Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A People and Place photograph

I made this image during a performance of a play in a Somerset village; I like it partly for its' eccentric design (the signpost means that this photograph is pointing in different directions!) but mostly because it is full of people of whom none look at the camera and are hence caught unaware without the manufactured expressions sitters so instantly adopt!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Indians : 150 years of Indian Photography

The term “master photographer’ is open to abuse and although it is not a term I really like to use, it is not easy to find a word to describe someone such as Raghu Rai, an Indian photographer of international repute. Photography maybe American but when one comes across it in a place like India, it is certain to be worthy of interest at the very least. Raghu Rai knew Henri Cartier-Bresson well so it is not as though his work is just Indian yet his subject matter often is; I know of no one who describes the country and its’ people so well, who seems able to squeeze out the essence of its’ meaning.

Unbelievably, I manage to arrive almost half an hour late for our meeting. This is largely my fault as in spite of the traffic and my driver needing to carry out an errand en route, it took me too long to pack my bags for the flight I was about to take. This had to be done judiciously so that I would not have to pay too much extra in luggage charges.

When I arrive, slightly breathless having jogged up to Raghu’s fourth floor office in Merauli, a suburb of southern Delhi, he is not there so I sit for awhile, scanning the books on his shelf, eventually picking up a volume he once did on the Taj Mahal where I had been the day before. His images, made in the days of slide film, are atmospheric, the Taj looming out of the morning mist, seen from across the river or from the top of a nearby building; it may be that he used a helicopter for some images. There is one image though that echoes the kind of image I strive for, that of two people with the Taj Mahal as their backdrop. Here, one man is gesturing to the other as if in the depth of some debate or in the act of making a philosophical point; this echoes the guru-sila or teacher-student relationship that is such an important part of Indian life; all this is seen against the detailed fa├žade of the Taj Mahal dome, a backdrop which occupies at least 90% of the photograph. Another image revealing intricate architectural details, is carefully composed with one building cleverly juxtaposed behind another.

Raghu appears. “That is old stuff!” he remarks of the Taj Mahal book, suggesting it is dark and almost dingy in places and almost makes him feel uneasy to look at nowadays. A new volume on the Taj is expected from him in the near future that will be much better printed than this volume from a quarter of a century ago and will also contain new photographs. He hands me a copy of one of his latest books.

The new book is called “The Indians; 150 years of Indian Portrait Photography” and contains old photographs of which some 80% come from his private collection. These are images from a largely bygone era yet one of fascination for one sees images of people that once loomed large; the cover is of a Nautch girl (Nautch is an English corruption of the Hindi word for dance, nachan) possessed of a beauty that can only be Indian while other photographs reveal characters such as Jawahlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. The second half of the book contains images of people that Raghu has photographed personally and although some are now dead such as Mother Teresa and Srimati Indira Gandhi, there are others such as the Man Booker prize-winning novelist Arundhati Roy who is very much alive. There is a good selection of people from different walks of life. The images are all in black and white except for a couple of group photographs at the end that are entirely digitally produced colour images.

One portrait makes me laugh. It is of India’s urine drinking former prime minister, Moraji Desai, who lived to be almost 100 years old. Here he stands as if looking down his nose at the photographer. These portraits are likely to resonate with the viewer in a way that depends on what the viewer thinks or knows of the person being represented. For instance, probably my favourite portrait that contains a triptych of images, is that of Jiddu Krsnamurti, an extraordinary philosopher of Indian origin, whose teaching is known around the world. He started a school called Brockwood Park in southern England that still operates as well as other learning centres throughout the world. The first two images reveal to a certain extent the virtual frustration Krsnamurti seems to have experienced in trying to communicate his teaching to others as he is seen not looking at the camera but with his hand to his face; the final full page image shows the sublime beauty of the man Krsnamurti as he beams silently at the camera. Such sublimity is also seen in the faces of the classical musicians Raghu Rai has photographed. The image of Arundhati Roy is another that catches my eye as she gazes at one from the sunlight and shadow of her room. A number of the portraits are set up with sunlight and shadow since they have been taken inside and are directly lit by window light providing an ambience that helps create an atmosphere which flash or an overhead light bulb can so easily remove.

There are photographs of musicians, the magic of their work revealed in their expressions. The cartoonist Laxman looks out at one with a deadpan expression. The book is an impressive testimony not just to Raghu’s photography yet also to Indian portrait photography if not photographic portraiture as a whole.

Raghu also talks about different bodies of work and the way exhibitions, in particular, tend to gather together a jumble of images to represent a theme or topic rather than allowing a subject to naturally arise out of a photographer’s work. Hence, there are books and magazine articles done to cover a particular topic that use photographs to illustrate the chosen theme while there are books done to illustrate a particular photographers work and it is these latter that are likely to be of more intrinsic value.

Before I leave, Raghu shows me some prints that have been lying on his desk; they are from a recent trip to Goa. One view is of people interacting with the sea; he points out the subdued use of colour that is there but not shouting at one. Had it been one of my photographs, I would probably have worked it to create a more optimised image, lifting shadows and making the whole scene more bright and breezy, in tune with what is normally considered a good image. However, for a moment Raghu invites me into his world, one of more burnished colouration, deep and sensitively passionate. He shows me an image where there seems to be too much magenta yet for Raghu it needs more yellow rather than more green to balance the magenta. The final image is of a couple of tourists on a Goan beach; the image has an asymmetrical composition that seems to mirror the awkwardness of the two women as they make their way into “Shams Shack”.

Then there is the rush to the airport. I have spent a little longer than I expected with Raghu yet a few moments with him seem more worthwhile than a flight I could catch another day if necessary. It is not easy to put into words what Raghu is saying through the medium of photography; that is something only the images can tell.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

acquiring permission to photograph with a tripod at the Taj Mahal

Its' a three o'clock in the morning start from Delhi; we reach Agra at about 6.00 a.m and I ask the driver to take me to Mehtab Bagh, which is part of the Taj Mahal complex but lies on the opposite side of the river where it was rediscovered during the latter part of the twentieth century by an American scholar called Moynihan.

