Category Archives: Research and Reflection

On Photography by Susan Sontag

I feel as if I have been ploughing a stoney field with a stubborn donkey and blunt plough shears after making my way through this book. Easy it is not! The book is a collection of essays ranging from a variety of philosophical subjects about photography.

Susan Sontag On PhotographySontag’s writing style is vastly different to that of Roland Barthes. She makes one search for those one or two nuggets of relevance or truth which is camouflaged in among a lot of verbiage about various philosophical writers like Plato, Balzac and such. I find her style rather arrogant and very academic. It is as if she expects the reader to know exactly what she is referring to or referencing. Expressions like “the Platonic depreciation of the image” (Sontag, p 154) and “the strategy of Proust’s realism presumes distance from what is normally experienced as real” (Sontag, p 164) abound throughout the book.

I found while reading that those paragraphs which actually meant anything significant to me were really few and far between. One of the sections in Plato’s Cave, however, did resonate with me. Sontag relates the story of when at the age of twelve, she came across photographs of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps and the effect these photographs had on her. She states that:

… a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead; something is still crying. To suffer is one thing; another think is living with the photographed images of suffering, which does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has strated down the road of seeing more-and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.’ (Sontag, p 20)

Having grown up in South Africa, I have seen the rapid increase of violent crimes throughout the country. In the early 1990’s newspapers no longer reported the murders of individual people. It wasn’t newsworthy enough. Multiple murders committed (five people or more) during the same incident were more newsworthy and believe me there were plenty. These images were broadcast regularly on TV without the requisite warning of “sensitive viewers might be offended” or “not advised for children’s viewing”. It was the news after all. This was almost a daily occurrence, with the result, that over the years one became desensitized to these images. One had to really, in order to remain sane. It is a survival mechanism. Once one becomes hardened to those types of images, it takes many years to develop a soft core again. Only after emigrating to Canada and living in this non-violent country where  murders in Vancouver total about twelve per annum, did the healing begin to set in. When 9/11 happened we had been in this country for about five years and I will never forget my reaction early that morning watching that horror unfold in real time. I stood and cried for those poor people. It took a catastrophic event like that to nudge my psyche back to health.

In America, Seen through Photographs, Darkly Sontag writes about Walt Whitman’s desire to show America in a positive light and Diane Arbus’s freakish works. Melancholy Objects deals with surrealism being at the heart of photography. Truth in photography is discussed in the essay, The Heroism of Vision. The old question of whether photography is art is covered in Photographic Evangels. In the final essay, The Image World she deals with the topic that society appears to prefer the ‘copy’ to the original. The photograph is more believable than the real thing. I am reminded of a joke I heard recently (I forget the source) where someone comments to a woman “My, but you have a beautiful son!” To which the woman replied “That’s nothing! You should see his photograph!”

I did not have the energy to do a second reading of Sontag, but I know that it is necessary and I will probably do so at a later stage. Preferably when I can digest the writing in an uninterrupted space and in small chunks.

References

Sontag, Susan. (1977) On Photography. New York: Picador

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Pictured Windows – Equinox Gallery

Pictured Windows - Equinox Gallery

Pictured Windows – Equinox Gallery

This exhibition was on my absolute “must see” list. It featured some of the “photographer-greats” like Berenice Abbott, Roy Arden, Eugéne Atget, Phil Bergerson, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Harry Callahan, Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Lorraine Gilbert, Fred Herzog, Geoffrey James, Abelardo Morell, Aaron Siskind, Bruce Stewart, Weegee and David Wisdom. Admittedly there were a quite a few names there that I hadn’t heard of before.

Pictured Windows is an exhibition that “explores the duality of window pictures and the contrast between what is presented and what is reflected”. Spanning the twentieth century the exhibition focuses on the cultural significance of the shop windows, the surreal possibilities that occur in reflective glass, inventory of cities. A quote by Susan Sontag on the wall at the entrance of the gallery reads:

[the photographs bring] to our attention the coexistence of sewing machine and umbrella, that chance meeting, which a great Surrealist poet has praised as the essence of beauty.

Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets Paris by Eugene Atget

Boulevard de Strasbourg, Corsets Paris by Eugene Atget

I think my favourite image in the entire exhibit would have to be Eugene Atget’s Corsets. There is something intriguing about the horizontal and vertical alignment of the mannequins displaying the corsets. It’s an image full of historical data and even probably rather risque for that time period. Did ladies publicly display their undergarments in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s? Or was this a shop for the ladies of the night? I think this image also reveals a little of the photographer’s romantic nature. The fact that the photograph is taken slightly to the side seems to suggest that the photographer did not want to intrude on the female domain by appearing to be too voyeuristic, although he was the original flâneur in the photographic world. Looking at those mannequins in the shop window it seems crazy that women willingly subjected their bodies to such restraining and harmful contraptions all in the name of fashion. But then I look at the young girls of today and can make the same statement about the six inch platform heels that they wear. Fashion is a vicious cycle. Its only the product that changes, but the end goal is always the same – to appear sexy.

