Category Archives: Multimedia

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).

 

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Bridging the self-acceptance gap with “psyphotology”

I have just finished watching an amazing Tedx Talk featuring Peter Hurley (my all time favourite headshot photographer) and psychologist , Anna Rowley. If anyone has watched any of Hurley’s tutorials, they will know that he has these wonderful techniques that he uses to get the best responses and expressions from his clients. He has ways of tightening jawlines so that there is shadow definition around the jaw, methods of having his clients “squinch” (his word) their eyes for a more intense look. But mainly he gets his clients to relax in front of the camera. He and Anna Rowley met when they were working on a project for Microsoft and Anna had to come in to have her headshot taken. Well, she went through all the avoidance scenarios to avoid having her photograph taken, but eventually went through with the process and actually enjoyed the sitting. She and Peter then got together and analysed what it was that made people not want to have their photographs taken and they came up with the term “Psyphotology”. Some people embrace having their photos taken,  others avoid it and some change in front of the lens. It is as Barthes (1980, p10) said: ‘Now, once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”

Basically, we all focus on our outer shell, our physical features. Rather than judging the outer self we should rather use the face as the gateway to the soul. Rowley explains that we should use a bit of introspection and think about the turning points in our lives, thinking back to a major decision that we made that we could not turn back from and the life trajectory that resulted from that decision. She and Hurley are of the opinion that this turns our focus inwards and reveals our true inner beauty. She explained that she has never had a person state that they were a failure or were ugly when performing this exercise.This is one of the techniques that Hurley uses when he is shooting headshots of his clients. This video is definitely something I will come back to in a later module as there is so much wisdom packed into these short thirteen minutes.

Reference List

Barthes, R. (1980). Camera Lucida Reflections on Photography. Paperback edition. New York: Hill and Wang.

Lecture, Anna Rowley & Peter Hurley. Bridging the self-acceptance gap with “psyphotology” [webcast, online] TEDxCambridge. 29/10/2014. 13 mins 41 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYJCDYNsL6A  (Accessed 30 October, 2014)

William Eggleston in the Real World

While researching Eggleston, I came across another documentary about him which takes the viewer into the daily life of this man. We accompany him and his son on various photo shoots, observe him working and interacting with his family. The narrator, Michael Almereyda, states that in John Szarkowski’s essay on Eggleston, Szarkowski states about Eggleston’s photos that “the world now contains more photographs than bricks …” Eggleston is a prolific photographer. He doesn’t hang around taking more than one photograph of anything that he photographs – he moves on. When working a scene he doesn’t reframe at all, just takes the shot as he sees it. Humans tend to be crowded out of his photographs, he rather focuses on objects. When asks by the narrator what emotions photography evoked in him, he simply replied that he had never thought about it. Eggleston’s own words about art: “Love it or appreciate it, but you can’t really talk about it.” He is truly a man of few words (well that is the way he is depicted in the documentary). When accepting the Getty Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award all that he said was “Well, I’m glad I came here tonight. Thank you” and then returned to his seat to continue eating his dinner.

The documentary is a little slow, but worth a viewing and it is extremely interesting to see the way Eggleston works.

Reference List

William Eggleston in the Real World.  [ webcast]. Arthouse Films. Keep Your Head and High Line Productions, UK,  18/11/2005. 1 hour 24 mins 43 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq3N2KWAttU (accessed 17/8/2014).

William Eggleston, Photographer

An interesting short documentary in English (first half) and German (second half) on William Eggleston, a pioneer in colour photography. He describes his photographs as being about ‘life today’.  He fostered a personal work discipline early on as he did not like to edit down his photographs. So he decided only to shoot one frame of any particular subject and this he still does. Eggleston is self taught, but was heavily influenced by Cartier-Bresson. His trademarks are the motifs that he places around the edges of his frames and also the drastic cropping of people. He preferred to use natural light. People are not regarded as subjects in his photographs, but rather he reduces them to colour or form – they become part of the composition. He states in the documentary that the colour red is very difficulty to work with, but he is not sure why, possibly because it is at war with all the other colours.