My driver seems to be going the wrong way but insists no less then three times that he is in fact correct. When we arrive at the Eastern Gate entrance to the Taj I realise he is bluffing and find someone to explain to him where I really want to go. After this, we retrace our steps but are soon at the Mehtab Bagh which is owned by the Archaeological Survey of India who won't allow any tripod on their premises, a fact that I am only too aware of.

Photographing the Taj Mahal from the north side in the early morning does not produce much more than a silhouette yet the mist rising from the river is atmospheric while the rising sun's first rays also help to create drama particularly as it hits the east facing wall of the mosque that lies west of the tomb. Further interest is added by birds flying along the river below.

At about eight o'clock we leave for the Oberoi hotel, Amarvilas, that is said to have a superb view of the Taj Mahal. I eat breakfast here and afterwards ask to be shown to the terrace upstairs to make my photograph. Permission to do this is however refused.

The next stop is the office of the Archaeological Survey of India where a few weeks before I had been to sign and fill in the necessary documentation. On arriving here, I am told that permission will not be granted but when I point out my earlier visit, an officer suggests I come back after an hour. This is how I find myself sitting in an internet cafe in Agra, somewhat taken aback at the difference between the opulence of the Oberoi Hotel and a slum I have just seen from a nearby bridge.Such an observation might be considered western or foreign yet one can not avoid the disparity.

In an hour, I expect to be meeting Mr.Dwivedi at the ASI to see whether permission can be granted. If not, I shall visit the Taj Mahal and make my architectural style photographs without a tripod, focusing only on the buildings I have researched rather than the fascinating life that goes on around the monument during the day.

Sometimes, I wonder if I might make a book of my Taj Mahal photographs but the ASI (Archaeological Society of India) would probably block such publication unless perhaps they got some kind of royalty from it. Almost certainly, they would want to control the content but that would ruin the project as my photographing at the Taj Mahal is about envisioning a contemporary Taj Mahal rather than a monument from the past as this has been done and done and redone more times than one would like to remember. The Taj Mahal is more than an architectural marvel, it is a world icon.

I return to the office of the Archaeological Survey of India and am lead in to meet a woman who tells me point blank that it won't be possible for me to get permission to photograph today. She then asks me to be shown into another office where I meet someone else who in response to my enquiry, looks up for a split second to look at me, then looks down at the papers he is presently dealing with, offering me no reply.

I point out that I have been to this office before, almost a month ago, and filled in the appropriate form; the man asks me to wait which I do.

After about a quarter of an hour, I am shown a form with my name on it and asked if this refers to me. I reply in the affirmative and take out my passport as proof. Another ten minutes or so of paper shuffling, people coming in and out, and with a flourish, a form is presented to me which just needs signing. Against all the odds, I have acquired the necessary permission.

Reading the terms of the agreement, I notice that there does not seem to be too much in the way of copyright restriction; the ASI seem happy for one to use photographs of the monument in any publication, they do however request three copies free of charge. This seems quite reasonable. Formerly, they wanted three copies of every photograph one took which in the days of negative film was not really practical.

Now to the Taj Mahal and it is not long before I am outside the Eastern Gate, the first of the buildings that I am photographing as part of my assignment. Of course, photographing from the road outside the Taj Mahal complex, does not need written permission from the ASI yet it is not long before a security guard comes over to let me know in no uncertain terms that I am not allowed to photograph at this place. Although it is effectively irrelevant, I pull out a copy (I have had it photocopied 5 times) of the permission granted to me and the guard seems happy even congratulating me on having the permission. He hands it to another guard who also responds in an enthusiastic manner.

Once I have done my tripod mounted "Eastern Gate from the outside photograph", I enter the complex and am immediately challenged again. I present a copy of the permission granted to an officer who scrutinises it for a moment before disappearing along with one copy of the permission. Slowly, I make my way through the security check, emptying my pockets and taking everything from my bag to show the guard. In the background, I notice the guard who took my permission form, talking to one officer and then another, moving from one room and then another. Once through the security check, I am asked to wait awhile, not near the wall but next to the end of the line then again to wait near the wall as I would otherwise be blocking the flow of people coming in and out. After a few minutes, I am handed back the form and told I can proceed.

After making a few photographs of the Eastern Gate from the inside without any challenges, I move into the courtyard to photograph the second of my subjects, the Great Gate, which I do without any other challenges. Then moving through the Great Gate I setup the tripod and camera to photograph the mausoleum, to make the photograph that people associate with the Taj Mahal. As I am just starting to fine tune the focus and have the remote shutter release in my hands, I again experience the sound of someone shouting in my ear, "Not allowed! Not allowed! You can not use a tripod here!" and there seems to be no way to just finish the operation of making my photograph in spite of offering the permission form. Instead, I am lead to an office within the precincts of the Taj Mahal where a man behind a desk is ready to tell me that I am not allowed to photograph in the precincts of the Taj Mahal. On seeing my permission form, he insists on taking the copy for himself, which might have been problematic had I not had four others! I am now told that I shall be only allowed to photograph from the Great Gate and not venture from here into the gardens. My request to get closer to the Central Pool is ignored and at this point, I try to phone Mr. Dwivedi at the Archaeological Survey; his phone is switched off yet I sense this gesture has an effect on the official I am now confronted with. My form of permission is handed back and I am told that I can venture into the garden and that if there is any trouble, I should let him know.