Berenice Abbott’s photos are extremely interesting to read. Each image is crammed full of details, almost majestic in adornments. The huge Roman soldier and Indian chief in Sumner Healey’s  Antique Shop, the huge ‘in your face’ signage above the shop front in Rothman’s Pawnshop, the interesting statue outside the Snuff Shop to the window obscured by product prices of Jacob Heymann Butcher Shop, 345 Sixth Avenue are all a sliver of New York history. They represent a time that is past. A time when pride was taken in displays, when individuality was the norm and not the exception as it is today.

Geoffrey James and Lee Friedlander’s window photographs are similar in style. Lots of layers with the photographer’s reflection and that of the city scene behind him reflected in the photograph.

Walker Evans’ Fish Market near Birmingham, Alabama is a delightful image to study. The sign at the top of the building reads “The old reliable house mover”, but just below that under the eaves is a sign stating “Fish & honest weights, square dealings” with two signs on either side of the door listing the prices of the various fish. But in the window and in front of the shop are pumpkins, potatoes and watermelons on display. If one looks through the door and windows of the shop, one sees a few men sitting casually on porch of the building behind. The incongruity of it all makes one wonder what really happens at this place. I found his images to be amazingly sharp with excellent tonal variation.

Some of Phil Bergerson’s images were quite humorous – Springfield, Missouri [we buy men used] to name one. The red trimmed shop with its windows adorned with white paper, blocking all view from the outside has a sense of mystery to it. Especially when one takes the sign into account. The sign says it all, “we buy men used 29 and up”. But in the reflection juxtaposed to the sign one can see the photographer, clearly a man. However, the man is not standing in the normal photographer’s pose. He stands astride with his right arm  across his chest and the left hand in his pocket, almost as if he is a customer considering his options before entering the shop.

I liked David Wisdom’s St Martins Kennels Aviaries & Aquaria, Shelton Street, London 1985 with its horizontal and vertical patterns dominating the image and the lovely saturated green of the building with the softer, muted shades of the window shutters. The closed doors and barred windows makes me want to explore the building. If it is so interesting from the outside, what does it look like inside?

Bruce Stewart’s Walk-ins Welcome photograph is a humorous example of the Gestalt Law of Proximity and Similarity. Four mannequin torsos with legs stand outside a store dressed in pants. The first three mannequins all display various signs displaying from inside the waistband enticing shoppers to make a purchase. A couple even have a few more signs pinned to the pants legs. To the extreme right of the mannequins is another torso, standing akimbo, but this torso has arms and a camera and is clearly someone, probably a tourist posing next to the four mannequins. But my eyes keeps going back to the fourth mannequin because something is bothering me. This mannequin has no sign attached to it. It has no sign in its waistband, instead something with a patterned material is tucked into the waistband and it appears to be oval in shape. On closer inspection I notice that this torso is not standing on a pedestal as the other three are. A clever guise!

There was also a good selection of Fred Herzog’s shop windows on exhibit and as I have reviewed his work in a previous posting when working on the Colour project, I will not cover it here. It really is worthwhile going to see the “old masters” in the flesh so to speak and I’m so glad I put it on my must-see list.

The exhibit can be seen online at the Equinox Gallery website.

References

Pictured Windows. Equinox Gallery [online]. Available from: http://equinoxgallery.com/artists/portfolio/pictured-windows [Accessed 7 April, 2015]

Inside Out: Colin Smith

Inside Out is a reflective name for this exhibition by Canadian photographer, Colin Smith. His exhibition at the Winsor Gallery comprised huge prints made in camera obscura format. Camera obscura is the upside down image displayed in a darkened room with only a small hole in a window cover to allow light in. It’s basically the process of turning a room into one gigantic camera, but without the mirror to invert the image back to us again. This law of optics was known in ancient times.

