Jeff Wall

In exploring aspects of art photography and how, sometimes, good art is made by ignoring many of the skills demonstrated by this module, I found myself reading about the Pictorialist movement, from the late 1800s.

This style was based upon paintings from the same era, which often depict everyday scenes, such as a rural idyll, with peasant workers, toiling in the fields.

Two most notable photographers from this field of photography are Henry Peach Robinson, and Henry Peter Emerson. These two, while both conforming to the norms of Pictorialism, were at opposite ends of the spectrum, in terms of methodology.

Robinson used sharp focus, from the foreground to background, in posed scenes, often using multiple exposures which were composited in the darkroom, to achieve lighting effects that would be impossible with one exposure. In modern terms, this was very similar to using high dynamic range in photo editing software.

Emerson, on the other hand, used a shallow depth of field, photographing actual workers in the fields, to achieve a more natural looks.

The final goal for both, however, was the same: To create a visually pleasing image. It may or may not have represented the real world. It may or may not have contained some social commentary. But it had to be beautiful, and draw the viewer into the scene, so they imagine themselves experiencing it in the first person.

 

This initial Pictorial movement largely faded by the 1910s, but a less formalised trend of modern Pictorialism took root in the 1970s, to become very popular by the ‘90s.

A major player in this movement, and the subject of my interest at this time, is Jeff Wall.

At first glance, I found it difficult to grasp how Wall’s images conformed to any Pictorialist norms, being neither rural, nor beautiful. This was missing the point, however. His images depict people in modern environments, living out modern situations.

These images are not as they seem, however. At a glance, they appear to be snapshots of everyday life. Random events in random locations. The reality is rather different.

They are in fact re-creations, of events seen by Wall, but not actually photographed at the time. “To not photograph,” he says, “gives a certain freedom to then re-create or reshape what I saw.”  (Wall, cited in O’Hagan, 2015)

They are meticulously staged, though to what extend any of the scene is real, or whether the people depicted are actors, or people from the original scene, is unclear.

When compared with those original Pictorialists from the 19th century, Wall appears to fall more into the Robinson camp, with his artificial manipulation of the scene, where the final composition of the scene is given priority over capturing actual reality. It is a fake reality, where, for Robinson, it happened only in his mind’s eye, while for Wall, he observed it with his actual eyes, and then re-created it.

 

So, having been tasked by my tutor to explore works that, at a glance, appear not to adhere to the methods that we would consider good photography; the methods taught in this module on composition, focus, lighting, etc. these images by Wall would seem to fall into that category, in regard to composition. Their appearance, seeming to be snapshots, capturing a moment in time, even mimicking hastily captured ‘decisive moments’ belie the time and effort that has gone into making them.

This being the case… the deception… the lie, if you will… is what makes them art. They look like a hasty snapshot, but they aren’t. Some of them, while appearing quite random, mimic impressionist paintings: ‘The Storyteller’ …

…paying homage to Claude Monet’s ‘Railway Bridge, Argenteuil’…

It does, though, seem to me, that to truly appreciate this kind of art, it is necessary to have knowledge of art and art history. It seems without being familiar with certain paintings, or types of painting, looking at these images can only elicit a “what’s that all about?” or “I could do better than that”. It seems to exclude the casual viewer from appreciating the full depth and meaning of the image.

This seems to be an aspect of art in general, and not specific to art photography, but it is something I find myself not entirely comfortable with.

 

Reference:

O’Hagan, S. ‘Jeff Wall: ‘I’m haunted by the idea that my photography was all a big mistake.’’ In: The Guardian 03/11/2015 AT https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/03/jeff-wall-photography-marian-goodman-gallery-show [Accessed: 20/06/2017]

Exercise 5.3

In Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare (http://100photos.time.com/photos/henri-cartier-bresson-behind-gare-saint-lazare  if there is a pivotal point in the image, I would say it is the tiny gap between the heel of the leaping figure, and the reflection of their heel, in the water below them.

While there are many other elements to the image, stories being told, questions being asked …‘Who is the other figure and what is he doing?’ ‘What is the time on the clock?’ ‘Why is this area flooded?’ ‘Why is it fenced off?’ ‘What is being built/demolished?’ …The gap, between heel and reflected heel asks the biggest question of all.