For awhile, I make a number of photographs from the Great Gate platform, then I venture down the steps into the garden but have not taken more than one or two steps before I am again confronted by a guard of some kind; this one is dressed more informally and looks not unlike a gardener yet acts with the same kind of authority as the security guards. He does not want to see my papers so I suggest we return to the office in the Great Gate where the official is ready to confirm that I can photograph in the garden up to the Central Pool. Again I set off with this guard in tow and he helps me to make my photographs pointing out some rather cliched viewpoints. After an hour or so, I have finished and offer him some rupees which he refuses; probably not enough, possibly he considers it inappropriate, yet as I leave the garden complex, he gives me a warm handshake.

That seems to be the end of my troubles apart from noisy youths who try to get my attention and make jokes when I do not respond. Another photographer, who says he is a professional from Mumbai, asks me how to get permission to use a tripod; I mention the office nearby in Agra and give him the address but point out that he is unlikely to get it for today. He does not seem concerned but thinks he'll have time to visit the office before it closes. I wonder if he'll fare better as an Indian but I can't help but think he'll be met with glum looks and told to come back tomorrow; of course, on the morrow he'll be able to fill in the forms but won't get the permission.

I want to chuckle but find it hard to laugh. I had spent a lot of time to make a few photographs and been unable to really cover the subject as I wished. For that, more negotiation and forms would presumably be required. Of course, the ASI are right to act to protect the monument although tripods are unlikely to cause damage, rather it would be the even greater confusion of a mass of people swarming over the Taj Mahal trying to get past a sea of tripods that would further clog up the flow of people. The jostling on the Great Gate platform from where one can make a good photograph would be more than chaotic.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

EXETER CATHEDRAL Gothic architecture

The word Gothic these days might make one think of Lady Gaga whose extraordinary fashion sense can on occasion borrow from the Gothic genre which conjures up a romantic style from bygone days. Gothic can also refer to the Goths, an East German tribe, who lived in the days of the Roman Empire. However, in the architectural context, Gothic refers to a style of architecture that developed from the Romanesque or Norman architecture that began in northern France before coming to England, initially in the eleventh century.

Before presenting these images, it was necessary to open the second and third in Photoshop to align the side, a result of parallax; work relating to exposure, framing and colouration with sharpness was mostly done in RAW.

Here is a selection of images, which appear in the order they were originally built; each one represents a different period of architecture ...

Entrance to the Chapter House, Early English

The Eastern Window, Early Decorated (geometric)

The Western Window (Later Decorated curvilinear)

Perpendicular Gothic, alternative entrance to the Chapter House

Monday, October 25, 2010

EXETER CATHEDRAL the experience

The day started with a seminar in a cloister room. Sun streaming through the window made it hard to see the image projected on the screen. We were told that this light would also prove problematic once we were inside photographing owing to the high contrast it would create. Although I accepted this, I could not help but feel it might also provide the scope for dramatic effects which Neena, the tutor, pointed out later in the lecture. I made notes of what she said, there was also a print out and the chance to download it all in a PDF from the Experience Seminars website so I do not plan to present it here.

I did not use that much equipment  in the end. Had a 50mm 1.4 for handheld shots and just stuck with the zoom (24 to 105mm) for the tripod photos otherwise I think it might have just taken too much time wandering back and forth. Did not use a spirit level (just my eyes) and will make the necessary corrections in Photoshop by cropping and removing the barrel distortion from the zoom. To spend too much time with equipment is to waste time though I might have tried the 100mm f2.8 macro.

Trying to cover the different periods of Gothic was behind what I photographed but every now and then I saw something I liked and photographed that. It would have been boring to concentrate solely on the windows. Here are some of the "other" photos that relate to People and Place ...

Priest making an announcement

Christ on cross with fire hydrant below

outside the entrance to the "early English gothic" Chapter House

pedestrians inside Exeter Cathedral

part of the guided tour inside the cathedral

woman walking outside the cathedral

Eagle lectern

Sunday, October 24, 2010

EXETER CATHEDRAL camera considerations

Making a profile for my camera also seems relevant as some situations could require a high degree of colour accuracy; For the blog of this ...

My choice of camera is the Canon 5D Mark 11; it has a full frame sensor and is suited to indoor work.

The Live View feature is going to be helpful in framing photographs and making the correct exposure.

We are asked to bring a tripod and a cable release for the camera as well as wide lenses! This seems a bit of a contradiction because who needs wide lenses of one has a tripod .. perhaps to make grab shots !? Am also packing the 1D Mark 111 for this.

Lenses need to be from 18mm to 300mm. I do not have an 18mm only a 20mm and a 24 to 105 mm lens. For longer lenses am taking a 70 to 200 mm f4 and a 100 to 400 mm f5.6 both Image Stabilised as is the 24 to 105 mm lens. Another lens is the 50mm f1.4 which I shall stick on the 1D and use for grab shots.

My tripod head is a ball head with a swivel base that can be used to set up panoramics. I shall take another ball style head.

Flash is not advised but I am packing a 430 EX.

I do not like to think too much about equipment but sometimes one does need to plan ahead.

Friday, October 22, 2010


It seems like sense to attend a one day workshop of interior photography at Exeter Cathedral. "Experience Seminars" who are running the day are a Canon franchise and since I use Canon cameras, it might be helpful to attend and not only learn something of photographing inside but also to find out more about photographing with my particular camera. Yet I wonder whether it might all be a bit of a routine in which one is encouraged to make photographs in a particular way of certain subjects. The cathedral must have been well photographed and it would be the juxtaposition of the building with people that might be of interest.

A little background research will help me go beyond the over-driven approach that can affect the photographer when making images even if he/she does want to make images that are aesthetically pleasing!

A little research into Exeter Cathedral means a visit to their website! However, I have already heard from reading E.H.Gombrich's The Story of Art that the cathedral has fine examples of late Gothic architecture, a style that shows a marked development from the initial pure Gothic style. This latter is known as The Decorated Style and Gombrich says that the Western Window at Exeter Cathedral is a good example of the complicated tracery found in this style.

