People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log


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Photographer: Elliott Erwitt

Ways of seeing

It took me a few readings of Susan Sontag’s On Photography  [1] before I really started thinking differently about photography, but the single biggest revelation for me was this: Sontag points out that when you admire the work of a particular photographer, you’re admiring the way they see the world, and the photos themselves are simply the physical manifestation of that way of seeing.

Elliott Erwitt

Elliott Erwitt

The photographer whose ‘way of seeing’ I have come to admire the most in recent months – in particular since starting on People & Place – is Elliott Erwitt. Although I was aware of one or two of his most famous images, my interest was actually piqued earlier this year when in a short space of time I read some of his comments on photography that accompanied a project he did on Scotland [2] and then heard an interview with him on my favourite podcast, The Candid Frame [3]. Some of the things he said struck a chord with me, and in the audio interview he came across as very modest, affable and an all-round nice guy. These things made me curious to see more of his work – hoping his personality and viewpoint would translate into his photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed at all.

‘Snaps’

Elliott Erwitt, 'Snaps'

Elliott Erwitt, ‘Snaps’

After a little research I bought ‘Snaps’ [4], a 500+ page retrospective of Erwitt’s work, mostly his personal rather than professional photography. It’s probably the best £22 I’ve spent since I got into photography – it’s amazing value for the quality and the quantity of photographs.

As a career-spanning retrospective there is always the risk that there is a lack of cohesion – it’s the Greatest Hits, not that one Classic Album. It spans several decades and is rather loosely organised into single-word verb titles – Read, Rest, Touch, Move, Tell, Point, Stand, Look, Play – making it seem very eclectic, disjointed even, on first reading. But looking at a chapter at a time you do start to see the connections, the rhythms in what he sees and how he sees it. My understanding of Erwitt’s personal work is that he doesn’t work to self-imposed projects, he just shoots what he sees that will make a good photo. His themed collections are in fact the results of his poring over his ‘inventory’ after the event, often many years after.

While his style remains distinctive, one of the lasting observations is of the sheer variety of his subjects; there are a handful of what you might consider classic (or cliché) ‘city street photography’ shots but they are outnumbered massively by a bewildering variety of subjects that he has managed to not just point his camera at, but make a great photo out of.

He’s rightly well-known for the humour in his work; the most common response I had as a pored over the images was a smile, occasionally an out-loud laugh. He has a knack of isolating the absurd moments that permeate life, and does so without judgement but with warmth and empathy. He spots visual puns, moments of interaction between people, gestures and stances of blissfully unaware individuals – and positions himself perfectly to frame the moment.

The other admirable skill of his is the ability to imply a whole narrative with a single shot. In his best storytelling shots you can see the past and the future, all embedded in the one frozen moment. The best example of both the humour and the storytelling – and probably my favourite photo in the book – is of the wedding party in Bratsk, Siberia in 1967. The self-satisfied contemplation of the bad lad on the left, the leaning-away stance of the hapless-looking groom, the daggers in the eyes of the furious bride, the concerned friend leaning in… it’s easy to imagine the whole story that wraps around this one picture.

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

Bratsk wedding, 1967 by Elliott Erwitt

There’s only one discordant note in the whole book – a few pages of commissioned portraits: white background, Avedon/Bailey-style. While Erwitt does excellent portraits, his best ones are natural, environmental portraits with a real informal quality to them. The posed portrait series sticks out like a sore thumb and serves to remind how his naturalistic style is what’s great about him and rightly dominates 99% of the book.

The wisdom of Elliott Erwitt

A few of the things he’s said that have really resonated with me, and sum up pretty well why I like the way he sees:-

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

“You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.”

“The work I care about is terribly simple. I observe. I try to entertain. But above all I want my pictures to be emotional. Little else interests me in photography.”

“All the technique in the world doesn’t compensate for the inability to notice.”

“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.”

“I don’t believe that photography can change the world, but it can show the world changing.”

“It’s about time we started to take photography seriously and treat it as a hobby.”

  1. Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin
  2. Masters of Photography. http://www.themastersofphotography.com/the-project/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  3. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 23/06/2014]
  4. Erwitt, E. (2010) Snaps. London: Phaidon
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People unaware: photographers roundup

Before starting on People & Place, my first OCA photography course was Art of Photography. During my time on that course I looked at a number of photographers whose work I admired, mainly in the form of exhibition and book reviews. I’ve been looking back on my notes and blog posts from the time and revisiting some of the work in the context of my ongoing People & Place learning, as it became apparent that a lot of the photographers I’d admired over the last year or so are relevant to this section of the course. So here I’ve noted what I’ve picked up from some of them by revisiting them in context of this course.

Vivian Maier

The unique aspect of Maier’s body of work is of course that it lay undiscovered until after her death. Never seen, her work remained un-critiqued in her lifetime and so whatever changes are evident in her style and subject matter is down to her own decisions. Although she dabbled in posed portraits and people-less urban photography, the majority of her released work is classic candid street photography.

