Windows and Mirrors
I definitely approach photography as both a mirror and a window; looking back at myself in my selection of subjects and compositions and looking out at the world exploring what is meaningful and valuable to me.
I also use a camera as both an ice breaker and as a shield. I love meeting new people and having somewhat contained conversations with them, having a camera is a great way to get an interaction going but it also serves as an excuse to break off a conversation to go and get the next shot.
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge – and therefore, like power.” (SONTAG, 1977: 4)
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed.” (ibid: 14)
There is also an element of 'command and control' involved in photographing people. As the photographer, you are given a degree of license to ask people to do things and you are 'at the wheel' in terms of deciding how to represent them through the photographic process.
When I am out doing my street portraits I very respectfully ask people if they would consent to be photographed for my project and most do agree.
From that point they allow me to give them some instructions, 'stand there, please', 'neutral expression, please', usually little more than that but it is an unusual situation where I am asking a complete stranger to submit to my will, if only briefly in exchange for nothing more than a 'thank you' and a promise to let them see the results if they make the effort to contact me later which they sometimes but very infrequently do.
Over the past twenty years I have been adding to a series of cinematic portraits based on the 'Close-up Shot' used by directors of photography in film and television use to convey emotion and to help the viewer understand the viewpoint of the subject.
This tight framing of only the face and a bit of the shoulders of the subject leaves some of the frame in a long horizontal rectangle to place the subject in a particular scene (cinema is shot in a 16:9 format but I use a 1:2 cropping as I envision eventually creating a square book with double page spreads).
Going forward I would like to experiment with asking viewers to contribute short captions or titles for the images to understand how non-specialists 'read' these somewhat ambiguous photographs.
Methodologies and Meaning
Having been a serious student of art and photography for quite a few years I was surprised by the number of terms I encountered in this topic that I needed to research and consider at length.
The dividing lines between methods, methodologies and concepts were not a subject I had previously given much thought to and wrestling with those distinctions has presented some challenges but I do believe that I have made significant headway.
I use specific methods such as choices around cameras, lenses, colour grading and cropping that combine to create an overall methodology that is unique to my practice.
My concept is, in part, to employ that methodology to convey a cinematic sensibility in my series of portraits that speaks to the importance of film and television in our popular culture.
However, when I started the series over 20 years ago I wasn’t conscious of that intention, exactly. I mearly though it would be an interesting conceit to ape the lexicon of cinematography to create a distinctive body of work with a view to securing commercial contracts at a high level.
While I don’t count myself as a particular fan of the work of Bruce Gilden, the ‘right to photograph’, including uninvolved people in public places as been an area of interest for me for several years as I perceive a trend towards the erosion of those rights in the social media age.
Previously, a person photographed anonymously on the streets of a major city would perhaps be unlikely to ever become aware that they were the subject of an artist’s work but, with the advent of facial recognition software employed by global social media giants people can find themselves ‘tagged’ and notified that they appeared in photographs that they did not consent to. In doing some research on this topic, however, I have discovered that Facebook has disabled that feature recently.
Opprobrious remarks regarding his character feature in many, if not most, descriptions of Gilden’s work but in interviews he purports to not intending to cause offense with his methodology, only to record the world as he perceives it. Martin Parr Interviews Bruce Gilden
Prior to starting my research for this course I was aware of Bruce Gilden’s work but he wasn’t a case study that I was giving much thought to in my own reflections around the issues of street photography and the right to photograph. Only recently I had been doing some work in a way that is not a million miles from Gilden’s methodologies. I wasn’t using flash but I was walking through a crowded street fair taking photographs surreptitiously at quite close range with a wide angle lens.
Similar to what Gilden states in the interview the Martin Parr I consider myself to be a likable and ‘street smart’ person who can evaluate the tone of a situation and talk to just about anyone so I didn’t think I would at great risk of getting pummeled.
In the course of doing some teaching recently I had referenced the page on the Avon and Somerset Police’s website that makes clear that it not a crime to photograph people in public, even other people’s children, without asking permission and I took a screenshot of that information so that I would have it ready to hand if anyone were to challenge me in an aggressive way.
Considering that people were drinking steadily as this event I thought that would be a prudent precaution but it was also a family friendly event (I was there with my own family as it goes) and I was working during the day, only making two passes through the crowd so that even if people did ‘clock’ what I was doing (at least one group of women did) I reckoned things probably wouldn’t get out of hand.
My feeling is that intention is everything in photographing in this way. I wanted to record the ‘reality’ of the event. I did ask a few select people to pose for portraits but, in the main, I wanted to capture moments where people were just ‘being themselves’ doing what they had come to the event to do, and I hoped to record that moment in time and place in an honest and direct way.
I can easily understand how viewers of Gilden’s work could wonder if he ends up getting thumped sometimes and I was prepared to be questioned about my intentions. While I have never met Gilden, having read a few interviews with him and watching the Parr interview I do believe that it is not his intention to humiliate or ridicule his subjects but only to record the reality of people that he finds interesting.
Certainly my own intentions when photographing in a similar way were not malign. I was having a great time at the Brixham Pirate Festival and I believed myself to be participating in the bon homie of the event, only in my own particular way as a photographer.
Authorship and Collaboration
Considering elements of authorship and personal style as photographers our photographs transcend information of our socialisation. Drawing on influence from Hockney’s piece Paul Explaining Pictures to Mie Kakigahara, Tokyo, 1983 Figure 1, the cubist presentation was an interesting route to explore by encompassing each photographers’ individuality. The final piece is a commentary of portraits communicating the contrasting lives we all live and the places we come from with at least one commonality of photography.
