People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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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 I like the fact that he often used out-of-date film stock as it added interesting unpredictable effects to the resultant photos.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


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Film: In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter

I first heard of Saul Leiter when I was studying the Colour section of Art of Photography about a year ago, and I heard about this film “In No Great Hurry: 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter” [1] at about the same time. Sadly, just as I was discovering his work, the great man passed away. He’d reached the grand old age of 89 so he had a fair old crack at life, you must admit. I made a mental note to track the film down, and only came back to this mental note quite recently, I confess!

In No Great Hurry

In No Great Hurry

This 2012 documentary, produced and directed by filmmaker Tomas Leach, is a respectful and fitting tribute to the man. Leiter could have been one of the most famous photographers of his era, and is rightly feted as a pioneer of colour photography. His best work is street photography with a lyrical twist, painterly almost to the point of being abstract in some cases.

I have a Saul Leiter book on order, and when it arrives I hope I’ll find time to write more about the photography itself. In the meantime, I guess this post is more about the film, and by extension about Leiter the person as well as the photographer. It’s not so odd to watch a documentary about a photographer and get some interesting insights from the segments between the photographs shown – you can (within the constraints of the editing process…) get a good feel for the person, how they think, how they act, how they see the world.

They’re not really ‘lessons in life’ at all, it’s a thin construct around which to hang an interview that took place over a period of time when the ageing but still sparky Leiter was sorting through a very messy apartment that housed his photographic archive. The photos he found only occasionally enter the narrative – for the most part it’s simply a gently-paced character portrait. He was a very friendly, peaceful, softly-spoken and most of all modest man. Modest to a fault – he could have, if he wished, been much more well-known than he was. He was very content to be ‘uncelebrated’ for most of his life. Not that he was truly ‘undiscovered’ in Vivian Maier style – he did commercial work in the 1950s, including Harpers and Esquire. But he chose not to pursue the fame and fortune.

He comes across as dismissive of the attention he received at the very end of his life, but you get little glimpses that he secretly enjoyed it – his face when Leach plays back some rough footage says as much.

So what did I learn, from a photographic point of view? That being a painter as well as a photographer gives you a different view on the world; that more subjects suit the vertical format than I thought (he shot almost exclusively in portrait ratio, something I subsequently found he has in common with Ralph Gibson); and that you can find abstract beauty in the most unexpected places.

My favourite quote of the whole film:

“My photographs are meant to tickle your left ear. Very lightly.”

(I think I actually know what he meant, too)

  1. http://watch.innogreathurry.com (accessed 06/10/2014)


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Sandro Miller’s “Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich”

Homage to Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), © Sandro Miller 2014

Homage to Diane Arbus, Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey (1967), © Sandro Miller 2014

Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich: Homage to Photographic Masters

This has been doing the rounds online for the last couple days, and rightly so. The photographer Sandro Miller has collaborated with his friend, actor John Malkovich, to produce a series of homages to photographs that influenced or otherwise impressed him – all lovingly and accurately recreated with Malkovich as the subject.

And it’s awesome. Playful, respectful, technically admirable, joyful, surprising – it’s just damn near perfect.

I hope it’s acceptable to reproduce one of the images here – to see the rest you should go to the gallery’s own site.

My favourite photo project, ever

I know I only saw it two days ago but every time I see a link – no, every time I even think about it now – it makes me smile. It’s already my favourite photo project. (I choose my words carefully: I don’t say “the best” or anything trying to sound authoritative; I’m singly expressing my personal opinion, and no-one can tell me it’s not my favourite…)

There are a lot of photo projects that I appreciate, I admire. Robert Frank’s The Americans, Martin Parr’s The Last Resort, Tony Ray-Jones’ A Day Off, more recent works by young and contemporary photographers such as Robin Maddock’s III, Mark Neville’s Deeds Not Words – these are all great works for many different reasons, and I consider them all part of my photographic education and inspiration.

But this is the first photo project that I can honestly say that I love. Like you love a great novel or a classic album.

What’s so great about it? Lots of things. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s a project

I love a good photo project; whilst overall I guess my favourite photographer is Elliott Erwitt, I don’t consider that he does projects per se, he shoots what he likes the look of and then curates into collections after the fact. This is cool, I love his stuff, I love the way he sees the world. But a big part of what I like in photography is the tenacity and focus of a project. There’s something I like about the creative mind deciding to do something that hasn’t been done before and painstakingly working within whatever constraints they’ve set themselves to realise their vision. Maybe the fact that I work in project management as my day job has something to do with this? I personally like to have a coherent focus for a body of work (whether a degree assignment or a personal project), and increasingly see this as something I admire in others.