Bow Lake Boler, 2014 by Colin Smith

Bow Lake Boler, 2014 by Colin Smith

What makes Smith’s work so interesting is that he has used an airstream trailer (caravan) and old, abandoned buses in some of his images on exhibit. While the inverted image is reflected on the ceiling and walls of the caravan or bus, the scene through the two windows in the caravan or bus is the right way up. One almost feels that one is looking at a television monitor instead of through a window. I am guessing that he covers the windows while waiting for the camera obscura camera to marinate, so to speak and then removes the covers just before the shutter is pressed. The effect is surreal and quite puzzling. The prints are of a size that the viewer feels as if he/she is right there in the location. At first one can’t figure out just where that place is, things look out of place and there is a dizzying sensation while one tries to make sense of the image, a confusing of the senses.  You feel as if you are upside down, yet right way up all at the same time. The canola fields display boldly on the ceiling of the caravan, while a grain silo stretches out on the table. While through the windows a beautiful landscape of canola fields and the Rocky Mountains stretch out in the distance.

His other camera obscura work, done in some of the well known hotels in Vancouver and on Vancouver Island, were a new take on some very familiar scenery. Although these were “straight” camera obscuras with no window views, they were, nevertheless done on a majestic scale and also engaged the viewer to look through the room in great detail.

All his camera obscura images have a lot of layers and one is really engaged when viewing the images. Initially I had my doubts about attending this exhibition, but I am so glad I went to see it as it has opened the door to some new ideas and techniques.

More of Colin Smith’s work can be seen on his website.

References

Colin Smith [online]. Available from: http://www.colinsmith.ca/ [Accessed 6 April, 2015]

Disfarmer: A Portrait of America

A few documentaries about photography are being screened on local TV’s channel, The Knowledge Network this month as part of the Capture Photography Festival. I have just finished watching the documentary on Mike Disfarmer.

Disfarmer (1884 – 1959) was a photographer from Heber Springs, Arkansas whose best work portrayed rural Americans during wartime and during the Depression years. In the documentary he is described as “scary looking”, “dirty”, “didn’t bother much with talking”, “a loner” and “a weirdo”. He was originally born Mike Meyer, sixth child in a family of seven to German parents. After a tornado in the 1930’s destroyed his mother’s house out of which he used to work, he built his own studio on Main Street, Heber Springs and turned to photography full time. It is told in the documentary that Mike Meyer was convinced that a tornado had picked him up when he was a baby and deposited him at the Meyer’s house and that he did not really belong there. As a result, after the death of his mother, he legally changed his name to Disfarmer, believing that Meyer meant farmer in German and that he wanted no association with that occupation whatsoever, also rejecting his family.

It was mainly the people living in the rural areas who were his subjects. They would dress up in their best clothes, come to town on a Saturday and part of their entertainment consisted of having their photograph taken by Mike Disfarmer. When war broke out, he would photograph young soldiers with their sweethearts or mothers or young ladies who wanted to send a photo to their loved ones behind the lines.

His photographs are very compelling and have a visual grit to them. Most of the subjects have a stark, wide-eyed expression on their faces which looks a little unnatural to me and the children look rather scared. I found this a little off putting. Apparently he would instruct his subjects not to blink and would also ring a bell to startle his subjects. Someone commented in the documentary, that Disfarmer brought out the natural rawness and feelings of his subjects, but I think that is a bit debatable. Yes, the photos have wonderful detail and clarity, but I don’t see the true essence of the subjects being reflected.

One of the interviewees disputes the fact that Disfarmer has gained his fame off Depression photos. He stated that the community was a poor one. They didn’t even know there was a depression on because nothing had changed for them during that time. Everyone was poor.

There seems to be a controversial point raised by some of the photographers who were interviewed about the black line in some of Disfarmer’s portraits. He time and again broke the rule of not having something growing out of someone’s head. His white backdrop had solid black vertical lines and it seems as if he purposely positioned the subjects so that they were centred in front of this line. No one know whether he did this on purpose or just simply didn’t care.

While his photographs are without a doubt excellent, I do prefer those of Dorothea Lange, where a variety of emotions are displayed, even without the person smiling.

Some of his images can be seen on this Vimeo trailer to the movie.

References

Disfarmer: A Portrait of America [documentary film] Dir. Martin Lavut. Public Pictures/Nomad Films Inc. in association with TVO makes you think., Canada, 2010. 52 min 04 secs.

Ruzic, Rob, Disfarmer: A Portrait of America [vidcast trailer, online] 15/01/2011 2 min 28 secs. https://vimeo.com/album/1699435/video/18819679 (accessed 5 April, 2015).

 

Wayward at the Winsor Gallery

With the Capture Photography Festival happening in Vancouver, I am trying to cram in as many exhibitions that I can over my weekends. The Wayward exhibition contains works of nine contemporary artists based in Canada and Los Angeles, namely Brody Albert, Dana Claxton, Alexis Dirks, Jason Gowans, Maggie Groat, Lili Huston-Herterich, Laurie Kang, Colin Smith and Ed Spence.

