Category Archives: Reviews

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

The Photographer’s Story: Michael Freeman

The Photographer's Story: Michael Freeman

The Photographer’s Story: Michael Freeman

In preparation for Assignment 5, I decided to read Freeman’s The Photographer’s Story. It is a book all about the art of the visual narrative.  He begins by giving a background to the photo essay and explains the classic narrative formula in depth, the importance of establishing a rhythm of both an emotional and visual variety, to the pacing of the story, and how captions help photographs.

The classic example used for a photo essay is W. Eugene Smith’s The Country Doctor, which was featured in Life Magazine in 1948 and Freeman spends a lot of time covering the theme, agenda, preparation and planning of this shoot, then moves on to the layout and discusses the key shots. Figuring out the rhythm, pacing and opening and closer shots are key ingredients to a successful photo essay and probably the most difficult for a photographer who is his/her own editor as well.

The Country Doctor Layout

The Country Doctor Layout

Freeman then covers the different kinds of stories that occur and how best to treat each category. While some of the criteria are the same for each category, there are criteria that do obviously differ depending on the subject.  There are people stories, location stories, stories about how things are made, commodity stories, stories about activities, collection stories, institution and concept stories.

The final sections of the book are devoted to the picture script which is a visual plan of the shoot covering items such as location, setup, expected activities to shoot, arrangements with people regarding permissions, lighting, interviews and so on.

After making the images, one has to naturally edit the shoot. Freeman discusses the various methods, linking back to the classic example given earlier in the book and then covers the layouts. Progressing on from this he talks about the big photo books and how to work with those and break them down into logical chapters.

Finally he covers the new media methods of presenting a photo essay by using a slideshow. He goes into a lot of detail on how to rework the story for the internet, as the sequencing of the story on the web is linear and thus has to be treated differently to that of a printed essay.

This book is definitely going to serve as my handbook for Assignment 5. Well worth a few rereads as well for all the nuggets of valuable information in it.

References

Cosgrove, Ben (2012). W. Eugene Smith’s Landmark Portrait: ‘Country Doctor’ [online].  Life (Life Photo Essay). Available from: http://time.com/3456085/w-eugene-smiths-landmark-photo-essay-country-doctor/ [Acessed 21 February, 2015]

Freeman, Michael (2012). The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative. Lewes, England: The Ilex Press.

Kumi Yamashita

One word — Wow! I’m totally blown away by this artist’s work. Kumi Yamashita is a young Japanese sculptor, now living in New York. I mainly looked at her Light and Shadow series. She creates some of her work by constructing a single sculpture or multiple objects using common everyday materials and places them in relation to a single light source. The effects are truly amazing! She takes square sheets of resin or paper and pinches and rounds them out on one edge and when that material is then placed on the wall with the correct positioning of the light, a profile of a face is seen.

In another installation she uses a sheet on a flat surface. By artfully arranging the right edge of the sheet a silhouette of a naked woman can be seen emerging from under the fabric. A few of her installations feature the arrangement of large wooden block letters. The letters appear to be arranged haphazardly on the wall, but in what must be a painstakingly slow process, actually reveal profiles of a child, a woman and a woman standing at a balcony. She designed the alphabet blocks herself, and with each block having a different height this enables her to work out the placement to get the required shadow. These are all excellent examples of raking light at its best!

In her Chair installation, one sees a figure of a man seated on a plain chair, but on looking at the close up photo which is taken at a slight angle one can see that the chair is not planed flat but has cutouts which create the shadow.In Clouds, another similar installation features the shadow of a couple holding up the “installation” over their heads like a newspaper as if they have been caught in a sudden downpour. The shadow edges closest to the “installation” are quite hard, but the edges gradually soften until they almost form a mist around the legs of the couple. A great use of axial lighting.  I am in total awe that a flat or curved piece of metal, wood or paper with certain cutouts can create all these effects.

Yamashita says about her work:

I sculpt using light and shadow. I construct single or multiple objects and place them in relation to a single light source. The complete artwork is therefore comprised of both the material (the solid objects) and the immaterial (the light or shadow).

While I have mainly concentrated on her Light and Shadows series, Yamashita does also work in other media, which I will only briefly mention. She creates portraits of people by using their own expired credit cards under a sheet of paper and rubbing over the numbers. Again the results are spectacular! Examples of these can be seen in her Rubbing series. She also creates portraits by using a white wooden board, galvanized nails and one single unbroken thread. The shading and modelling on these portraits is fantastic. These can be seen in the Constellation series. Another type of portrait that she makes is by using fabric and pulling out pieces and pieces of the lighter threads.