And I particularly love a simple concept, done brilliantly. Which this is.

It’s inherently about photography

I reckon photo geeks must be magnetically attracted to this project – this is unashamedly photographers’ photography. It’s the equivalent of a fantastic covers album. Recognising the works, seeing Miller’s obvious love and respect for his influences coming through – it’s the rare collection that I look at and think “I wish I had done that!“. Also, I’m currently in the thinking phase of my next degree assignment, and I’m working on it being a portrait series of some sort. This has sparked some inspiration. Indirectly, but inspiration nonetheless.

So I love it cos I’m a photo geek.

It’s technically excellent

Follow-on from above point. Now, I don’t normally obsess over technical quality in photos, I prefer the emotion/message/intent/vision to come across, that’s what makes a great image. As Ansel Adams apparently said: “There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”… but in this case, where recreation is the whole point, one can’t help but be impressed by the mastery of his art that Miller shows here. He’s like a master art forger! His attention to detail – in lighting, in props, in composition, in colouring – is superb throughout. At first glance at a few of the images I thought the whole thing was a Photoshop stunt (maybe done without Malkovich’s consent!?) but once I read the accompanying story I realised the work that had gone into this – from both of them – and was suitably blown away.

It’s just very satisfying to see someone who has mastered their craft (as long as they apply it to concepts that are interesting).

It’s John Malkovich!

I can’t imagine this whole thing working with anyone else. I’m a massive fan of the film Being John Malkovich, and the very premise (and title) of the collection clearly harks back to that insane film. I love that Charlie Kaufman wrote such a crazy story, I love that Spike Jonze brought it to the screen, but most of all I love that Malkovich starred in the thing! Prior to that film I saw him as a brilliant but very serious ac-TOR and his willingness to play around with notions of his own identity in that film was thrilling to watch. It seems to be with the same spirit that he threw himself into this project.

Add to this that he’s such a great actor that he can bring his skills to these unmoving images – his Einstein, his Dali and his Monroe (!) are exceptionally good as visual impressions, not because he particularly resembles them, but because he somehow manages to embody them.

It looks like it was a ton of fun to shoot

OK, I’m guessing here but it doesn’t look like it was a laborious, grumpy experience for either of them – they look like they were having a ball. The fun is kind of infectious. It’s just so… I keep coming back to the word playful. So many photo projects are very po-faced. This is like a breath of fresh air.

So there we have it. My favourite photo project. I just hope they bring out a book.


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Assignment 4: prep – revisiting previous studies

I’ve done a lot of thinking, reading and researching on how one might be able to evoke a ‘sense of place’ as a photographer. I realised early on that a lot of the exhibitions, books and photographers that I’d enjoyed and blogged about last year as part of the Art of Photography course were very much about places, and to varying degrees of success they managed to communicate a strong sense of the place being examined. I’ve revisited these and can summarise what I’ve learned in this research.

Robert Frank: The Americans [1]

Parade, Hoboken NJ © Robert Frank 1955

Parade, Hoboken NJ © Robert Frank 1955

Perhaps the most famous place-centric photo collection of the 20th century, The Americans takes the unenviable task of trying to depict one of the biggest and most populated places on earth. Whilst it’s difficult to encapsulate what defines such a vast and varied country – east and west coasts are very different, the midwest is something else again, specific cities have very distinctive identities – Frank did it very successfully, by identifying what is common to the multitude of cities and towns he visited.

His use of recurring motifs is key to communicating the mood: specific icons of Americana – the stars and stripes, diners, jukeboxes, big automobiles – repeat throughout the book like a chorus, bringing a backbone of unity to what could otherwise have been a disparate collection of images. He shows both the breadth of the country and what unites its people beneath the surface.

He is holding a mirror up to an entire nation, seeing it as only an outsider can (he was Swiss). He captured a mood, and it wasn’t wholly positive. Several images allude to the racial segregation that was still being suffered by minorities in the 1950s. A couple of less obvious thematic elements become apparent on closer examination: death is depicted or alluded to in several images; religious imagery, specifically the crucifix, makes a few appearances.

Martin Parr: The Last Resort [2]

New Brighton, © Martin Parr 1985

New Brighton, © Martin Parr 1985

Much of what has been said and written about The Last Resort centres on the style, the use of strong colours and daytime flash, quite unusual at a time when ‘documentary photography’ was predominantly black and white. However, what I was particularly looking for when revisiting the book was how Parr gets over the ambience of New Brighton as a place.