He enlarges his photos and uses a dye transfer process that was more commonly used by commercial and fashion photography. This is characterized by a high degree of colour saturation, contrast and brilliance. By manipulating and exaggerating the colours, he creates a sense of artificiality and drama, rather like a painter would. His colour accents create sense of apprehension and unease, underlining the feeling of the uncanny in his pictures.

A good insight into William Eggleston and well worth the watch. The English section stops at around 26 mins 11 secs.

Reference List

William Eggleston, Photographer. Reiner Holzemer Film [ webcast]. Published 2008. 52 mins 44 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4O2Oz6lQ7bs (accessed 17/8/2014).

Jacques-Henri Lartigue BBC Master Photographers (1983)

A superb interview with Jacques-Henri Lartigue as he reminisces about his early years in photography and relates some fascinating stories about those well dressed ladies with their hats. When asked about the decisive moment, he replied that he was a good tennis player, so had a quick eye. He just anticipated what was going to happen. He relied on his guts and heart when photographing. Interestingly enough, even though photography has changed so much over the years he still shoot as he always did – no more than 3 or 4 of a subject. The video is in French, but there are English sub-titles.

Reference List

Jacques-Henri Lartigue. BBC Master Photographers (1983) [ webcast, online]. BBC, London, UK. Published 14/4/2013. 34 mins 58 secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWBGRjJNAwg (accessed 8/8/2014).

Food Photography Without Expensive Gear – Chris Marquardt

As part of my research for Assignment 2 I have been watching various video tutorials on food photography. In this tutorial Chris Marquardt takes you through a photo shoot done in a restaurant using available light and some homemade reflectors. I found it interesting that he doesn’t need a plate to be filled completely but can make a beautiful photo using just a portion of the bowl or plate.

Reference List

Food Photography Without Expensive Gear [webcast, online] Chris Marquardt, 19/05/2013. 30 mins 23 secs.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7t_FfKFKmk (Accessed on 7/8/2014).

Laura Letinsky

In my Assignment 1 feedback my tutor mentioned that I should look at Laura Letinsky’s still life work, particularly her use of planes. I have looked at her work online and although the subject matter is a trifle bizarre there is an ethereal quality about it. As she states in an interview at the Photographers’ Gallery prior to the opening of her exhibition, Ill Form and Void Full, her setup is shoddily put together and one of her objectives in her work is to break the illusion of perfection. There is an awkward balance which comes through in her work. Many of the items in her photos are precariously balancing on the edge of a table or shelf, on the verge of toppling over. She uses natural light and is sometimes amazed at the way the light interacts with her constructions. Size and scale of her work is important to her as she wants the viewer to have a sense of proximity, a feeling that they are taking part in the narrative and standing before the table.

Laura Letinsky Interview

Please click on this image to access the interview on Vimeo

In an interview with Aperture in 2013 she made a statement that gave me much food for thought: “Alongside its ability to provoke sensations, photography has a way of homogenizing experience. A piece of schumutz and a Tiffany diamond become the same thing once they’re photographed—they become photographs. I have a love/hate relationship with this power of the camera to flatten difference.” This is so true. I have never thought about photography as a leveler before. It would be so easy if all the wrongs in the world could be righted with the power of photography, but unfortunately we live in a 3 dimensional world. But definitely a statement to mull over.

Although I am not crazy about doing still life myself, I will most likely review her work some more and see if I can emulate her methods during the rainy days in Vancouver when it is too wet to shoot outdoors.

Reference List

An Interview with Laura Letinsky [webcast, online] The Photographers’ Gallery, 18/01/2013. 4 minutes 51 seconds. http://vimeo.com/57683797 (accessed 25/07/2014)

Sholis, Brian. (2013) Interview with Laura Letinsky [online]. Aperture. Available from: http://www.aperture.org/blog/interview-with-laura-letinsky/ [Accessed 25 July, 2014]