Clearly this lady is super talented. I find her work very evocative and pensive, while at the same time realise that it is extremely calculated and engineered. It has to be to create the silhouettes that emerge from her installations. Amazing what a single light bulb can do in the right location. I might even try my hand at the paper silhouette. If I do succeed, I’ll post a photo in this section, but don’t hold your breath – I’m sure it is more difficult than it looks. Below is a video of one of her installations entitled Dialogue. It consists of 60 rotating profiles concentrically arranged, lit from the side.

Reference List

Kumi Yamashita [online]. Available from http://www.kumiyamashita.com/ [Accessed 6 January, 2014]

Yamashita, Kumi (1999). Video of Dialogue [webcast, online] Kebun. 9/7/2007. 8 mins 59 sec. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLMLt_7_Evs (Accessed 6 January, 2015

Capturing Light by Michael Freeman

Capturing Light book cover by Michael FreemanI finished reading Capturing Light by Michael Freeman on Christmas day and what an inspiring and enlightening book it was! Freeman opened my eyes to the different kinds of light out there. I had no idea there were so many variations!

Capturing Light is divided into three sections: Waiting; Chasing and Helping. It is all about “found” light, the kind of light photographers have no control over. The first section (Waiting) deals with predictable light, light in which we can plan our photo shoot. The second section (Chasing) concerns unpredictable light such as that light shaft breaking through the storm clouds unexpectedly. This type of light one cannot plan for. One has to react to it quickly when it occurs because its appearance is of a fleeting nature. The final section (Helping) deals mainly with items that help one achieve one’s vision, namely light modifiers, filters, HDR and focus stacking. Freeman is not a fan of flash, but acknowledges that it is needed occasionally.

In Waiting Freeman covers Soft Sunlight, Gray Light, Soft Gray Light, Dark Gray Light and Wet Gray Light which were real eye openers to me as this covers the type of light that I find in Vancouver for a good part of the year. With these types of light he explains methods to create low contrast, mood, colour saturation, melancholy atmosphere, drama, reflections and distance layers. He then moves onto Hard LIght which is light from a high sun. Most photographers tend to avoid shooting in the middle of the day when this type of light occurs, but Freeman blows that philosophy out of the water. This is the time of day when abstract images with high contrast and texture and minimalistic photos can be made. He even covers the type of hard light which can be found at very high altitudes. Raking light comes next – great for textures of buildings and shadows, especially long shadows close to sunset. Another type of Hard Light is covered in greater detail, namely the Tropical Harsh light where hard edges dominate the shadows during midday and ways of dealing with this type of light such as shooting in deep dappled shade to create chiaroscuro. Snow Light comes next. Freeman then discusses shooting into the light to obtain reflections and refractions, how to block the sun and manage the contrast. Next up is shooting from Shade to Light, Reflection Light, Backlight, Axial Light, Skylight which is light reflected from the sky which reflects only the blue wavelengths and is not the same as sunlight. Then follow Top Light, Window Light (think Renaissance paintings), the Golden Hour and how to determine the time of Golden Hour, Magic Hour, Blue Evenings, City Lights, Candle Light and Glowing Light.

Freeman begins the second section, Chasing, by discussing the Golden Hour again, but here specifically paying attention to those fast changing moments that occur during sunrise or sunset. He then moves onto Edge Light and Chiaroscuro where extreme contrasts can be created as well as abstract images. Following on from this is Spotlight and the need for perfect timing, Spot Backlight, Light Shafts, Barred Light, Patterned Light and Cast-Shadow Light. From there he moves onto the elements of Storm Light covering brief breaks of light in the clouds overhead, breaks of light on the horizon, light from under a cloud bank, and dark-cloud backdrops and cities at night and Rain Light. I’m reminded of my childhood when reading about this type of light as it is the light that occurs when the sun shines while it is raining. I remember we used to call this a Monkey’s Wedding when this occurred. Caustics are dealt with next – the play of light reflecting or refracting through objects onto something else, creating patterns and sometimes colours. How to create Sunstars and Flared Light and the best ways of processing these images follow. White Light,  Dusty Light, Misty Light, Foggy Light round up the elements. Freeman then turns to  Reflected Light covering light that is bounced from a bright spot on the ground to light bounced off opposite walls to surrounding fill light and unexpected spotlights to canyon walls reflecting light. He then deals with the colour of ice in Suffused Light, explaining how water and ice absorb red tones in varying degrees resulting in shades of blue being reflected. Suffused Light also occurs when the sun scatters the blue end of the spectrum and this then results in warm hues, namely yellow, orange and reds being reflected. Suffused light can also occur in man made surroundings such as light coming through a stained glass window.

