. Available at: https://vimeo.com/120211809 (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Soth, A. and LensCulture (no date) Songbook – photographs by Alec Soth. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/alec-soth-songbook (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Written and Davies, L. (2015) Alec Soth – songbook. Available at: http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/03/alec-soth-songbook/ (Accessed: 11 December 2016).

Testing Images

(reposted from a different section of my blog from over a month ago)

This is probably one of the the hardest aspects for me. I am not sure if others can relate or if this is a personal thing. So, I went out with my camera and took some photographs on location. I did not ‘chimp‘ and changed lenses a couple times (f/1.8, 50mm and f/5.6-6.3 50-250mm). I left the images for 2 weeks (yes 2 weeks) before I even looked at them on my computer. In that time I did extra research on other artists, photographs and some paintings (see my blog for relevant Artist Studies to follow).

When I did upload the images to my computer, I followed the process of proofing in Bridge then exporting to Photoshop etc. I work in BOTH digital and analogue but I am on a limited budget this year. I’ve been working with analogue material for almost 5 years now and this gives me a pretty good idea of the image aesthetics I am after. I followed a series of editing processes in Photoshop to get my digital work to resemble my film work.

Test series image
A test series image, Gabrielle Guy, 2016

One of my most striking images was similar to the one above but I had to reject it from the series – yes reject, and here is the reason why. No matter how striking the image was on its own, it is ultimately part of a series. When I was viewing it, it was ticking the boxes – a finished look, good composition, good tonal range and good exposure but it didn’t have the same message as a slightly similar image to it, nor did it speak the same visual language when it was grouped with other images from the series (click here for the Project post on arranging images in space). Editing your work is a brutal process but for every image you ‘reject’ your work becomes more refined and your thought process clearer. Ultimately, so does the message you want your photographs to tell.

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).

 

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

Personal Photography Briefs decoded

When coming up with photographic ideas a personal photography brief is always a good starting point. It helps you describe your ideas/how you want your images to look before you have taken them. It can serve as a reminder for what you are doing, how you want to do it and sometimes, why. Once the shoot is over, you can reflect on this document to see what you followed or didn’t follow and why. It helps in your evaluation, and you find yourself growing a lot faster a photographer. Once you move forward from the previous project you become more intentional with how you work.

Sections to break your photography brief into:

  1. Aims & Objectives – what are you doing/going to do and why?
  2. Location – where are you shooting, why? Include sample images here.
  3. Equipment – list here
  4. Influence – who are your key influences and why, what are you taking from their work and injecting into yours? Include every element and use visual language. Include key images here to demonstrate what you wish to achieve.
  5. Light – how should it look in your images, mood and atmosphere you wish to create? How will you achieve it?
  6. Lighting diagram – use it to show your setup and consider your subject and location. Include any good test shots you have here.
  7. Look and feel – how would you describe your images in words – use descriptive vocabulary.
  8. Genre – what genre are you working in – how will this affect the way your work looks visually?
  9. Audience – where do you want your work to end up? Who will view it and how will you make money from this work? Will this affect how you complete your project and the decisions you make?

You don’t have to write paragraphs for any of these sections. aim to answer in bullet points. This will help you absorb what you are doing faster and make planning the consequent shoots/projects easier. I’ve included my example brief in another post.

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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