One very practical lesson I took from Maier was the way she shot (down to her choice of equipment)… she used a Rollei twin-lens reflex camera, chest-mounted and with a top-down viewing screen. This allowed her to shoot relatively unnoticed, as she wasn’t lifting a camera to her eye. The 21st century equivalent is the digital camera with an articulated screen – which is exactly what I used to get the vast majority of images on People Unaware. Coupled with a remote shutter release, it allowed me to compose on the screen and shoot without drawing attention to myself.

Tony Ray-Jones

I came across Ray-Jones for the first time as part of the double-header ‘Only in England’ exhibition with Martin Parr at the Media Space in London, featuring images from his ‘A Day Off’ series based on the English at leisure, mostly at seaside resorts (so a spiritual predecessor to Parr’s The Last Resort!).

What I like about Ray-Jones’ work is its humour; he was great at picking out quirky details and catching facial expressions. He was also gifted in composition, not easy in candid photography, getting the right elements in the frame to tell a self-contained narrative. While I couldn’t emulate this in my assignment, one thing I did take on board was to choose as subjects people doing something enjoyable – much ‘classic’ street photography often focuses on sadder, seedier (or maybe just neutral/non-emotive) moments, and what I saw in Ray-Jones’ work was a warmth and an empathy that came across well in the pictures. He’s testament to a theory that I really subscribe to, that you make a connection with some photographers because you appreciate the way they see the world – the pictures themselves are merely the physical evidence of what you like about them.

Martin Parr

The early Parr work that I saw as part of the above double-bill wasn’t in his signature style; it was more Ray-Jones influenced in its aesthetic and approach. What I’m talking about here is the more recognisable Parr style, in particular his seminal ‘The Last Resort’ project. He opened up a whole world of public photography – not really street photography, that name doesn’t seem to fit – by choosing garish colour over moody black and white, and working-class seaside resorts over mean city streets.

I wouldn’t want to emulate his way of working – for a start I’m much too unassuming to shoot with flash in daylight – but one thing I did take from Parr is that colour can work just as well for people unaware photography as black-and-white. In the assignment I started thinking that the subject matter lent itself well to black-and-white, but on seeing the contact sheets from the first couple of shoots, totally switched that round. The colours on display seemed to me to be an important part of capturing the images.

I guess a similar inspiration on the use of colour was my appreciation for the work of Saul Leiter.

Others

I’ve looked again at the work of number of other photographers in the last couple of months, and without identifying such specific points of inspiration as noted above, what I have been doing is looking at their work with a slightly different eye, if that makes sense. I’ve been mentally putting myself in their shoes and behind their viewfinders… looking at the resultant pictures and thinking: what attracted them to this image? what was going through their mind? why did they choose this moment? what’s the message/story…?

The names that spring to mind here are Robert Frank, Humphrey Spender (of the Mass Observation project), W. Eugene Smith, Lisette Model and of course Henri Cartier-Bresson.

One of the pleasant surprises about studying photography is how you can go back to pictures you’ve seen before and enjoy them anew, seeing different aspects and finding new depths. I’ve certainly felt this during the last couple of months on People Unaware.

 


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Documentary: Everybody Street

I subscribe to an excellent podcast called The Candid Frame [1] that features hour-long interviews with photographers, and recently listened to an episode dedicated to photographer and filmmaker Cheryl Dunn, who has directed a fantastic documentary on New York street photography called ‘Everybody Street’ [2]. It inspired me to seek out the film itself, which I’ve just finished watching.

Everybody Street

Everybody Street

It’s made up of interviews with contemporary photographers, plus some old hands from years gone by (including a sprightly 98-year-old, Rebecca Lepkoff, active since the 1940s), mixed in with art historians waxing lyrical about legendary practitioners no longer with us.

It serves to illustrate the extremely broad church that is “street photography”, even in a city like New York where the cliché of the gritty black-and-white street aesthetic was made famous. Yes, there’s a lot of the ‘classic’ (/cliché) street style but looking closer you see much variation and originality:

  • From very broad ‘anything goes’ subject matter – whatever was happening on the street (Joel Meyerowitz, Elliott Erwitt, Jeff Mermelstein)…
  • … to very specific projects (Bruce Davidson and subways; Boogie and gangs; Jill Freedman and cops/firemen; Martha Cooper and graffiti artists)
  • From very serious subject matter (social injustice – Clayton Patterson, Helen Levitt, Jamel Shabazz)…
  • … to very humorous (Erwitt I was already a fan of, but the revelation here was Mermelstein – some really lovely work)
  • From deliberately requested and posed portraits (Patterson, Shabazz, Mary Ellen Mark)…
  • … to the frankly obnoxious in-your-face style of Bruce Gilden

I warmed to some photographers much more than others – just seeing his photos beforehand had made me think that Gilden’s style wasn’t for me, but to see him in practice confirmed my worst suspicions – he really does stick the camera and flash right up in people’s faces without warning. I’m not surprised he gets into altercations now and again – he deserves it! Ricky Powell came across as a bit of a loud character, a bit stereotypical Noo Yawk for my liking, and his portfolio was a bit celebrity-heavy for what is supposed to be a street photography film.

