Assignment 2: Vice versa Write-up
The objective of this assignment is to provide you with an opportunity to explore the themes covered in Part Two with regard to the use of both studio and location for the creation of portraits. This assignment is about taking what has worked from the above exercises and then trying to develop this further in terms of interchanging the use of portraits taken on location (street) with portraits taken inside (studio).
you need to develop a series of five final images to present to the viewer as a themed body of work. Pay close attention to the look and feel of each image and think of how they will work together as a series. The theme is up to you to choose; you could take a series of images of a single subject or a series of subjects in a themed environment. There is no right answer, so experiment.
Research & Inspiration
I visited 2 galleries for inspiration and research for this assignment -an exhibition by Sasha Huber-‘You Name It’ at the Autograph Gallery and the TATE Modern London (walked the floors). This, coupled with the research of other artists, helped me form an approach and direction for the images. Artists that resonated included:
Tseng Kwong Chi
Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-1990), born in Hong Kong, was known for his pioneering work in the field of conceptual photography. He moved to the United States and became part of the New York City art scene in the late 1970s and 1980s, and is best known for his “East Meets West” series, also known as the “Expeditionary Self-Portrait Series”.
Some of his self-portrait work, ‘East Meets West’ is on display in the TATE and includes photographs of himself (with deadpan expression) with iconic tourist locations in the background. These portraits have an iconic feel to them, and I liked how he combined portraiture with concept.
Another part of his oeuvre is his photographs of New York graffiti artist Keith Haring’s subway murals and installations- many were shown in an exhibition (and book) titled “Art in Transit”. His approach to his work helped me think more about what I wanted to do and achieve and hoe portraiture can be combined with conceptual approaches.
Saul Leiter (1923-2013) was an American photographer and painter. He emerged in the 1940s and gained recognition in the 1950s, having shifted his focus from painting to photgrphy.
Leiter is best known for his distinctive use of color in street photography, at a time when black and white photography was the realm of serious and artistic photography,
He began using and experimenting with colour film in the 1940s. His love of colour and artistic eye can be seen in many of his street photographs-deep saturated colours and often abstract compositions.
I was particularly struck by his quote, “I don’t have a philosophy -I have a camera.” Looking through his work, I found his approach more artistically focused and less about urban or social commentary than Diane Arbus or Robert Frank. His use of abstract compositions, coupled with his accomplished use of colour, made much of his work instantly recognisable.
Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) was an American photographer known for his work in street photography. Born in the Bronx, New York, he is associated with the “snapshot aesthetic,” a style of photography that captures everyday life in a candid and unposed manner. His work primarily focused on the streets of New York City recording an often chaotic, portrayal of American life.
His works include the busy streets of New York of people going about their daily lives, airports and Zoos. He wasn’t bothered by compositional perfection, and some of his images are at tilted angles, which I found lends them a feel of authenticity.
Although Winogard is best known as a street photographer, he didn’t like the term ‘street photography’. He often talked of the process over the final image-this is something that really resonated with me-the craft of creating photographs and producing a series that works. He also said of photography, ‘For me the true business of photography is to capture a bit of reality (whatever that is) on film…if, later, the reality means something to someone else, so much the better.’
Martin Parr (born 23 May 1952) is a British documentary photographer, photojournalist, and photobook collector, known for his projects that take a satirical, and anthropological look at aspects of modern life.
Parr’s work focuses on the mundane of daily life and contains lots of social commentary. His experience in photojournalism lends his photos an accessibility-sometimes with humour while at the same time tackling serious issues. I was particularly taken in by his series ‘Death by Selfies’, ‘Blackpool’ and ‘The Last Resort’ (most of his work actually ).
For this assignment, I experimented and challenged myself by using an analogue film camera. This required discipline and limited the amount of ‘spray and pray’ shots (the temptation to reel off copious amounts of shots in the hope a few would be interesting ) that I could take. It forced me to consider what I was looking for in the series and how I would do it. Film photography tends to be more exact and less forgiving than digital, requiring patience and craft. After some experimentation with 3 different types of film stock -Ilford HP5, Formapan 120 and Ilford Delta 3200-I decided to go with Ilford Delta 3200 as it is a fast film with strong contrast and a slightly grainy feel which I like. It’s also quite forgiving in low-light situations and helped with the visual consistency.
I used a sixty-year-old TLR Yashica Mat camera with a 70mm lens. TLRs take a bit of getting used to as they use a waist-level finder to look through and compose the image, have no light meter, and the fastest they shoot at is 500th of a second. They use medium format 120mm film and produce 6×6 square negatives, which I developed using a Rodinal developer before scanning the negatives to make them digital- a blend of old and new technologies.
While researching, I began to form a view of the direction I wanted to take and what I did and didn’t want to do (for this assignment). I was not so interested in capturing moments pregnant with meaning similar to Cartier Bresson’s ‘decisive moments’. I wanted to focus on capturing everyday city life, and hopefully, something I could develop further over time.
I have to admit I stretched the brief slightly but found a setup with the potential for a long-term project, which ticked a big box for me.
I work close to Liverpool Street Station and often photograph in and around the station. One afternoon while waiting for my son, I noticed people coming up the escalator and being deposited into the flow of London city life. Some were buried in their phones or sipped on coffee; others had their commuter faces on or were simply lost in thought. The top of the escalator gave
the scene, an element of control, and the overhead lights kept the lighting more or less constant. It was a good blend of the studio (control), and street-unpredictable and serendipitous. The escalator would provide me with a catwalk of people to study, observe, accept, reject and photograph.