The colour aesthetic is a big part of it – it’s a garish place and saturated colours help to get that across. But I think the way he really gets across the feel of the place is through his selection of subjects and shots – he may deny this was his intent, but it feels like he chose to emphasise (stopping short of exaggeration, I think) details that showed the place in a certain way – downmarket, scruffy yet an improvement to the regular lives of visitors (it’s almost as if he’s saying “imagine what their lives are like the rest of the year if THIS is considered a holiday!”).

An unkind interpretation would be that this is a kind of ‘class tourism’, or even treating the subjects as some kind of anthropological study. However, coming from the class and generation that had holidays like this in places like this, I’d hope that he recognised the warmth and happiness with which families did genuinely enjoy holidays like this in places like New Brighton.

Like Frank, he has an outsider’s eye that simplifies and symbolises. It’s unfortunate that the lingering motif for me was overflowing litter – but he chose this final selection of images for a reason: this is how he saw New Brighton. He makes the place come alive on the page by focusing on images that matched his vision.

Tony Ray-Jones & Martin Parr: Only In England exhibition

Blackpool © Tony Ray-Jones 1968

Blackpool © Tony Ray-Jones 1968

This show at the Media Space in London was in three parts: a selection of images from Ray-Jones from his collection on English seaside resorts in the 1960s, posthumously published as ‘A Day Off’; a revival of Parr’s early b/w work on the Methodist community in Hebden Bridge, clearly influenced by Ray-Jones; and a Parr-curated new selection of rarely-seen images from the Ray-Jones archive.

The Ray-Jones shots in the first and third sections are fantastic examples of evoking a place and in particular a time. The seaside holidays enjoyed in the 1960s seemed to be a world away from the garish 1980s of The Last Resort – he employed more humour than Parr, gave over more of a sense of mild eccentricity – what one online reviewer called “the gentle madness that overtakes people when they feel they can relax and be their true selves”. Once again, a key aspect of Ray-Jones’ way of seeing the place and the people is that of the (in his case, semi-) outsider; though English himself, he’d spent many years in New York before coming back to see the old place with a NYC street photographer’s eye.

Parr’s series on the Methodist communities in West Yorkshire in the 1970s (published as The Non-Confirmists) takes on a more targeted subject and focuses more on little peculiarities that make these people stand out slightly from the norms of mainstream society. It’s this focus on the small differences that helps to evoke the nature of the community. Once again (there’s a pattern here) Parr was an incomer to the community and so could see it in a way that long-term resident might not have been able to.

Mark Neville: Deeds Not Words exhibition

Irn Bru Display, Corby © Mark Neville, 2010

Irn Bru Display, Corby © Mark Neville 2010

An interesting project: photography as activism. Whilst the real story Neville was telling was about the legacy of deformity from contaminated land, the backdrop is of Corby as a community. The two aspects of the collection didn’t sit together that well for me, I found it a little jarring (maybe that’s the intention). With its strong Scottish heritage and culture, Corby is sufficiently interesting in its own right to have been the subject of a photo essay, and the activism narrative that overlaid it moved it into a different direction.

Like Parr in his Hebden Bridge series, Neville is good at picking out the slightly incongruous details that mark out the place as distinctive: the child in front of a huge supermarket display of Irn Bru for example.

Mass Observation exhibition

The fundamental point of the Mass Observation initiative was to record life in Britain – a broad remit indeed. Photography wasn’t considered a key aspect of the ongoing experiment though, merely a form of visual note-taking to validate the written reporting. What emerges in the photography (much of it by Humphrey Spender) is more of an evocation of time than place; it’s a time-capsule of post-war Britain that illustrates the maxim that ‘the past is a foreign country’. It’s recognisable as Britain, but not the one we live in now.

Certain aspects such as the images of workers in Bolton do carry some sense of the community and the place but in the end its the overall historical interest that lingers rather than a sense of place. It’s kind of strange to make the comparison, but thinking about this alongside The Americans it becomes apparent how important it is to have a coherent message in the photographs; otherwise they are just a bunch of historical artefacts. This speaks to the importance of intent in the photographer’s mind when shooting and selecting.