However, on the Exeter Cathedral website there is a slightly different story as it here discusses the East Window ... "Towards the end of the C14th it was noticed that much of the tracery (stonework) of the window was rotting - probably because corrupt iron had been used in the original work. It had to be dismantled and new stone was brought from Beer quarry to replace the damaged sections and the master mason of the time, Robert Lesyngham created a new window in Perpendicular Gothic style." 

The Exeter Cathedral website only makes a brief reference to the West Window, seen best from the outside, preferring instead to focus on the Great East Window. Perhaps only a visit can sort this matter out. A little further research however, reveals that there were three main Gothic styles in the UK ...
  • Early English (c. 1180−1275) includes pointed arch known as the lancet includes doorways and windows, the latter not always equilateral but sometimes being steeply pointed. Usually narrow by comparison to their height and without tracery.
  • Decorated (c. 1275−1380) a style that can be broken down into the Geometric and Curvilinear styles. Windows have tracery, subdivided by mullions (vertical bars of stone) that run as high as the beginning of the arched window where they then run horizontally across the window. Above this, in the top of the window is the tracery. At first, this was geometrical but later curvilinear.
  • Perpendicular (c. 1380−1520) shows slimmer stone mullions in much larger windows that reach to the top of the arch; there are other vertical mullions (supermullions) that form rectangular compartments with transoms. Other signs of this period are the beginnings of fan vaulting, doorways frequently enclosed with a square head over the arch mouldings and large elliptical mouldings.

It would appear that all three styles can be found in Exeter Cathedral !? More information about this can be found at ...

Experience Seminars have also provided a map that reveals where these three styles can be found in the cathedral and yet since it is not in colour, it is not so easy to make out where the different styles are to be found.

Rummaging around a small library of guide books from places my parent's visited, I find one on Exeter cathedral. Printed in colour in 1976, one can not help but notice that although the compositions are good and the colour adequate, photography has come a long way technically since the images were made some 35 years ago.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

response to Jose Navarro post on the OCA website

Your article intrigues me, sets me questioning the medium .. thanks for that!
I did not notice that Steve McCurry’s work had been referred to as “street photography” which is surely a misleading comment even with a broader definition of the “street photography” genre.
In regards to the Street Photography Now project, I have looked at the book which is impressive and has sold out on Amazon. One of the authors runs workshops in street photography and the weekly injunctions are actually quotes from street photographers (such as Bruce Gilden). These “exercises” are practical not unlike the ones on the OCA course.
Yet you raise a valid question as to whether it makes sense to adopt a certain attitude that relies on predictability when street photography is all about unpredictability. As a student at the OCA, I find myself “chewing the cud” over this particularly as I often question my motivation for doing the OCA course and what I expect to get out of it.
“People and Place”. the current course I am doing, is an interesting approach. The “exercises” are not so specific as the Street Photography Now injunctions and leave much more to the imagination and surely this is important; photography is in part mechanical yet for it to work, non-mechanical qualities are essential.
Yesterday, spending a day in London, I found only one photograph worth taking though there were endless possibilities! Yet I did visit the Edward Muyerbridge exhibition for the second time; my reason for a second visit was to analyse Muyerbridge’s treatment of the “People and Place” theme and write it up for my blog. His only “street photographs” were posed, the genre not existing in the late nineteenth century owing to the limitations of the medium.
“People and Place” is not a genre yet it does provide an interesting framework through which to consider photography. “Street Photography” is a narrower approach that relies on the instantaneous.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tutor and Student talk over tea about Steve Mac Curry's exhibition

placard outside the exhibition entrance

There may be no such thing as a free lunch but as a student of the OCA, one might find oneself treated to both tea and a biscuit with more besides, since Jose Navarro, a photographer and tutor at the OCA, was present to stimulate us into considering the work of Steve Mac Curry while Gareth Dent, OCA CEO, also offered comment. The following is mostly about what they said yet does contain my own reflections as well as the views of the other students.

Jose is a photographer who is also a long term fan of Steve Mac Curry and remains impressed by his work although he does not find it easy to say what makes it so distinctive.

Shadows play an important part in Mac Curry's work; this might have something to do with the use of slide film that dominates his work. There is a consistency to the photographer's body of work and we learn to recognise his style. Is it photo-journalism or documentary? Hard to say since how does one differentiate the two? Photo-journalism tends to be concerned with certain subjects and a modus operandi while documentary can nowadays include a much wider variety of subjects even fashion. The distinctions are blurred particularly in these days of a wide variety of media.

The images that do end up being shown to a wider audience are usually not chosen by the photographer but by an editor. What lies behind such choices?

The Afghan Girl photograph is interesting partly because it has become more than just a photograph; it is now a global icon and created its' own myth. It can mean different things to different people. Does it really contain resentment as someone suggests or is that merely a projection on the part of the viewer? One can hang a lot of what one thinks on an iconic photograph and most of that baggage may have little or no relationship with fact. The caption to the Afghan girl photo that appeared on the cover of the June 1985 National Geographic of which it was the cover photo ran 'Haunted eyes tell of an Afghan refugee's fears'.

tea time for the OCA gathering with discussion an added bonus

Jose showed us his copy of Steve Mac Curry's book of Portraits which is the size of thick paperback book. Looking at images in this form where one can hold them in one's hands and almost possess them is quite different to looking at them on a gallery wall. One can perhaps access more information this way while it certainly shifts our relationship with the subjects.

