People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


5 Comments

Assignment 5: (in)decision time

Hmmm… I’ve been mulling over the subject for Assignment 5 for a few weeks now and I need to make a decision and crack on! I came up with a long list a while ago and narrowed it down to a handful of candidate ideas. I think I’ve since got it down to two options: one centred around People and one around Place. My problem is that I am completely flitting between these two totally different ideas on a daily basis! I can quite clearly visualise what the outputs should look like, and each of them attracts in its own way. But I need to settle on one and get shooting! So I decided to write up a list of pros and cons and stare at it for a while…

1. People idea: “The Act of Observation”

Background:

I want to explore one aspect of portraiture that fascinates me: the fact that the sitter is inherently self-conscious of the portrait being taken, and the difficulty in achieving a natural and ‘honest’ depiction of the person (‘the act of observation changes that which is observed’ and all that).

Premise:

The concept here is that I will get portrait subjects to sit for me in a simple home studio setup (white background, simple lighting, headshot only – that kind of thing). I will take two or three different types of portrait of each, in a combination of the following techniques (to be confirmed):

  • Subject keep eyes closed and relaxes, thus doesn’t know when the photo is being taken
  • Subject is in darkness and sits very still, and a long exposure photo is taken
  • Subject sees self in mirror positioned by camera and chooses when the shutter clicks themselves, by way of a remote shutter release (taking the ‘self-consciousness’ aspect to its logical conclusion)

I’ll then show the subject the three portraits and get their opinion on which they believe is the truest depiction of them.

Why I should do this:

  • Portraiture really isn’t my strong suit – but I sometimes feel the need to push myself out of my comfort zone – unfinished business
  • It’s more creative than idea #2 and my Art of Photography feedback gave me a low score for creativity – so I know I need to work on this
  • It’s potentially quite interesting and insightful for me on a learning level

Why I shouldn’t do this:

  • Portraiture really isn’t my strong suit – so I should work more closely in line with my own developing style – the final P&P assignment might not be the best place for experimentation outside my comfort zone!
  • Generally I’m less enthused about ‘posed’ photography vs ‘found’ photography
  • I’m not sure how many subjects I can gather for this
  • I’m not sure I’ve got (or am able to invest in) the right kind of lighting equipment to do this well
  • I can’t quite make it fit the assignment requirement that a ‘notional client’ could commission someone to do this! Who or why would anyone want images like this? Apart from a curious photographer doing it as an objective in itself…

2. Place idea: “Disappearing Britain”

Background:

This came to mind from the bringing together of a few thoughts from the last two assignments and general research. First, the idea of photography as a proxy for memory – capturing things now to remember later. Second, the idea of trying to capture a whole, quite diverse nation in images (à la Robert Frank with The Americans). Third, the notion that it’s possible to give a sense of a place with quite impressionistic, almost abstract images (partly inspired by Saul Leiter’s 1950s New York work [1] and Robin Maddock’s recent project ‘III’ shot in California [2]). These strands coalesced into a coherent idea when I snapped a row of red telephone boxes in central London a couple of weeks ago.

Premise:

This would be a series of images capturing ‘icons of Britishness’ that were around when I was growing up, that for reasons of progress (technological, economic, societal) are becoming obsolete. The set would form a kind of virtual museum capturing exhibits before extinction. The fragments would build to up to a whole picture that evokes a Britain just disappearing in our lifetime. Examples are:

  • Street furniture: notably the red telephone box, but also old-fashioned wooden litter bins, big free-standing charity collection boxes (guide dogs etc, you know the kind of thing), coal bunkers outside houses
  • Professions/shops: milkman, coal delivery man, rag and bone man, old-style butcher’s, barbers, traditional sweet shop (jars in window)
  • Vehicles: old-style Mini, milk float, coal lorry
  • Objects: milk bottles, pint pots with handles, flat cap

Why I should do this:

  • All my assignments so far have had people in them and this would be an interesting exercise in evoking the sense of place with objects alone
  • It plays to some of my strengths (or at least my preferences) in terms of composition/geometry and use of strong colours
  • As mentioned above, I much prefer ‘found’ subjects to ‘posed’ subjects
  • I can easily imagine the notional client and the brief (magazine article, book illustrations, calendar etc)

Why I shouldn’t do this:

  • Not particularly inherently creative – I’d have to bring the creativity in each shot
  • I might not be able to find the examples in real life to match the visualisations in my head

Decision time

At the moment I’m leaning towards number 2. Well, I am today anyway. I think I’ll email my tutor for her input…

  1. Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag
  2. Maddock, R. (2012). III. London: Trolley Books
Advertisements


6 Comments

Photographer: Saul Leiter

This post is a companion piece to my review of the Saul Leiter documentary I saw a week or so ago, as it inspired me to get a decent book of his work so that I could find out out a bit more about his style. I got the simply-titled ‘Saul Leiter’ [1] book which is a combination of photos, paintings and essays on the great but publicity-shy man.