What is the world like, in this moment, before this heel joins with its reflection, and what will it be like a moment from now? It is a clear and obvious moment of transition. Something will change and be other than how it was.

The information in this image… the story, if you like, is fairly self-evident to the viewer. This is not always the case with photographs.

Rinko Kawauchi’s untitled image from the cover of  Iluminance https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/dec/07/deutsche-borse-prize-photography-2012 contains information… There is a rose, it is brightly lit and over-exposed. There may or may not be other flowers in the background. The overall colour of the scene is a rich deep red.  If there is a story here, though, it is not self-evident, so if we want one, we must make it up ourselves.

Is there a pivotal point? Certainly the rose is the object that draws my eye back to it, but it tells me nothing, other than that it is there. Much is suggested… light is bright, but is it natural, or artificial? Is it there by chance, or placed deliberately by the photographer? What object is creating that green ‘bokeh ball’ on the right? Is it in the sky, like the moon, or something closer?

(Word Count: 316)

Exercise 5.2

My choice of photograph to respond to is this one, from David Levinthal’s Wild West, 1986 – 1988 series.

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Untitled. Levinthal (1986-88) AT: http://www.davidlevinthal.com/artwork/ww-86-88.html (Accessed 25/05/2017)

Here is my response to this photo.

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Levinthal’s photo depicts a ‘cowboy’ and a native american, in mortal combat. Most of the image is out of focus, with dark red atmospheric lighting. If there is a focal point, it is the tomahawk… a potentially deadly factor in the struggle. It is slightly more in focus than much of the image, and the danger that it represents adds an element of fear and desperation to the scene. The shallow depth of field and unfocused nature of the shot disguise the fact that these are merely toy figures

The scene is reminiscent of those seen in early western movies, while the colour and unfocused nature of the image remind me of  picture stories in ‘Boys Own’ type comics my father used to read in the 40s and 50s.

As a response to Levinthal’s photo, I have used two poseable figures from a Spider-Man 2 souvenir pack, to create a scene that would not seem out of place in the film itself.

Like Levinthal, I have used a shallow depth of field to obscure the fact that these are simply toys, and to remove all detail from the background (a photo of a night time cityscape displaying on my PC monitor).

Lighting was very simple… I held a small lamp up and to one side of the figurines as I took the shot, while my PC monitor provided backlighting.

As in Levinthal’s image, the scene is one of potentially mortal combat, and again, there is one aspect that is focused on… one of Doctor Octopus’ clawed tentacles. Like the tomahawk, it is a manufactured object that adds significant danger to the situation. In this image, it perhaps adds a greater sense of alarm to the viewer, as it appears to be reaching out to attack the viewer, rather than a character in the scene.

In terms of context, my image is a response to the ‘original context’ of Levinthal’s photo, as explained by Barrett (1997) ‘that which was physically and psychologically present to the maker at the time the picture was taken…’ (Goldblatt & Brown, 1997:114)

Eakins, Hoff, Simmons, Skoglund (1997:274) describe this ‘original context’ in terms of intent: ‘Levinthal’s aesthetic strategy is to generalize his images so that the audience is forced to reflect on the idea: heroism, struggle, action, catastrophe.’ 

In using a similar methodology, and with a modern take on Levinthal’s classic theme, I feel I have paid a fair homage to Levinthal’s work.

 

Reference:

Eakins, Hoff, Simmons, Skoglund (1997) The Photo Book. London: Phaidon. 

Goldblatt, D. Brown, L. (1977) Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts. New Jersey: Patience-Hall   Excerpt AT http://www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf  [Accessed 25/05/2017]

 

Context

Just a quick note to myself, on some important points I picked up while reading Terry Barrett’s essay ‘Photographs and Context’ http://www.terrybarrettosu.com/pdfs/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf  (Accessed 16/05/2017)

The apparent meaning of a photograph can vary, depending on context.

The format the photograph is presented in, such as the type of magazine, book, or location, such as a gallery or museum, are factors. Text that is reproduced with an image, be it a caption, essay, or editorial all affect how an image is perceived. The same image can be made to take on entirely the opposite meaning, depending on the context it is presented in.

Images can be reused in different ways, so something intended to shock or create sympathy… or something created purely as visual evidence, can all have their meanings completely altered, by presenting them in a different context, such as an art gallery.

This can diminish their original purpose, so that a photo intended to convey the suffering of poverty, reduces it to an aesthetically impressive image on a coffee table.