As mentioned before the Helping section deals with aspects and tools of achieving one’s vision, for instance using reflectors to capture Filled Light, using reflectors to reroute light in a certain path, using mirrors and diffusion panels to create Enveloping Light and to boost highlights. Scrims can be used in front of windows to soften light as well. Freeman then introduces ND filters, polarizers and other types of filters which attach to the front of the camera lens. He also discusses methods of dealing the compact fluorescent lights that are so prevalent in households today. Interestingly these CFL lights do not have a full light spectrum and emit a yellow-green light which the human eye discounts, but which is picked up by the camera’s sensor. He gives advice on how to deal with flare and then moves onto some post processing techniques such as dodging and burning, HDR, time-lapse light, and blending procedures.

There is so much good information in this book that rereads of different sections will definitely help prior to planning a shoot. Its definitely a keeper book and one that I will delve into for a long time to come.

Bibliography

Freeman, Michael (2013). Capturing Light: The Heart of Photography. Lewes, England: The Ilex Press.

Dan Flavin

My tutor recommended that for Assignment 4 I should look at the work of Dan Flavin. Dan Flavin is an installation artist who specializes in fluorescent light tube installations. His work belongs to the minimalism movement. His work is extremely minimal, almost to the extreme. He creates structures with various coloured fluorescent light tubes and arranges them strategically in the gallery, sometimes creating barriers to impede the viewer, other times using corners to display his work. I can’t say that I’m crazy about his work – its just not my cup of tea at all, but I wouldn’t want to write him off completely. Having viewed this type of light installation a few years ago, I do think that this type of work is best appreciated when seen in the gallery firsthand and not in a photograph as one does not get the full experience of viewing the installation from different angles and distances and observing the interplay of the light and shadows on the walls and floors of the gallery.

That said one can observe the light falloff of the fluorescent tubes into the ambient light on some of the photographs, the reflections of the coloured tubes resembling the reflection of neon and traffic lights on the wet roads during or after a rain storm. (I find the real thing infinitely more interesting.) In doing so his artwork is not solely comprised of the actual hardware but of the lighting effect of each piece on the surrounding walls and floors.

I am not really sure how looking at photographs of fluorescent tubes is going to help me with the light assignment though – the jury is still out on that. I can’t quite see myself running out to purchase fluorescent light tubes to create similar setups. I think I would have appreciated this more had there been some subjects other than the just fluorescent tubes. Something where the light of the tubes strike a three dimensional object maybe …

Reference list

Flavin, Dan. (1963) pink out of a corner (to Jasper Johns) [online]. Sculpture. New York: Museum of Modern Art. Available from: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?criteria=O%3AAD%3AE%3A1911&page_number=2&template_id=1&sort_order=1 [Accessed 11 December, 2014]

Flavin, Dan. (1966) greens crossing greens (to Piet Mondrian who lacked green) [online]. Green fluorescent light. New York: Guggenheim Museum. Available from: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/1305 [Accessed 11 December, 2014]

Lighting by David Präkel

Lighting by David PräkelI have just finished the book Lighting by David Präkel. The book is what I would classify as a “What is ….?” book. It is basically a compendium of terminology with definitions arranged in a logical sequence. The book deals with the basic theory of light, colour theory of light, polarized light, the various types of natural light, types of available light, studio lighting, how studio lighting is controlled and how to use light to create shape, form and texture. At the end of each chapter there is an exercise which can be used to practise the various techniques. Many of these exercises are similar to those in the course book. I found the studio lighting section particularly interesting as most of the studio equipment and their uses were explained really well. Definitely a good reference book to have around.

Reference List

Präkel, David (2013). Basics Photography 02: Lighting. Lausanne, Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA.

Camera Lucida Reflections on Photography: Roland Barthes

Camera Lucida by Roland BarthesThis book is undoubtedly one of the most challenging that I have ever read. Were it not for the required reading element, I would probably have binned it after the third chapter. Barthes has an extremely irritating (for me at any rate) way of writing. As stated in the foreword by Geoff Dyer (Barthes, 1980, p. x):

Barthes liked “to write beginnings” and multiplied this pleasure by writing books of fragments, of repeated beginnings; he also liked prebeginnings: “introductions, sketches,” ideas for projected books, books he planned one day to write. … The paradox, then, is that this man who liked first words (and adored paradoxes) offered his provisional findings as if they were the last word. Needless to say, this last word was always susceptible to further elaboration and refinement, to further beginnings. This is how Barthes’s prose acquires its signature style of compression and flow, a summing-up that is also a perpetual setting-forth.

No wonder my head was spinning! Even with this forewarning I found the text difficult to manage. So in this review I will only touch on a few pertinent highlights and leave further exploration to another time, where I’m sure this book will crop up again and necessitate a further reading of the text.