Wayward exhibition

Wayward Exhibition. In foreground work by Alexis Dirks. In the background images by Ed Spence

The festival catalogue describes them as artists “who trouble our presumptions about “fixedness” of the photograph”. Claxton and Spence “unsettle the surface of the image through pixelation, but through analog processes”. Kang “exposes and tears light-sensitive paper to create collaged photograms that respond willfully to their environment”. Gowans “uses infrared film to manifest a “drift” in both time and collective memory” and Albert “in a three-channel video, offers a fugitive, almost imperceptible mediation on the very basis of photo-graphé or “drawing with light”. Other artists transform rooms into pinhole cameras (Colin Smith). In the case of Alexis Dirks “patterns mimicking those found in the natural world are digitally printed on billboard paper and silk crepe de chine, then run up walls and unfurled across the floor.

There was a lot in the exhibition that I found quite puzzling. The accompanying wall text along side the pieces proved to be rather scant only imparting the artists names together the piece’s name or number. Not much information was available about each artists work. I will only briefly touch on a few of the artists.

Brody Albert’s work consisted of two projectors on the floor projecting a faint image from an apartment, which quite frankly were almost illegible as they were mainly in the corner on the floor of the gallery. The projectors made more of a statement than the actual image itself. There is a similar project on his website which can be seen here.

Alexis Dirk’s work was a little more interesting, but almost seemed to go beyond photography. I wasn’t too sure what to make of it. The one piece looked like a painter’s dropcloth scrunched up slightly and spread out across the gallery floor and which had a big hole in it. It reminded me a bit of wallpaper. See image above. More of her work is featured on her blog.

Maggie Groat’s piece can be seen here. The first image on her website is the same as the piece in the exhibition. It featured an array of images, printed on paper, I think and then glued onto hand cut cardboard squares and rectangles and arranged on three shelves. Pretty, nice analogous colour palettes flowing from one hue into the next on the colour wheel, ending with the neutral shades on the lowest shelf. I remember thinking to myself that it was cute. Probably not the best way to describe photography, but that was my first reaction.

Careful! You're falling inside yourself again, 2015: Ed Spence

Careful! You’re falling inside yourself again, 2015: Ed Spence

I think by far the most interest pieces were by Ed Spence. Ed takes a portion of his image and pixelates it. He painstakingly creates the pixel by hand, cutting them out and gluing them back into place. It must take him forever to create an image because the size of the pixels are probably in the region of a half centimetre square. The result is a rather mysterious, yet familiar image. Familiar because one is reminded of the occasions when the TV sudden goes on the blink with an electrical interference and huge pixels obscure the images on the screen, or the zooming in when working in Photoshop to the point where one has zoomed in too much. Mysterious because one wants to unravel the mystery of what lies behind the pixelated portion of the image. So instead of looking away as one does when one has zoomed in too much in Photoshop, one goes closer to inspect the individual pixels and to see the details. Seeing the work close up and seeing the minute detail of the pixels is really quite fascinating.

I do have to say that, during this photography festival, I am being exposed to a whole variety of photography that I never knew existed before. One of the artists, Lili Huston-Herterich, pastes prints onto bits of broken ceramic surfaces and hangs these fragments as a collage, her aim being to bring back the utilitarian aspect into art, which I found rather interesting. Next time I break some crockery I shall have to experiment.

References

“Wayward”. Capture Photography Festival Catalogue, p 52: Mitchell Press, Vancouver.

Bibliography

Albert, Brody [online] 10:59 AM. Available from: http://brodyalbert.com/work/1059am/ [Accessed 6 April, 2015]

Dirks, Alexis [online] Available from: http://alexisdirks.blogspot.ca/ [Accessed 6 April, 2015]

Groat, Maggie [online] Available from: http://www.maggiegroat.com/ [Accessed 6 April, 2015]

Huston-Herterich, Lili [online] Available from: http://www.lilihustonherterich.com/ [Accessed 6 April, 2015]

Spence, Ed [online] Available from: http://edspence.tumblr.com/ [Accessed 6 April, 2015]

Marten Elder – Perceptual Renderings at the Equinox Gallery

Martin Elder, PR20, 2014

Martin Elder PR20, 2014

Marten Elder is a photographer who studied under Stephen Shore at Bard College in New York. His Perceptual Renderings exhibition is part of the second Capture Photography Festival in Vancouver. Elder’s work reminded me of Erin O’Keefe’s images with their bright, vibrant colour palettes. It was great to see the actual photographs in the flesh, as they were quite big and the colours are definitely more vibrant on paper than on a computer screen.