As luck would have it, there were bollards a short distance from the top of the escalator, and I could place my camera on top, helping me compose my images. The Yashica Mat is a beautiful camera, and its antique look (unusual for today) made it less intimidating than a modern camera at eye level. Indeed, people came up to me to ask me about it and have a look-a great conversation starter.
I shot the images over 5 weeks, setting up on the bollard and focusing on the top of the escalator to catch people as they came off the conveyor belt, faces glued to phones or coffee cups (recyclable, of course) in hand. Looking through my TLR viewfinder, I was immediately immersed in another world and wondered where these people were going? What were they up to? No doubt some were off to work, places to be, people to see, important appointments, lovers trysts, a round of golf, tourists (heads stuck in google maps) while a few were definitely locals-you could tell by the way they accelerated off the escalator and knew exactly where they were headed.
As I worked the scene, I soon began to discern typologies-the phone holders, the beverage drinkers, the chatting twosomes, the tourists; hang around long enough, and you begin to see patterns. I amassed a nice collection of images to enable me to create the series.
Once I had developed the negatives, I decided to print and frame some of them, which helped me curate and choose the final images for the assignment.
There is great satisfaction in starting an assignment with nothing but the seed of an idea and then developing it into something tangible and real. In this assignment, I stretched myself and experimented with film and film types. As a result, I developed my skills further across the entire workflow- planning, shooting, developing, printing and curating. I enjoyed the craft, and in some ways, that’s a nod to Gary Winograd’s focus on the process, but I also wanted the images themselves to work. My research exposed me to many different types of photographers, and I began to reflect on the nature of portraiture, from the controlled environment of the studio to the more serendipitous and covert nature of street photography.
For me, it is important to avoid cliche-I wasn’t looking for the ‘moment’ or getting dragged into the metaphysical musings of trying to capture the soul or character of a person. Instead, I was recording a flow of life as it was delivered to the top of the escalator. As I worked into the assignment, I developed a two-goal approach: a series of images for this exercise and a longer-term project which I will do so for the foreseeable future. I’m usually in London at least once a week, and for the past 10 weeks, I have managed to shoot images from the same spot.
Exercise 2 ‘Covert’ taught me a few things about shooting unobtrusively and blending in to avoid people reacting to being photographed. My positioning with the TLR and how it works, waist-level while you bend over the view-finder, helped hide me in plain sight. Although I had my camera set up on the bollard in front of the escalator, the flow of people around the station’s entrance meant I was often obscured.
I’m happy with the series, and the images have a visual consistency. From my research on current and past practitioners, I developed a new (for me) way of approaching image-making, and it gave me the confidence to experiment. I am no longer hung up about the composition exactness-evidenced by the intrusion or placement of people in some of the images; some are blurred while others are walking between the camera and the escalator. This lends the images an immediacy and authenticity, albeit of the mundane act of exiting an escalator or heading off into London and beyond.
Printing the images helped me curate and appreciate the difference between having a physical artefact and digital. Looking at the images in their mounts elevates and transforms individual images that might have been ignored. I felt this was the case for images VV3 and VV4. VV3 worked when I had it on the wall and looked at it from a distance-the anorak and hand-bottom centre and the man looking at the camera sandwiched between grew on me as I looked at everyday. VV4, the eye is pulled immediately to the phone, and in the frame works well as it feels like its in your face (she was!).
Takeaways from this assignment include:
- In portraiture, I am less interested in creating a studio environment where control and ritual create a situation where the subject can’t get away from the fact they are being photographed and act or present themselves accordingly.
- Some practitioners embrace the legacy of classical art, play it safe almost (but with great results), while some want to push the boundaries and experiment-the introduction to this kind of experimentation has opened up a whole new world for me
- I question if one can ever capture the ‘essence’ of a person in a portrait as pursued by Julia Margaret Cameron’s images of celebrities of her time or the musings of various gallery curators I’ve read
- I’m more interested (at this point in time) in photographing people in different environments- covertly and less obtrusively- allowing them to behave and be photographed more naturally.
- There is interest in all situations
Some further thoughts after discussions with my tutor
On the advice of my tutor, I watched ‘Threshold of the Kingdom’ by Mark Wallinger. This reinforced for me the versatility in working with a variety of mediums and the breadth of possibilities with photographic mediums.
Martin Paar at:https://www.martinparr.com/recent-work-3/
Saul Leiter Foundation at: https://www.saulleiterfoundation.org/
Saul Leiter at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saul_Leiter
Tseng Kwong Chi at:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tseng_Kwong_Chi
Gary Winograd at:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garry_Winogrand
Samuel Fosso at:https://samuelfosso.com/works/70s-lifestyle-series/
Sewell,Chan, 2008, Street Photography in an Image-Filled Age,at: https://archive.nytimes.com/cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/13/street-photography-in-an-image-filled-age/?searchResultPosition=4
Tauborn,Ingo,Woischnik,Brigitte,2013, Saul Leiter Retrospective, Kehrerverlag,Hamburg
Wenders,Wim,2018,Renowned film director Wim Wenders hits out at ‘phone photography’ at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/entertainment-arts-45011397