What might Steve Mac Curry be looking for when he makes these photographs? Is he thinking about all the different elements the photograph contains? In the exhibition there's little if any contextual detail. Might there have been more text accompanying the photographs? Perhaps this might not have been such a good idea, not necessary and could have limited the meaning of the images. Yet it might have helped to explain them more and increase one's undestanding of the images. Perhaps the photographer wanted the photographs to retain a certain mystique. Certainly, the lack of elaborate captions allows us more space in which to consider the images and have a more flexible view. An example of the way his photographs in this situation if not as a whole, lead more towards the artistic than the documentary.

There is surely a great difference between the world of these images from the so called third world and the west in which they are being viewed. If there is resentment in the Afghan girl's eyes we can relate to that since the west, with all its' wealth and apparent happiness, also expriences a great deal of resentment as a mere cursory glance at the newspapers of the day will surely reveal.

Many of the images are newsworthy, at least they were at the time and often continue to be so, revealing a common humanity and that we do share things with people of the 'third world'. Steve Mac Curry has the intelligence and drive to show this in his images while his treatment of other less newsworthy images is also excellent. One might ask what a newsworthy image is or isn't since often Mac Curry is making images that relate to a situation rather than directly describe it. Ruins rather than tanks firing at buildings for instance though this is probably an editorial decision made later rather than the photographer's.

The conversation turned to some of the other images in the exhibition.

There is one of a boy running down a street. There is a certain symmetry here in the winding street, the placement of the boy and the surrounding buildings while colour also plays its' part. One is reminded of a famous Cartier-Bresson image of a street with a cyclist speeding past. Did Mac Curry set this image up? Perhaps he stood and waited! certainly he captured the moment.

Another image shows a camel snaking its' way across flatlands with mountains behind. When one sees it in a magazine the landscape suggests an area that is tribal and difficult to govern while when it is a large print on a gallery wall, one is more aware of the expanse of the terrain. 

The images are by and large not very disturbing; this view may not reflect the depth of the original coverage being the result of prurient editors and gallery designers who want to present a certain kind of general impression that they feel reflects the gallery-goers expectations rather then the actuality of the subject covered.

One image is however deeply disturbing and a number of people present comment on it ... that of a tearful young Peruvian boy pointing a gun at his head with his finger on the trigger.

Jose shows us another iconic National Geographic cover image, this time from August 1991, by Steve Mac Curry that does not appear in the exhibition; it is a fiery battle scene and the absence of such dramatic images reminds one of the selection process behind the exhibition. For instance, in the same issue there is a photograph of a tank taken at dusk which is an excellent image and might have been included for its' artistry alone as well as its' documentary relevance.

The documentary work of 25 years ago is now appearing as 'art' in galleries. Surprisingly, although one can now look at an
endless supply of photographic images online, the appeal of photographic exhibitions has not been decreased rather there would appear to be a greater interest.

Nowadays, Steve Mac Curry contributes to such magazines as National Geographic Traveller and Conde Nast Traveller, magazines that require a different kind of image, more pleasing than challenging.

One might talk endlessly about the Afghan girl photo/image/icon. For instance, on the cover of the magazine text covers the torn holes in the dress. Is this a deliberate attempt to present a less provocative image to the buyer!?

Jose points out his favourite image of a 'grandfather' with finger raised as he talks to a young boy; they are seated on the same charpoy (bed) which is outside. There is a lot happening in this image as it suggests tenderness, care, inter-generation communication, the old and young; in fact there are universal themes apparent and the background of a camel that engulfs most of the picture is a symbolic reminder of the bigger picture inherent in this image. What was Steve Mac Curry seeing when he made this image? Perhaps he just saw a camel with some people in front of it only realising later the significance of the communication between the central figures. He might even have posed them or just waited patiently until the scene presented itself. The photograph reminds me of a time when I was in the Indian countryside and got lost in the fog; I stumbled upon a similar kind of scene as portrayed here. Before being shown the way, the family treated me to a cup of tea and we talked a little, communicating with ease in spite of the gaps between our two worlds.

Do the "exotic" locations of the photographs make them so specialor is there something else at work?

One of my favourite images from the exhibition is of an elderly man carrying a sewing machine on his shoulder; the flood water is up to his neck and yet he is smiling. Is his smile for the benefit of the photographer? It seems to be saying that in spite of the appallingness of his present situation, he still has his livelihood and his life. Out of the mud grows the lotus.

One photo seems particularly unimpressive. A horse passes two towers, neither in particularly sharp focus as with the rest of the photo, while in the background one can see a lake and surrounding mountains. Perhaps this image has some special significane but as one OCA student remarks, Dave of OCA forum fame, he would have pressed the delete button at this point.

Gareth likes the 'Ask for Astrology' image in which an astrology shop perhaps with the astrologer himself sitting outside is perched precariously at the stop of stone steps above the Ganga River. A figure to the right is a dark, shadowy form (another sign of slide rather than digital photography) while below a boat passes along the Ganga. There is a naieveity to this image.

Another image shows a Tibetan boy with a Bulls basebat hat. One might wonder how the boy came by such a hat. Out of a charity bag perhaps but also it might be made in the east in one of the many sweat shops that turn out cheap goods with western brand names.

There is also a video installation in a corner of the exhibition; it details the search to find the Afghan Gird after a lapse of 17 years. The team eventually do find her but before they can be sure, the photograph of the woman the Afghan girl is today, is compared with the iconic Afghan Girl photo using computer software to verify the connection. What does this video installation say about the rest of the exhibition? It reveals in many ways the nature of these photographs originally made in documentary style that do try to get at the truth rather than reflect an idealsied version of it; the curating of the exhibition however seems to undermine original intentions as an attempt is made to please the viewer or just sell it to a wider audience.

One can not help but wonder whether one wants to find the Afghan Girl again. Obviously, she would no longer be a girl but a woman if she is still alive. The search does seem worth it though because it reveals more about the Afghan situation which is something the West, that has invested such a large amount of resources in and continues to do so, really needs to hear. People have grown up with this photograph, Jose being one of them, and to expose it in this way is perhaps to strip the original photo of its' symbolic content thereby devaluing it. Yet in the rediscovery, a deeper perspective is being revealed to the Afghan situation which is what the photograph was originally about rather than the merchandising of a particular magazine or photographer.