Whereas the film was a great portrait of Leiter the man – immensely talented, ramshackle and charming yet very self-effacing, humble to a fault – the book digs a little deeper and analyses both his work and his influences.

Leiter as pioneer

Taxi, 1957 © Saul Leiter

Taxi, 1957 © Saul Leiter

My first response to seeing Leiter’s work a year or so ago was that he was a master of using colour. The book illuminates his place in art history somewhat, as conventional wisdom until about 20 years ago had that colour photography as art really took off at the turn of the 1970s with William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. Yet in the 1990s Leiter unearthed a vast collection of his previously unseen work going four decades, using colour as primary element and subsequently rewriting the history of colour in art photography. He denies he was a pioneer, of course, as it doesn’t fit with his ‘aw-shucks-me?’ humble demeanour. The fact that he was overlooked for so long means that he was very much an unsung pioneer, so one can hardly accuse those that came later as jumping on a bandwagon… but it’s interesting in retrospect to learn that these colour techniques weren’t new to everyone by 1970…

What others saw as the limitations of colour film of the day – slower, softer, less precise than black/white – were the aspects that he embraced and turned to his advantage. It allowed his work to be more impressionistic, more experimental, tending towards the abstract and not obsessing about technical perfection. I like the fact that he often used out-of-date film stock as it added interesting unpredictable effects to the resultant photos.

A painter with a camera

Beyond the obvious predominance of colour, dig a little deeper and you realise that Leiter’s style wasn’t simply down to the fact that that he liked to shoot nice colours. Rather, his work demonstrates the depth of knowledge in, and undoubted influence of, much more traditional forms of visual arts, especially painting. Indeed, he painted alongside his photography work for most of his life. He even merged the two disciplines in his over-paintings of photographic prints. He wasn’t just a practitioner of these more traditional arts, he was a (self-taught) lifelong student of artists. With the help of the critical essays in the book (as my own knowledge of traditional art history is somewhat limited) it becomes easier to see how his work is informed variously by Vermeer, Degas and Rothko in his mastery of colour palettes, abstract expressionism in his compositions and even cubism is the graphical structure of some of his fashion work using mirrors to create fragmented images. Put simply, his work is what you get when you give a painter a camera and he sees it as another kind of brush.

Reading the essays, three adjectives stand out, recurring as motifs throughout the analysis: painterly, lyrical, poetic. While the first one of these is visually quite evident, it’s interesting that Leiter’s images are also compared to musical lyrics or poetry, but I understand what they mean. He had the gift of being able to tame photography to elicit a mood, a state of mind, an almost dream-like quality that is quite different to his contemporaries of the New York School, who were all about black/white documentary style, showing real life on the streets. Leiter used his camera on these same streets to produce something much more subtle and non-specific than capturing ‘things happening’. One quote in the book that stood out for me was from Ingo Tabhorn, describing Leiter’s best images as “[having] a non-linear and non-narrative structure that conveys a sound to be heard all around rather than a story.

What and how he shot

Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter

Snow, 1960 © Saul Leiter

Outside of a foray into fashion magazine work for a little while (bringing his own style to the genre) his body of work is predominantly US city street scenes, mainly New York, and much of it within a few blocks of his home. He had the kind of eye that could see beauty everywhere. He used recurring visual motifs that clearly fascinated him: umbrellas, hats, steamed-up windows, rain, mist, snow, people in cars, trucks, buses, people in reflections – always some veil or barrier between the camera and the subject. Even in his fashion work he had a fascination with concealing his subjects’ faces – maybe he was self-conscious about shooting people head-on? Or he liked the mysterious aspect of the end result.

I went through the photos in the book quickly writing down short notes per image. The recurring words that came to mind were:

geometry – contrast – colour block – shape – simplicity – framing – secondary point of interest – impressionistic – mist – reflection – unusual focus – sense of mystery – abstract

This is quite an intriguing set of words bearing in mind that they are virtually all street scenes. It’s hard to think of another photographer who could have woven a comparable set images from the same material.

Summary

My respect for the man and his work have only increased as I find out more about him and see more of his output. I’ve said this before about other photographers that I admire, but it bears repeating as it most definitely applies to Leiter: I like the way he saw the world.

Without wishing to be derivative, there are some key aspects of Leiter’s work that I can see working as elements of my own developing style: his compositional (geometrical) decisions are impeccable; his confidence in using swathes of colour as a primary component of the image; his use of windows, reflections and other types of ‘veil’ that the viewer/camera sees through – these are all techniques that fascinate me.

  1. Taubhorn, I and Woischnik, B. (2012). Saul Leiter. Hamburg: Kehrer Verlag