There is also the effect of altering the important or relevant aspect of a photo away from what the image is of, and onto who made the image. This can be a positive, in bringing talented photographers to the attention of the viewing world. It can, though, also be a negative, in that photographs of important events become listed under the name of the photographer, and as such, may not be seen by those looking for the subject matter itself.

 

Things to consider when interpreting a photograph:

Internal Context – Title, date and photographer.

External Context – Where and how the photograph is presented.

Original Context – What is actually in the photograph itself.

 

Remember that a photograph was taken with an intention. The viewer is not simply looking at an image of the world as it is… or was. It is being viewed as the photographer chose to present it, and to correctly interpret an image, it is necessary to consider the intention of the photographer.

Photographs can present ‘a’ truth of what a scene looked like at a given time, but they can also lie, (or rather, be used to lie) about what was actually happening.

 

Exercise 5.1

Use your camera as a measuring device. This doesn’t refer to the distance scale on
the focus ring(!). Rather, find a subject that you have an empathy with and take a
sequence of shots to ‘explore the distance between you’. Add the sequence to your
learning log, indicating which is your ‘select’ – your best shot.
When you review the set to decide upon a ‘select’, don’t evaluate the shots just
according to the idea you had when you took the photographs; instead evaluate
it by what you discover within the frame (you’ve already done this in Exercise 1.4).
In other words, be open to the unexpected. In conversation with the author, the
photographer Alexia Clorinda expressed this idea in the following way:

Look critically at the work you did by including what you didn’t
mean to do. Include the mistake, or your unconscious, or whatever
you want to call it, and analyse it not from the point of view of your
intention, but because it is there.’

Sometimes I find myself frustrated by the exercises in this course, or rather, by the way they are explained… or in fact, not explained. This is one of those cases.

When I read this exercise, my brain just goes “wtf?” I know an aspect of this course is based on not thinking literally, and in interpreting the instructions, but sometimes it just seems like gibberish.

I’ve looked at the work of a few other students, and how they’ve interpreted this exercise, and I find I must be reading it differently.

I think part of what I am struggling with is ‘find a subject that you have an empathy with’ . As a statement, this has no meaning to me…. at all. It’s like trying to explain a colour to someone who was born blind.

As I’ve mentioned previously (and I do try not to labour the point, as it’s not something that defines me as a person) I have a mild form of Asperger’s Syndrome. One aspect of this is a lack of empathy. I can rationalise… try to work out what a person might be thinking in a given situation… but on an instinctive level, I am oblivious to how someone else is feeling at a given time, unless it is overtly written all over their face (by which time I’m probably in trouble) , or if they come right out and say it. (I’m so thankful that my wife understands/accepts this.)

An aspect of this inability to empathise is a sense of isolation. I feel very apart from ‘people’. I like socialising (sometimes), but always feel like a tolerated outsider.

Add to this, fairly ruined eyesight (following vitreous detachments in both eyes, requiring laser surgery to repair a retinal tear in my right eye)… severe tinnitus, and an almost complete loss of smell and taste following a virus… the way I find myself experiencing the world is somewhat detached, to say the least.

So it is from this perspective that I’m approaching the exercise. I needed to find something to represent this sense of detachment and isolation. Something broken.

(This all sounds quite sad, as I read it. I’m not sad, or wanting sympathy. I just experience the world differently.)

A search of the local area on google Earth reminded me of something I spotted a year or so ago in Creswell, by chance, while researching for an Open University design course. Something sitting alone in a field… something broken… something forgotten. Try finding this object on google and you’ll have a very hard time. I found only one brief mention of it, and in that, the admission that nothing was known of it.

It looks like a chapel, but it’s described in that one online mention as a waterhouse. The water running to and from it is no doubt a factor in that.

Anyway…

Image #1

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The main object… the subject… is the abandoned building sitting in an overgrown and untended field. It’s overlooked by a partly wooded hill.

The overall image, when not looking at the details is split into three horizontal bands of colour, gold, green and blue.

I like how the base of the (missing) roof fits exactly level with the border between the green and gold coloured bands. This was unintentional, and at the time, unnoticed.

The tidy(ish) lines of the composition are broken up on the left by the presence of a bush, in the field.