What I got out of this visit to the exhibition and the ensuing talk was a greater awareness of not just the photographs and their possible meanings but also an understanding of what it means to look at photographs. This is the stuff of theory yet in this situation, theory became more practical and relevant to the process of understanding photographs and photography as a whole which is why I and no doubt others, study photography. Probably we all want to be better photographers yet we can benefit by standing back a little and taking a more detatched view of the medium; a good if not great exhibition can help us do this particularly with tutorial guidance.

views of Birmingham from outside the gallery

Steve Mac Curry retrospective exhibition in Birmingham

Earlier this year, having met some of Steve Mc Curry’s students while visiting the Taj Mahal, I bought a book of photographs by Steve Mac Curry called “In the Shadow of Mountains”. It is a stunning selection of images that make much contemporary photographic work seem frivolous in comparison. Steve went into Afghanistan undercover for the first time almost thirty years ago and his images reflect the ordinary workings of everyday life and in particular the people rather than politically staged events and those who preside at them. The collection of photographs is hence a unique set of images that speak of the Afghanistan we hear of in the news but see so little of.

The photographs left me feeling mesmerised; they made me feel part of an otherwise hidden world while they have a certain raw beauty to them and have been mostly captured in a simple rather than a contrived way, with natural rather than artificial light. They do not demand any great insight into the workings of photography to be appreciated and their subject is still topical.

One of initial impressions of the exhibition was the disparity between the comfortable, centrally heated gallery in Birmingham and the harsh conditions that many of the people in the photographs are obviously enduring. The exhibition covers not just Afghanistan but other thrid world countries such as India and the Far East.

Not long after my initial brief visit to the exhibition, I visited again in the company of two OCA tutors and some other like minded students. Gareth Dent, the OCA CEO, introduced us all and mentioned the importance of the Afghan Girl photograph which has become an icon. It is reminiscent of Edward Munch's Scream painting and there is endless comment on the internet ...

Was there any particular logic to the sequencing of the photographs? It was certainly not one of subject matter yet as one stood back and looked at an arrangement of photographs on a wall, one could see that they did have a visual relationship. Were these all digital images or might there be some C type prints among them? One assumed the former yet the light on one or two suggested that they might be the product of a chemical darkroom.

One image, that of fishermen in Sri Lanka, did appear to have been photoshopped. One was struck by the ethereal light of the image and yet, it had been made during the Monsoon when the light can be striking and quite uncommon. The give-away was the dark bodies of the fishemen, lightened to reflect a skin tone perhaps a little too light for people in this area; certainly there were areas of noise suggesting the image had been lightened while a printed version in a magazine had shown much darker images.

There were captions above the photographs by Steve telling how he had gone about the assembling of the images yet one was still left asking questions as to the way he went about making them. For instance, a boy with a tragic face looks directly at the photographer with still quiet eyes. Was he posing or just responding naturally to the photographer's presence. There is perhaps no great secret in all this since Steve gave a talk around the time when the exhibition opened in which he explained the story behind many of the photographs.

There is the image of a girl in a green shawl who someone thinks look angry; to me, she just looks beautiful. Was Steve Mc Curry aware of the subtle colour contrast at work in this image when he made it? There is the green shawl and the blue eyes while a touch of red can be seen around the neck. I find myself wondering just how many of these images were seen at the time rather than chosen later for their editorial and artistic appeal.

Probably the most distressing image of all, I was not alone in thinking this, is that of a Peruvian boy from whose eyes run tears; he is dirty and poor and points a gun at his head with his finger on the trigger. Is it a real gun? Is it loaded? We do not know but that such a young child should appear to be contemplating suicide is certainly disturbing. Gareth pointed out the Cruel and Tender in this image as the photographer holding back from such a situation, preferring to photograph rather than offer care, and the necessary feeling on the part of the photographer to capture such as situation.

Does Mc Curry have a formulaic approach? Gareth wonders whether the photographer is moving from a documentary point of view towards a more artistic approach in his work. From images that might appear in a magazine like National Geographic magazine to images that are more at home on the walls of a gallery!?

The gallery contained about 100 images of Steve Mc Curry. I wonder how many images he made to get this many. Perhaps as many as a million since National Geographic photographers were always given a generous supply of film while in these days of digital, countless images can be made and discarded.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The "people and place" concept

"People and Place" is a term that can be included in a brief description of photographs. It is more than just "street photography" because it also considers the environment of the street rather than what merely happens to be going on in it.

in this photograph, both buildings and arrangement of people assume importance

It largely seems to be a matter of "watching and waiting" for the composition to take place; this was the view of Henri Cartier-Bresson although many photographers have posed their people in the street (Robert Doisneau for instance) while others nowadays may resort to Photoshopping things into place. 

As people move across the scene in a variety of ways, one is reminded of L.S.Lowry paintings where people are reduced to marks in the image. Here, they are slightly larger! One needs to wait for the image to fall into place.