I found the Festival’s brochure write up on Elder’s method of working a little vague so I went in search of some extra information. In an excerpt of an interview with Emma Lee Wall, reported by Jill Singer of SightUnseen, Elder describes his method of working as follows:

Instead of treating the photograph as a window into the world and attempting to extend pictorial illusion, I started making compositions that were intentionally flat.  It was the same basic logic used to look at the world, but for reverse effect.  Then I started to allow myself to break other rules, which led to the focus composites and the wide spectrum of colors rendered. … The color is all color as it exists in the real world, in the same relative relationship to one another, but mapped to the entire spectrum of what the digital camera captures and what the print can reproduce.

Elder concentrates on rendering the actual colours of shadows and likes working with concrete subjects as concrete with its natural grey colour reflects all other colours very well. He also uses plants for some of his images, but personally I found those images a little over the top and a bit unbelievable. The organic subject matter definitely did not render as well as the inorganic matter. I found his images of kerb stones, stairwells, corners and gravel on roads particularly interesting as abstract works.

Perceptual Renderings at the Equinox Gallery

Perceptual Renderings at the Equinox Gallery

Elder’s images are extremely well composed, have a high graphic element and very interesting colour palettes. His work is a constant experiment into the workings of colour. I’m still not sure whether the photographs are composites. It would be nice to have a better understanding of his process as I do find the images very intriguing.

More of his work can be seen on his website, listed in the Bibliography below and the exhibit can also be viewed online at Equinox Gallery’s website.

Reference:

Singer, Jill (2014). Marten Elder in 01 Magazine [online]. SightUnseen. Available from: http://www.sightunseen.com/2014/11/marten-elder-in-01-magazine/ [Accessed 4 April, 2015]

Bibliography

Martin Elder [online]. Available from: http://martenelder.com/ [Accessed 4 April, 2015]

Elder, Martin (2015) Perceptual Renderings [online]. Equinox Gallery. Available from: http://equinoxgallery.com/artists/portfolio/marten-elder/1 [Accessed 7 April, 2015]

Ross Penhall – Accidentally on Purpose

I took in the Accidentally on Purpose exhibition by Ross Penhall at the Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art on the same day that I attended the Victor John Penner exhibition. His paintings were on display in the Mezzanine and Process Galleries. I first checked out the Process gallery which is a sort of backroom alcove off the main gallery and came across walls entirely covered in little 6 by 6 inch framed paintings. On the one wall the paintings were hung in a grid pattern which made them easier to view, but on the larger wall they were hung a little haphazardly and I found this made the viewing a little overwhelming. There were just so many of the little paintings! I didn’t quite know where to look. I was rather intrigued by the smallness of the paintings and thought that the artist had definitely gone to a lot of trouble to make such small landscape paintings.

I then went upstairs to the Mezzanine Gallery where the displayed work was in a larger format. I quite liked Penhall’s paintings. His colour palettes varied from quick bright to fairly muted and I was reminded of some of the painters in the Romantic that I had looked at when studying Johannes Itten’s book on the Elements of Color, namely Casper David Friedrich, John Constable and Philipp Otto Runge and  J.M.W Turner as I found that Penhall’s body of work has similar palettes.

Hello Forest by Ross Penhall

Hello Forest by Ross Penhall

I particularly liked his Hello Forest series which is a set of paintings of the log staircases that are often built into the walking trails around Vancouver, some of them going right up the mountain. The green palette is almost monochromatic with just a few accent splashes of colour of yellows or reds in each painting. He uses leading lines on his boardwalks and staircases to lead the viewer up into the painting and deeper into the forest.

Had I not been in such a hurry to grab a seat for Ian Wallace’s artists talk, I would have read the introductory wall text that accompanied the exhibition in the Process Gallery. However, I came across this video provides the back story and which explains how Penhall works with the local kids in helping them understand art and how he actually cut up a painting as a party favour, signed the back and gave the pieces to the kids. One lady framed her tile (they were meant to be coasters) and he thought that it looked pretty good and so he got the idea of doing this in a more purposeful manner. So in actual fact he doesn’t create small little paintings. He creates large canvases and then slices them up. The video has a good clip showing Penhall hanging all the 6 by 6 paintings on the back wall of the gallery.

References

Penhall, Ross: Accidentally on Purpose [vidcast, online] The Gordon Smith Gallery of Canadian Art. 16/03/2015. 3 min. 07 secs. https://vimeo.com/122360608 (accessed 30/03/2015)