Overall, this is a fairly unspectacular image, but it’s purpose is to set the scene. Here is a building in the middle of nowhere. It’s not easy to get to. It’s purpose appears as forgotten as the building itself.

 

Image #2

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The near ground and middle distance are a mix of green and gold, fading into entirely gold towards the outer edge of the field. This is bordered by wooded hills.

I would prefer the image if the building were at an angle that faces us slightly more.

This photo does though give an inkling of just how difficult the building is to reach. A good deal of the ‘green’ is stinging nettles. To say I suffered to take these shots is an understatement.

 

Image #3

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A closeup of the front of the building. You can see the hillside behind, through the arch, and a deep blue sky. It was evening, just approaching ‘the golden hour’.

I’m very puzzled by this building. At a glance, it appears very old, with what looks like two Norman arches… though the size suggests a chapel. The interior, though, is made of brick, with some ironwork. So is this a repurposing of an old building for a more modern purpose, or is the exterior merely a facade, to disguise the actual purpose?

And what is that circular feature at the top? Many chapels feature a window in this position, but this is clearly not a window. Was it a dummy window? Or maybe a clock?

 

Image #4

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The middle ground shows the ruined building, giving a view of the stone exterior, and the brick interior. In the near ground, is a stone… something… on the ground. It looks like an old grave, or crypt, but looking inside… there may be some old pipework… it’s hard to tell, as there’s not much light. What there is… is water. Quite a lot of water… flowing.

Even closer to the camera are nettles and long, dry/dead, grasses.

 

Image #5

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Much the same as Image #4, but horizontally oriented. You can see the hillside in the distance on the left, but I find I’m not as pleased with this image as I initially was, feeling that the building would be better positioned to the left of the frame, instead of the right.

 

Image #6

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And all of a sudden, we hit ‘the golden hour’. I had thought I was already in it… but as soon as I looked at this image after taking it, I realised I had been mistaken. I was surprised at how suddenly everything looked so different.

I was aiming for an interesting juxtaposition, between the bush and the building. With the changed light, the grass stands out more than the bush, and the result is kind of wild. Somehow, this feels more like Africa than Nottinghamshire.

 

Image #7 – Selected

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This is my selected image.

A combination of the light fading on the hillside, the golden glow on the collapsing building… and the bush in the near ground partially obscuring the whole scene… it suggests depth and a hidden story… something you have to work hard to reach, and perceive.

This image reminds me a great deal of one I took many years ago, of a ruined Norman Church in a now lost village called Stanton Low, in Milton Keynes. It strikes many chords in me, for many different reasons.

 

Assignment 4: Reflection following Tutor Feedback.

I feel very happy and relaxed following this feedback.

Previously, I have found myself feeling irritated and have disagreed with certain statements made by my tutor, but this time, I am in full agreement, and appreciate the guidance he has offered.

I agree that three of the images are weaker as they offer fewer possibilities for interpretation. What you see is what you get, with those shots. This stems largely from the fact that I was shooting at home, and was, for the most part, not arranging the scenes, so much as shooting what was there, and simply arranging the lighting. Sometimes I got lucky, as the home I share with my wife can be a little unconventional at times. But there’s only so much ‘weird’ to be found in one house.

As a development of this kind of work, I may at some point in the future try using the same methodology, but outdoors, away from my home.  The derelict building that will appear in my next exercise (5.1) would offer a lot of possibilities for this kind of work, though the location would probably make such work quite dangerous. We’ll see.

 

My tutors advice, regarding studying contemporary works that seem to fly in the face of conventional photographic practice, is very welcome. It’s something that has been bothering me for some time. The coursework teaches a set of skills, yet much contemporary art actively eschews these methods… and I need to get my head around this.

Assignment 4: Tutor Feedback

Overall Comments

You have submitted an interesting and evocative set of photographs Steve, well done.  In terms of your stated aim of creating otherness, you have been successful! The work shows a good level of control over the lighting at your disposal which together offers the potential for the kind of narrative readings that Crewdson’s work creates. This work shows real potential for development and continues the vein of previous, stronger work that achieves an eerie or uneasy quality through the introduction of lighting to night time scenes. The next step is to shift this work beyond a very direct relationship to Crewdson so that you begin to develop your own unique photographic voice.