Monday, September 20, 2010

view of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize by a judge

In Camera Lucida, an erudite but personal meditation on photography by Roland Barthes, the critic describes a shot of his mother, but admits that he can't print it in the book. "I cannot reproduce [it]," writes Barthes. "For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the 'ordinary'". "Ordinary" shots may be our most treasured possessions: the first thing we'd rescue in a fire and the last thing we'd keep after a nasty break-up. But we don't love them because they're great portraits. We love them because we love the people in them.
Nearly everyone in the west has a camera, and if they don't they almost certainly have one on their phone. Yet if such images are talismen, magically calling to mind people not around or gone forever, what makes a great portrait of someone you don't know? That's the question I had to ask myself over the two-day judging of the National Portrait GalleryTaylor Wessing Photographic Portrait prize, which will be awarded on 3 November 2009 and go on show two days later. I and six other judges looked at around 6,400 images, selecting 60 for the exhibition and five for special awards, including one for the £12,000 top prize.
We saw images from all over the world, taken inside and out, depicting the old and young, nude and clothed. I found the sheer variety fascinating. In real life we're surrounded by shots of young, conventionally attractive models, so it was genuinely touching to see something more likelife on show. Tom Stoddard's black-and-white shot of two factory workers gave an alternative, stronger vision of femininity, for example, while Liz Hingley's photograph of a dressed-up older woman captured something of the dignity of age. It's another manifestation of taste, I suppose; advertisers are after one kind of portrait, this prize something else.
What that something was, however, was curiously difficult to define. The portrait gallery recommended we choose "portraits with a stress on the individual" and left it at that; technical quality was a factor, but it wasn't the whole story. Photographs that have done well in other competitions didn't do well here – I recognised one shot that recently won gold in another prize, but it didn't make it to our longlist. It did divide the panel, however: one judge condemned it as "high street", leaving another judge and myself to explain that was exactly why we liked it. An image of four young people shot by a professional in a portrait studio, it was technically unimpeachable, but compared with many of the other entrants, aesthetically in another world – and, I'd venture, a world away in class terms. It was an interesting point of departure from the more familiar editorial gaze, and I was very sad to see it go. The sociologistPierre Bourdieu would have had a field day: he argued that taste is tied to class, and we police one to protect the other.
Whether that's true or not, the photographic portrait prize has been criticised for favouring one style above all others – unsmiling portraits of children and teenagers taken in their own environments. Such shots did well again this year, but to me that felt natural. Smiling models and people saying "cheese" are the province of ads and snapshots; we were free to look beyond that to something more real. Smiles weren't vetoed, but they only made it in if they looked genuine. Staged shots weren't outlawed either – most of the images we selected were probably posed to one degree or another – but we avoided subjects who were obviously acting. There's nothing wrong with roleplay in photography, but it didn't feel like portraiture.
In the end, I had to ask myself the question: what is a portrait? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it's "a likeness of a person", which sounds straightforward, but isn't. It's extremely hard to stop people acting for the camera, particularly when we're all so used to being photographed at weddings, birthdays, holidays and reunions. Perhaps that's why we, the judges, went for so many shots of teenagers. Self-conscious but not yet adept at disguise, adolescents reveal themselves to photographers, as Vanessa Winship's image shows. A documentary photographer with years of experience, Winship deservedly made it to the shortlist again, having won a prize for her shot of two young Turks in 2008. This year, she submitted a delicate study of a grave young Georgian girl, capturing the subject's poise, but also her awkwardly fidgeting fingers. Gentle, sympathetic yet astute, it was the pick of the bunch for me.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

discussion with Brian Griffin (National Portrait Gallery september 10'th 2010)

   Brian Griffin is a leading UK portrait photographer and so I did not miss the chance to attend a discussion with him held at the National Portrait Gallery; it lasted over an hour and was largely about his work with the 2012 portrait photography project that is concerned with photographing people connected with the 2012 Olympic Games.

   Some of Brian Griffin's photographs were on view near to the lecture hall and one immediately became aware of a distinctive style and approach. As Brian Griffin explained, he uses a medium format digital camera, poses his subjects in chosen locations, and composes carefully so that most of his images are printed full frame. Light is often provided by a soft box overhead.

   Most of these photographs are of small groups although some, such as that of Tessa Jowell ( a former minister who was directly involved in the project) can be seen in a strident position with her hands placed on a chair. Brian Griffin later explained what happened in the making of this photograph since he had asked the minister to adopt a more supine pose, with her sitting on the floor and leaning against the chair. She however, did not want to be seen as if she had been "brought to her knees" and subsequently assumed a more authoritative posture, apparently very conscious of the kind of image she likes to project. Someone asked about the halo effect in this image; it turned out to be the result of a poor digital file, the original does not show it!

Tessa Jowell as photographed by Brian Griffin
This photo was made during a slide presentation and has been rendered in black and white
to emphasise formal elements of the image and to remove the distracting colour caste.

   A short introduction to him and his work posted on the gallery wall, pointed out that his work is considered ground breaking. He is known for his photographs of the building of Broadgate in the City of London during the 1980's and the building of High Speed 1, the UK's first high-speed railway. He draws from the Old Masters of art and has an interest in nineteenth century symbolism, classical sculptures and B-movies, all of which contribute to his images. He rarely preconceives images, preferring to observe and respond to sitters. His work as a film maker helps when making group photographs of the kind seen in the 2012 Olympics exhibition.

   Hearing Brian Griffin talking about his work, provided an interesting insight into the workings of a portrait photographer. Yet before he began, we were shown a film made for TV of him introducing his work with accompanying music; he spoke loudly and yet not too loud to stop me falling asleep, largely the result of a dawn start and a day spent wandering around London although I did not find it easy to relate to what he was saying since he seemed to be talking up his work, surely unnecessarily.

   Brian Griffin pointed out he chooses the locations for his work in this project; it is important to find a place that reflects the role of his subjects although this background does not play that prominent a part in his work. Sometimes, because of weather perhaps, the background needs changing and he is obliged to improvise. 

   He talked about trying to rediscover the joy of photographing, that initial experience when one begins to make photographs. He finds himself continually working towards creating a satisfying image and considers that out of all the images he might make in a single year, there may be only a couple with which he feels satisfied.

Brian Griffin with a personal favourite among his Olympics 2012 portfolio

   The photograph seen above is one such image. In it, there are various "lines" such as those to the side of the two faces while there is a curving line formed by the direction of the arms that further adds to the symmetry.