Nikita suggested that we could use a Miro board to build the image and we were able to all access the platform while also having a teams video chat going. Between us we agreed that we would add one image at a time in rotation and we did that for a few rounds but then we picked up pace a little with each of us selecting images from our own shoots in response to what we were seeing. As the image started to take shape we were discussing how everyone felt about the sizing and cropping of the individual images, allowing others to adjust our own images to suit. Once we had the image to a pretty good place we agreed to leave it for 24 hours and revisit again to make some final adjustments. We did make a couple of key adjustments that really enhanced the final image and all agreed that it was a fun and informative exercise.
The process overall was positive and the collaboration itself went better than I expected. I thought it may be difficult to match the tonality and subject matter across our images. Yet it somehow just worked. I thought our process when building the image together was the most interesting aspect. It started as a blank canvas with one person placing and manipulating their image at a time. But after about 4 or 5 images were on the page there was an organic shift in the pace. To me it resembled a cutting table or a inspiration board where everyone could work and install their own vision to the image. While adjusting and communicating in real time with no right or wrong answers. In theory, I agree with Hockney's statement that “objective vision is not fully possible”. However, this exercise of dealing with the concept of objective vision showed me an instance where it could be attainable.
Ever since my first days as a student of photography I have been receptive to the input of others in developing my practice as a photographer. I can clearly recall one of my best friends from childhood remarking that, ‘If you take hundreds of photographs you are bound to end up taking a few good ones.’ He was being somewhat dismissive of my habit of always having a camera with me and taking photos all the time, which he wasn’t always thrilled about as a self conscious person. We were teenagers and finding our own way in the world. I was somewhat cut by his comment but I also thought, ‘Yeah, you probably do need to take lots of photos before you will get good at it.’ And I also quickly stopped turning my camera on him as I didn’t want to make him feel harassed.
Following through to today when I sent a set of photos that I produced as a seasoned professional to another professional photographer whose opinion I respect just to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything before sending the photos to an important new client. In that instance he didn’t have any notes but there have been other times when he has made comments that have led me to make some adjustments or have shaped my thinking about how to approach the next assignment slightly differently.
Those two examples are just bookends that serve to illustrate how the input of others has been a constant feature in shaping my photographic process. At every step of the way I have presented my work to others, peers and also strangers, and keenly noted how the work is received.
Similarly, I have always been interested in the work of well known photographers, peers, and also many people who may not be intending their images to be viewed as works of art.
Why are photographic images so fascinating to people? Why are some people so enthusiastic about being photographed and others abhor the idea? Where does photography fit in the range of possible means of creative expression? How do a still photographs communicate and elicit emotions in comparison to a drawings and paintings, cinema, or music? I have always been interested in trying to unpick why I gravitate to the still image as a means of self expression over those other forms and I have investigated other people’s opinions on the subject in a variety of ways and attempted to incorporate my conclusions in the development of my practice.
To my way of thinking there is a fairly clean line between collaboration, which involves the consensual input of two or more parties and plagiarism, which involves an attempt to claim credit for the work of another party without accreditation.
There may be an ostensible grey area around involving the work of someone else in an original work by an artist but if that artist openly acknowledges the original source I wouldn’t class that as plagiarism exactly, quite possibly copyright infringement but not plagiarism.
Even if there is not an acknowledgement of a prior source of possible inspiration in creating an original work that would not be plagiarism, or collaboration for that matter.
For instance, if I were to set up a plain white background in an area of open shade and photograph a subject from the waist up using a 4x5 view camera would I necessarily need to make a reference to the work of Richard Avedon? I don’t think so. However distinctive Avedon’s series of portraits in that style may be it would be very easy for someone who may be completely unfamiliar with his work to arrive at the same set up, the methodology in that example is a set of quite common ingredients. Open shade is sympathetic lighting, many photographers know that instinctively. A plain white background is commonly used, as is, or at least was, a 4x5 view camera and a waist up composition for portraiture is one of a recgnized set of possible framings.
Only recently I created a set of images while walking through a ‘Pirate Festival’ in Brixham, England. I am very aware of the work of photographers such as Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden who photograph people in public places but at the time their work wasn’t at the forefront of my mind by any means. I was thinking about how I sometimes take photographs at events such as weddings and awards ceremonies without announcing to the subjects that I am photographing at that moment in an effort to record the scene as it unfolds, rather than follow the standard form of getting people to pose to the camera.
Quite probably my instinct to do that was informed by photographers such as Parr and Gilden many years ago but that had faded from my memory over the course of time. Which is not to say that I thought that I was being wildly original in doing such a thing, just that it isn’t the ‘standard’ way of doing event photography and I use the technique to set myself apart from the competition.
Being confronted with images dealing with death and disfigurement is very challenging for me as I imagine it must be for most people.
Growing up in a stable, middle class family in America I didn’t come across many truly upsetting scenes, thankfully, and when I stop to consider the horrors that some people live through it can be quite distressing.
My family life included quite a lot of exposure to art and critique of media, I read extensively through my younger years and received a high quality liberal arts education.
I hope this has resulted in my being able to process ideas in a philosophical and humane way.
The recent trauma of the Covid epidemic has really taken the wind out of my sails and I feel a lot less confident than I used to.
I was very glad to find that my fellow learners are taking the task of critically evaluating the images we have been presented with in a compassionate way and I am feeling very hopefully that we will develop a mutually supportive cohort, seems that we are off to a very good start.
HOCKNEY, David. 1983 available at: https://www.thedavidhockneyfoundation.org/artwork/2740Reading notes and references -
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