But these are minor gripes for sure. In all, I found it to be an invigorating, educational and insightful film, and one that I’ll watch again.

I thought it might have been too focused on New York the city and therefore not really connect with me, but thankfully I was  wrong – it’s very much about the photographers and their work, with NYC as their canvas. What they all do with it is actually quite different.

Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in street photography – or even just photography in general. It’s an insight into the minds of an eclectic bunch of photographers. And one of the things about great photographers is that you’re not just admiring the end results of their work – you’re admiring the way they see the world. This film really brought that home to me.

  1. The Candid Frame (podcast) http://ibarionex.net/thecandidframe/ [accessed 16/06/2014]
  2. Everybody Street (film): Dir. Cheryl Dunn http://everybodystreet.com [accessed 16/06/2014]

 


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Exhibition: Bailey’s Stardust

As I’ve just started People & Place, and the first section is about portraits, it seemed highly appropriate that the first exhibition I go to is David Bailey’s Stardust at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Look

Look – © David Bailey

Bailey is probably Britain’s best known living photographer, and for a while his name was synonymous with the craft (“Who d’ya think you are, David Bailey?”). He is undeniably ‘mainstream’ in this respect and I guess many critics might look down their noses at this ‘East End lad made good with his one photographic style’. But of course the reality of his career and work is a bit more complicated than that.

Yes, over half of the 250+ works on display are indeed in his signature style: celebrity portrait, mono, plain white background, starting with his ‘Box of Pin-ups’ and going right up to the present day. There’s also a surprising amount of other styles he worked in: there’s colour work; there’s the 1960s fashion shoots that first brought him to fame; there’s some more personal, family shots; there’s images from humanitarian trips to India and Africa; there’s candid images from the old East End; there’s nighttime city shots taken on smartphones.

The untypical works

Some of his un-Bailey-like photos really impressed me, giving a glimpse of the kind of photographer he might have become on a different career path – the early East End picture essay material in particular had a real warmth to it, that doesn’t come across so much in the celebrity work. The poster they give you as part of the programme (above) is just a great shot, not typical Bailey at all but full of visual sparkle – the lines, the shapes, the text, the face, the jacket just being pulled down off the shoulders, the cheeky eyes.

But I have to say: some of it was entirely unimpressive. The inclusion of the smartphone shots is troubling: Bailey has famously said many times that the camera doesn’t matter, it’s just a tool – if this is so, why dedicate a room to (adequate but not gallery-worthy) phone shots, except to say “aren’t these good – for a smartphone“? Although to be fair I did appreciate the humour of juxtaposing the 2013 phone pics with a 1972 double-selfie with Andy Warhol…

The signature Bailey style

For most of the visit I was drawn back to the classic Bailey portraits. Some I’d seen before and still work fantastically well – Jack Nicholson, Lennon and McCartney, Jean Shrimpton, Kate Moss, Mick Jagger, the Krays of course – and others were entirely new to me, despite their age. The mid-60s portraits of David Hockney and Brian Epstein, for example, showed he could be experimental with posing and editing when he wanted to be. Looking at many of the portraits you initially get the sense that he has the knack of getting under the skin of his sitters to bring out aspects of their character… but the more of his celebrity portraits you see in one place, the more you get a feeling that it’s actually quite a surface thing – he’s isolating and heightening what we already know about the sitter, almost like a subtle form of caricature. He rarely seems to give any hints to the hidden essence of a person, or secret undercurrents of their character. He prides himself on getting to know the sitter quickly and rattling off the pics, click-click-click.

The work where he has more of a personal connection is quite different – the Shrimpton pics and particularly the room dedicated to his wife Catherine show how much more depth you can mine in a subject when you really know them. By comparison the celebrity shots are like one-night stands.

Brian Duffy

Brian Duffy – © David Bailey 2010

I noted in various bits of publicity around the show that one of his hobbies is ornithology – there’s an obvious parallel with his work, particularly his celebrity portraits. He’s quickly identifying aspects of quite fleeting subjects, collecting them, ticking them off. He’s a professional people-watcher.

On a technical note – and this is relevant as Bailey himself produced new prints expressly for this show – some of the images are so underexposed as to look faintly ridiculous: Don McCullin, Brian Duffy and Damon Albarn look as if they’re wearing blackface makeup – not a good look. A perplexing creative decision indeed, and very distracting.

Summary

So, on the evidence of this exhibition, one can see why he gained the reputation that he did: he is exceptionally good at simple, black-and-white celebrity portraits, as long as you accept that these are what they are; they’re not deep, insightful, thought-provoking pieces of art (Bailey himself has several times described his job as ‘taking sophisticated passport pictures’).

A more discerning curator may have chosen a smaller selection of his untypical work. Having said all of that: I did buy a book [1] in the gift shop, the poster above is now on my office wall, and I’m trying to get hold of a print of a Morecambe and Wise shot of his that I love. If this isn’t damning with faint praise, he’s very good at what he does!

1. Bailey, D. (2014) Bailey exposed. London: National Portait Publications