Summary

So, what have I learned by looking back over these bodies of work? There are some useful techniques that successful photo essays have adopted to help generate a ‘sense of place’ in a collection of images:

  • An outsider’s eye: it’s useful to be able to see a place objectively, maybe in a subtly (or radically) different way to the way its residents see it
  • Symbols and motifs: can help to evoke the mood of a place and reinforce the message without overtly depicting that which you’re trying to communicate
  • Focus on the small differences: the kind of images that make you look twice, or look for longer, are the ones that show something recognisable as normal life but with some kind of twist that gives an impression of the place being depicted

  1. Frank, R. 2008. The Americans. Gottingen, Germany: Steidl
  2. Parr, M. 2012. The last resort. Stockport: Dewi Lewis


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Exhibition: Steve McCurry Retrospective

The Théatre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice is running an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s work until the end of September 2014, and I was fortunate to be in Nice at the right time to visit.

Like most people I knew McCurry first and foremost for the iconic ‘Afghan Girl’ image, so famous that I don’t need to include it here. Beyond that, I knew he had worked a lot in Asia and in war zones throughout the world – but I didn’t know much else. It turned out to be one of the best exhibitions of photography that I’ve seen in a long time. Given that I am studying a degree module called ‘People & Place’, his work is hugely relevant and an excellent source of inspiration.

People

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Pul-e-Khumri, Afghanistan © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

At the heart of McCurry’s work are people, and the first hall in the gallery is dominated by head-and-shoulders shots that are reminiscent of Afghan Girl, with the subject staring deep into the viewer’s eyes. The technique of getting the subject to stare intently at the lens looks deceptively simple, but I can’t imagine that every time you do so, you produce work as powerful and affecting as this. Whether through empathy, patience or some other interpersonal skill, McCurry has the knack of drawing the gaze of his subjects in such a way that you feel they are revealing something of themselves to the camera/viewer.

Pure portraiture isn’t the whole story though – in fact it’s a fairly small proportion of the 127 images on show here. The greater part of the body of work is concerned with placing people in the wider context of their place in the world – their community, their traditions and sometimes the extraordinary circumstances in which they find themselves.

For me, some of these are more interesting than others. The images of war zones – and they are not overly graphic, they are not scenes of combat but rather of the effects of war on the people and their environment – were surprisingly less affecting to me than I expected. Similarly, the images of the aftermath of natural disasters didn’t really resonate with me. This is a subjective view, of course, but a certain amount of ‘disaster fatigue’ kicks in after a while and as a viewer I became somewhat desensitised.

On the other hand, the images depicting specific traditions of peoples from around the world, I found genuinely impressive. The ones chosen here really lend themselves to being captured photographically, from a point of view of colour, composition or both. The Indian festivals where they paint their faces and bodies bright colours, the Shaolin monks hanging upside down, the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen – they make amazing photographs. They make you think about the wonders the world has to offer, the unusual rituals and sights that most people will never see in person – the variety of human life. Put cynically from a visual interest point of view: misery tends to look the same the world over, but people find a limitless number of ways to celebrate and be happy.

A sense of place

I was particularly interested in seeing how McCurry conjured up the sense of place in his images, as this is the brief for my next assignment. For the most part he does this with people in the context of the place – sometimes posed environmental portraits, often candid moments. The light, the architecture, the clothing, the landscapes. After a while, looking at photos before reading the captions, I became pretty good at guessing where in the world the picture was taken, and this is testament to his ability to distill a place down to its essence. With regard to the balance between people and place in his images, on the evidence of the work here he concentrates very much on the people, with the place as a secondary character.

One of the best examples of this, as well as demonstrating his love of vibrant colours and his eye for composition, is ‘Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India’.

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Boy in Mid-Flight, Jodhpur, India. 2007 © Steve McCurry / Magnum Photos

Verdict

My overwhelming first impression was that I was in the presence of a photographic master, the kind of annoyingly brilliant genius that makes me disappointed in my own shortcomings! Once I got past the general sense of awe I looked more closely and saw that what I really admired were two quite distinct aspects of his work: first, on a purely aesthetic level he captures some beautiful images, full of colour and with a careful eye for composition; secondly, he has a rare skill of highlighting the human elements, making you feel like the subject has shared something of themselves with the photographer, and by extension, the viewer.

One simple sign that I’ve been impressed with a photographer is whether I subsequently seek out more of their work. Straight after getting back from the exhibition I ordered ‘Steve McCurry: The Iconic Photographs’ [1], which seems to be a comprehensive source of more great McCurry images to feast upon after having this show whet my appetite.