 

Assessment potential 

I understand your aim is to go for the Photography/Creative Arts* Degree and that you plan to submit your work for assessment at the end of this course. From the work you have shown in this assignment, providing you commit yourself to the course, I believe you have the potential to pass at assessment.  In order to meet all the assessment criteria, there are certain areas you will need to focus on, which I will outline in my feedback.

 

Feedback on assignment

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

In general terms, the more successful pictures are the ones that present an illuminated moment where something seems about to happen or has just happened. I will be more specific about the attributes of these images below.

Image 01

An interesting image to start the series that manages to transform a seemingly mundane suburban garage and street in to an eerie and creepy scene. The deliberate Dutch angle creates the sense that we are witness to something – evoking the use of hand hand camera in moving image works to create the idea that we are ‘behind the eyes’ of one of the characters. The colour of the sky and the theatrical illumination of the opposite houses manage to increase this sense of foreboding. The bin bag in the foreground right of frame, although I suspect not deliberately placed, is suggestive of some kind of dodgy goings on – a body? And the strongly lit green garage door invites us to wonder what is happening in the opposite garden. There is even a subtle nod – and I’m, not sure how you will feel about this –  towards the Fred West story where a simple suburban house in a regular suburban street is transformed (and ultimately demolished) by the actions of one of its recipients.

 

Image 02

Another successful image that transforms a simple ‘load of old furniture’ into something much more interesting. By eliminating information through the seductive and selective use of lighting, you manage to create potential narrative readings about this very simple set up. Who does this chair belong to? Why is it in the garden? Even if it is simply a load of old furniture, the simple fact that the chair is facing the desk suggests that it is still in use as some kind of office. Compositionally, I like the way that the eye is drawn to the left of the image by the lit edge of desktop and as well as the fact that the chair just touches the edge of frame left.

 

Image 03

Although compositionally interesting, this picture has less of a theatrical impact than the previous two – there are fewer possibilities for the viewer to create their own narratives.

 

Image 04

For me, this is the most successful in terms of the Crewdsonesque reading that you suggest in your accompanying text. The strong light from the microwave really makes me wonder what is inside there and there is even a suggestion of something super natural or even extra-terrestrial. The image is compositionally simple and the perspective lines created by the worktop and cupboards strongly draws the eye across the image and past the main focus – the microwave. An extra sense of eeriness (horror films?) is created by the fact that the flex that is sitting in front of the mocrowave initially looks like a child’s skipping rope. These kinds of small details are so important to the reading of an image and are elements that you can learn to be much more in control of as you move forward.

 

Image 05

Similar to image 03, this one is less engaging when presented with the more theatrical pictures.

 

Image 06

Of the three similar images (03, 05 & 06) this one is the most successful. The ordinariness of the setting is shifted by two elements. Firstly the large and scary looking crab on the wall and secondly by the shadow that is cast across the image in the bottom right hand corner of the frame. Is it a person? Another large object?

 

Coursework

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Demonstration of Creativity

Your coursework is looking good, well done.

 

Research

Context, reflective thinking, critical thinking, analysis

I am pleased to read that you are troubled by the difficult and shifting relationship between contemporary photographic practice and technical ability.  I would like to see much more research and reflection about this interesting problem through the analyzing of much more contemporary photographic art work. Choose some work that you find really troubling for your own aesthetic sensibilities and try to do further research and analysis to understand why that work is considered successful by others.

 

Learning Log

Context, reflective thinking, critical thinking, analysis

The more logical elements of your blog are looking good but try to expand the ‘research & reflection’ section by trying to do more of the kind of research and reflection that I mention above. This is the area that the assessors will be interested in – your struggle and attempts to understand as you move through the unit.

 

Suggested reading/viewing

Context

Sian Bonnell – have a look at the way that Bonnell playfully shifts our reading of the domestic in to something else.

Sarah Hobbs – photographic sculptural interventions of domestic spaces – again the actions of the artist subvert the reading of the image.

Hav a look at the relationship between Freud’s ideas about ‘the Uncanny’ and photography. A good starting point might be this essay – http://www.nicholasmiddleton.co.uk/thesis/thesis3.html but it would be worth doing some further research of your own. The uncanny is often talked about in relation to Crewdson’s work so this might also be a good starting point to writing your own thoughts in your learning log.

 

Pointers for the next assignment / assessment

 

  • Further research of contemporary photographic work
  • Research the Uncanny
  • Increase the research and reflection section of your learning log