Barthes comes across a photograph of Napoleon’s brother and he is in awe of the fact that he is gazing into the eyes of someone who gazed into the eyes of Napoleon. This occurrence triggered his desire to find out what the ‘essential features’ of photography were. He goes on to say that the photography cannot be classified. That which a photograph produces can only occur once. We can never go back and “retake” that moment. It is forever past. It has become history. A photograph can never be separated from its subject (referent) and at the same time the photograph is always invisible. It is not the photograph (the rectangular shape of paper) that we take note of, but rather the image that is imprinted thereupon.

And so Barthes appoints himself as the ‘mediator for all Photography’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 8). He states that there are three practices involving the photograph: that of the Operator (who is the photographer), the Spectator (the audience who is viewing the photograph) and the target (the person or thing that is being photographed, i.e. the referent). Barthes refers to the referent as the Spectrum and which he says adds to every photograph ‘the return of the dead’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 9). He is of the opinion that photography consists of two processes, namely the chemical process (the way light reacts to certain chemicals) and the physical process (the photographer’s vision and framing). Barthes admits that he has never been an ‘operator’ and, therefore, he can only use two experiences to further investigate what the essential features of photography are, namely the ‘observed subject’ and that of the ‘subject observing’.

In his search to discover the essence of the photograph Barthes finds two reoccurring patterns when looking at photographs. He decides to analyse his emotions when viewing a photo and notices that when he comes a photograph that he likes ‘it animates [him] and [he] animates it’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 20). He wants to delve into photography by seeing and feeling and thereby noticing, observing and thinking on the image. He describes the first pattern as that which is displayed, the general interest of the photograph so to speak – gestures, people, cultural objects, etc. This he calls the studium. However, the studium does not make him “feel”. It engages him in a sort of background sort of way. What does grab his attention is what he calls the punctum. The punctum is that isolated “something” in the photograph that causes you to do a double take. In Barthes’ words ‘it pricks’ you.

I recently saw a photo from the BBC News Magazine online in the feature Bringing the front line to UK streets. This is a series of photos of the British troops preparing to leave for Afghanistan and while I was scrolling through the photos, I came across a head and shoulders photo of a female soldier dressed in her battle fatigues holding a half eaten lollipop. I immediately recognized the lollipop (for me at any rate) as being the punctum in this image. The lollipop caused me to do a double take and examine the photo in greater depth.

For Barthes’ this image was Koen Wessing’s Nicaragua (1979), which is a photo of three soldiers walking the war torn streets of Nicaragua and two nuns are crossing the intersection behind them. One does not expect to find elements of war and peace (or innocence) in the same image. In the words of La Grange (2005, p. 80):

 In recognizing the studium, the spectator understands and recognizes the photographer’s intentions and is part of a cultural contract between creators and consumers, it allows the spectator to discover the operator’s (the photographer’s) intentions.

The punctum can be a partial feature or object in the photograph or it can fill the whole image.

In the second part of Camera Lucida, Barthes is concerned with the death of his mother, her passing and his subsequent grief. Upon going through old photographs he is concerned that he doesn’t find the essence of his mother in any of the photographs he is looking at. He finds only fragments that he recognises. At last he comes across one of his mother as a very young girl of approximately five years of age in the Winter Garden with her older brother. Here he finds the essence of his mother, the sweet, naïve, kind nature reflected back at him from a time when he was not yet born. This photo also embodies his grief. He now uses this Winter Garden photo as the standard to measure all other photos against, but does not reproduce the photograph in his book as he states that it will not mean anything to anyone else.

It is in this photograph that he comes to realize the true essence of the photograph, namely ‘that-has-been’. A photograph cannot exist without whatever was in front of the viewfinder at the time the photograph was taken. A painting can be done from memory, but not a photograph. And so he derives the point that a photograph is related to death and he regards photographers as agents of death. Time is another punctum that Barthes discovers while looking at Alexander Gardner’s photograph of Lewis Payne in a jail cell. The realization that he was looking a photograph of a man who was dead, but at the time the photograph was taken ‘was going to die’. ‘By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future’ (Barthes, 1980, p 96).

Barthes concludes his book stating that society wants to tame photography, which can only be done in two ways. The first is to make Photography into an art ‘for no art is mad’ (Barthes, 1980, p. 117). The second method is to make photography so banal and general. This is already happening our consumer driven image crazy society. He concludes by stating (Barthes, 1980, p. 119):

 Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits (to leaf through a magazine at the hairdresser’s, the dentist’s); mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.

Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.

Reference List

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

La Grange, Ashley (2005). Basic Critical Theory for Photographers. Oxford: Focal Press.

Loyn, David. (2014) Bringing the front line to UK streets [online]. BBC News Magazine. Available from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29473419 [Accessed 5 October, 2014].