One of the things I find myself thinking with regard to certain photographers is “I like the way s/he sees the world”… and with McCurry the emphasis is more on the last word. He brings to life amazing, exotic aspects of global culture, opening windows onto parts of the world I’ll most likely never see in person. If anything, the fact that he is so associated with one iconic image is something of a shame – it overshadows what is a consistently excellent body of work.

  1. Purcell, K.W. (2012). Steve McCurry: the iconic photographs. London: Phaidon


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Photographer: Craig Semetko

I discovered Craig Semetko through an interview on my favourite photography podcast ‘The Candid Frame’ [1]. An audio podcast might seem a strange way to discover new photographers, as you spend about an hour listening to them talking about their work before you see any of their pictures! But actually in many cases (this one included) my reaction on listening was a good indication of whether I liked the photographer’s work. He came across as very likeable, affable, humble, curious and very interested in people and in the world around him. One particular aspect of his story that resonated with me was that he picked up photography quite late in life – late 30s / early 40s I think – after a successful career as a writer and comedian. An inspiration to all us late starters!

Unposed

Most of my knowledge of his work is through his debut collection ‘Unposed’ [1], shot between 2000 and 2010. As the title suggests, his milieu is very much street photography. He quotes his biggest inspirations as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Elliott Erwitt – and he even got the stamp of approval from Erwitt who wrote the introduction to Unposed.

In his style and subject matter he is closest to Erwitt by far. He shares a sense of humour and an ability to spot the absurdities of life unfolding in front of his camera. And as Elliott Erwitt is most likely my favourite photographer, I was hoping very much that I’d like Semetko’s work as well.

There is a danger of dismissing Semetko as derivative, kind of an Erwitt tribute act. But he has enough of his own ‘eye’ that this isn’t the case. There’s one aspect of Semetko’s work in particular that stands out to me – he is a master of juxtaposition. Many great photos work so well because of the incongruity of the elements brought together, and he knows this (or does it instinctively). Sometimes the elements are of equal prominence, like the cleaner and the chained angel, and the effect is of a clear allegory. Other times, like the Vietnam shot of the couples looking over the lake and the single men behind them, the balance is so perfect that it helps to convey a whole narrative in a split-second.

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – © Craig Semetko 2010

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam – © Craig Semetko 2010

Another common type of Semetko juxtaposition is what you might call the double-take shot; the ones where there’s a primary point of interest that would, in itself, constitute an interesting shot… then you spot something else in the background, or in the corner, and the image takes on a new meaning. Or sometimes, raises new questions – for example, there is a great character portrait of a smiling woman in a fringed bikini swinging an SLR camera, then after a few seconds your eye moves to the background… wait, what’s that man doing up the ladder…?

Probably my favourite such double-take shot is this one of the fountain monument in Paris… at first glance you think maybe it’s all a part of there sculpture, but then you realise what the lads are doing up there. It’s a great visual punchline.

Paris, France – © Craig Semetko 2006

Paris, France – © Craig Semetko 2006

There are numerous other examples of great juxtapositions, both serious and frivolous, in the book. He has a real eye for these moments. I like the way he sees the world.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  2. Semetko, C (2010) Unposed. Kempen: teNeues


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Book: Foto/Industria

As noted in my Assignment 3 write-up, I found it a little difficult to get into the Buildings & Spaces section of the course, particularly due to a lack of guiding inspiration from existing photographic sources – a problem that didn’t occur at all with People Aware and People Unaware.

Compared to the flood of examples of portraiture and street photography, there is a relative drought of photographic works that depict buildings and spaces in use. There is a lot of inspiration around if you’re looking for purely architectural or aesthetic imagery of buildings, but that’s not what I was looking for here; I was searching for examples of photography that effectively showed how a space is used by people – in my view this was at the heart of the assignment.

Foto/Industria

Foto/Industria

The one source I found that broke me out of my ‘photographer’s block’ was Foto/Industria [1]. It’s a boxed set of small booklets (bigger than pamphlets but not quite books) to accompany a curated series of 17 exhibitions in Bologna, Italy, of the same name – all themed around business and industrial photography.

Each booklet accompanies and summarises an exhibition that took place as part of the first Foto/Industria in October 2013. Most focus on one particular photographer, and some more specifically on one of their projects, but the unifying theme is that they are all concerned with the workplace:

  • Many focus on the people in the businesses depicted, and fall more into the portraiture or candid photography genres
  • Others are much more purely architectural and display the grandeur and scale of massive industrial constructions
  • The most interesting ones in the context of my research for this assignment were the ones that showed how the workers and the workplace interacted

Of the 17 collections, there were a handful that caught my attention. They fall into a mix of the second and third categories above – those that focus on the buildings themselves and those that cover how people use the buildings in their work.

Gabriele Basilico

Loro Piana, Quarona, 1991 – Gabriele Basilico

Loro Piana, Quarona, 1991 – Gabriele Basilico

Originally an architect, Basilico’s work is typified by strong geometric shapes, lines and in many cases, repetition. He brings out the corporeal nature of industrial buildings by often focusing on their networks of pipes, wires and ducts that move the necessary solids, liquids and gases around the structure.

Some examples of his work give the impression of a factory as a living, breathing entity – robotic or alien perhaps, but sentient nonetheless. Aesthetically, his work is what you might call traditional industrial style: mono, high contrast, gritty.

Last year I visited an exhibition of David Lynch’s industrial photography and I can see parallels – albeit Lynch’s work focused more on disused and decaying industrial buildings.

Harry Gruyaert

Technip Angra Dos Reis, Brazil, 2008 – Harry Gruyaert

Technip Angra Dos Reis, Brazil, 2008 – Harry Gruyaert

In comparison, Gruyaert has taken a very different aesthetic approach. He is lauded as one of the pioneers of colour photography, and his industrial images are, in comparison to those of Basilico, bright and colourful. His pictures really pick out the colours prevalent in certain industrial environments. Sometimes the colours are very strong and saturated, sometimes more pastel-toned, but often surprising the viewer who might expect industrial environments to be grey and oppressive.

More than the others featured here, he gets beyond the spaces and introduces the people, showing how they interact. Again he plays close attention to colour, often theming a picture around a particular colour such as the green overalled man in the green-painted Cogema plant, or the blue uniforms of the Niger workers against the pale blue backdrop.

Massimo Siragusa

Agusta Westland assembly line, Vergiate, Italy, 2011 – Massimo Siragusa

Agusta Westland assembly line, Vergiate, Italy, 2011 – Massimo Siragusa

Like Gruyaert, this photographer caught my eye due to the way he seems to have developed a unique way of seeing industrial environments. His distinctive vision is based on a kind of ‘hyper-real’ high-key luminosity that renders his subjects pale, pastel-hued and often somewhat ethereal. Again, like Gruyaert he subverts the notion that industrial environments are dark, dingy, grimy and grey.

In some photos the juxtaposition of heavy industry and the almost dreamlike lighting style is quite beguiling – as a viewer you find yourself staring at them, trying to decipher: is this a real industrial workspace, or a stylised set? One does wonder how accurate a depiction it is – either he shoots photographs in sanitised environments (before they’re actually used?) or there’s a bit of post-processing going on. Either way, the end result is that through his eyes you see industrial complexes in a very different way than you do with more traditional executions.

Mark Power

Saint Nazaire. France, March 2004 – Mark Power

Saint Nazaire. France, March 2004 – Mark Power

This is an example of a very focused project, the building of the Airbus A380 superliner. Power does an excellent job of depicting the scale of the activity as the component parts of the place are manufactured in plants in various countries before being assembled.

Again I was attracted partly because of the aesthetic: he finds some interesting, borderline abstract, compositions that lift these images above factory-floor snapshots, and his use of strong blocks of colour are visually striking.

Many of the images seem to be concerned with demonstrating the epic size of the end product; a person here, a propped-up bicycle there, a lorry cab dwarfed by a section of cabin – all give a strong sense of scale. 

Mirelle Thijsen (ed.)

Renato Padovan et al., IGNIS 25, (Rizzoli Editore), Milan, 1969

Renato Padovan et al., IGNIS 25, (Rizzoli Editore), Milan, 1969

The last of the booklets to be worthy of mentioning here is a compilation of images from ‘company photobooks’ that businesses used to produce to promote themselves and/or give to staff and visitors as mementos. Some are more posed and portrait-like in appearance, but the more interesting ones are those that depict (seemingly unposed) examples of people at work.

Some of the working situations are quite distinctive to a particular sector or even company, and it was these that I found most interesting in the context of assignment research – the images that really showed how a workplace was used by the workers. Seeing these examples was where the assignment started to fall into place for me.

 

I didn’t seek to directly emulate any of the techniques I saw in the exhibition booklets in the final assignment – I only included one actual working space (the coach renovation workshop) and one former working space (the converted iron foundry). However, the overall effect of the set of booklets was to open my mind somewhat to the opportunities for taking pictures of spaces designed for a particular purpose, and for that much-needed general inspiration I’m very grateful!