   One feature of the images that struck me is that none of the people seem to be communicating with each other; this is however, a result of the way they have been posed and does not reflect the actual relationships of the people who one feels would need to be communicating with each other if they are to work effectively. An example of photography distorting the real rather than communicating it! Brian Griffin manipulates his subjects physically like a pupeteer.

   Captions play an important part in this body of work. They relate to the part that the people pictured in the 2012 Olympics project are playing.

Brian Griffin with some of his team

   Brian Griffin works with a team of people which include assistants on location and in the "darkroom". All make suggestions yet it is Brian who decides on the vision reflected in the image. It helps to have others who can consider different elements of the picture such as the face, light and aperture; these days, even a 1/10'th of a stop can make a difference to the final image.

   Answering questions, Brian talked about the amount of freedom he has working on this project. He does in fact have the freedom to do what he wants, the way he sees it. There has only been one person objecting to the way they are portrayed and that was someone famous hence image conscious.

   He considers that what he was doing is not just a public relations project but requires the eye of an artist. I might have asked him about a remark that he made many years ago about not being an artist. The simple answer to that conundrum might be that he is not an artist because he is a photographer yet some of course would want to challenge such an assertion.

text and photos copyright 2010 Amano Samarpan


Monday, August 2, 2010

Serpentine Gallery: Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition 7.7.10

Visiting an exhibition by Wolfgang Tilmans seemed to be de rigeur although when I heard through one review that there were a lot of photos of the artist's male partner, I was put off as self indulgent homeo-erotic work does not appeal to me. In fact, the reviewer seems to have been expressing homophobic views since the exhibition contains only about half a dozen images of male models and most of these are of different men not just one. A photograph that might be considered homeo-erotic actually made me laugh; it is a simple albeit crude view made from below a costume of  a pair of legs with a scrotum and penis at the top and centre of the image. It takes an instant or two to see this and for a moment I found myself thinking of a baby and outstretched arms.

What I liked about the exhibition was the simplicity of the work with ample space between photographs. One did not have to spend too much time trying to work out what it was all about and neither was it so big that one needed a lot of time to see it all. Of course, simplicity can be problematic if one is intent on finding meaning and Tillmans, in my view, is an artist who uses photography rather than a photographer whose work is considered art. For instance, many of the images such as the blocks of colour, appear to be prints in which no camera was used only photographic materials, the C - type print, with varying filtration.

Tillmans use or exploration of these coloured blocks that appear not only in the first room (black, white, blue, yellow and magenta) but also in two further rooms of the six roomed exhibition space, seem to become more complex with graduated colour spaces in the later work. Tillmans collected these images particularly for the Serpentine Gallery and there is a great sense of the artist using this space rather than merely exhibiting a collection of photographs.

There are a number of framed black and white images of poor technical photographic quality. No Ansel Adams concern here for detail in the shadows and in the photograph of a cow where solid blacks are much in evidence, the eyes for instance are swallowed up in blacks, one wonders what one is being asked to look at. Flies on the cow presumably.

Other black and white images, some of them photocopies, may inspire wonder and contemplation with the suggestion of "distinct yet overlapping emotional and psychological sensations"(Michael Bracewell). Images of trees are quite captivating although there is no depth of tone with the images relying on soft, hazy light with the play of sunlight and shadow.

The second room contains some huge images of what appear to be brush strokes. It was not easy to figure out what these were about but when I saw what looked like a penis in one of them, I decided to move on!

The third room contained a variety of images. Some exhibits were contained in museum-like presentations which one viewed flat on a table. Here, subjects like the Vatican's denial of abuse within the church were covered. The front cover of two Krsnamurti books were also to be found and I wondered at the connections between these images; Krsnamurti's book Freedon From the Known has long been a favourite work and I did not expect to see it here.

Some of the images were abstract and hence not easy to relate to. Were the coloured blocks with some design included on them meant to be examples of fungal decay on walls?

A series of images that did interest me as a photographer were of Venus passing over the sun. The images have been tinted purple and are enclosed within a circular black frame. More document than art is in evidence here.

There is satire in the exhibition. For instance, a view of an industrial landscape taken from the air is called "Desert".

Overall, there is a tackiness to much of the imagery yet one assumes that is a comment in itself. Technically perfect photographic images can be a little overpowering for the viewer while more amateurish looking work can be enticing. As Barthes writes in Camera Lucida ...

" ... in the field of photographic practice, it is the amateur, on the contrary, who is the assumption of the professional: for it is he who stands closer to the noeme of Photography." (from essay 40)

One photograph that stood out for me was of what appeared at first to be Hokusai's famous wave. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a photograph of a glacier from the air. Michael Bracewell comments that in this image there  is a " transformation of a tangible subject into an abstraction" and that it is "completely liberated from meaning". I wonder if he was aware of the Hokusai link!

Overall, I found this exhibition to be inspiring and left me feeling open minded about the nature of photography as a whole. Sometimes the imagination can be constricted by well ordered images and given free reign by those that at first glance seem chaotic.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

entering the Taylor Wessing National Portrait Gallery photographic prize

I decided to enter this competition since I often visit The National Portrait Gallery and appreciate their contribution to photography. The kind of portrait they are looking for is stated in the rules ... "‘Portrait’ may be interpreted in its widest sense, of ‘photography concerned with portraying people with emphasis on their identity as individuals’

One portrait is of a friend with a towel wrapped around her head and called "Shashi in towel turban." It is quite a striking image with its face seen from the side and a colourful wrap around the model's head. Headgear is topical (the burqa has recently been banned in France but is still allowed in the UK) and a previous winner of the competition was of someone wearing a plastic bag over their head.

Another portrait is from my series After Vermeer; it is of the Milkmaid though I call it Milkedmaid. There are a few other updates in the image such as a carton of orange juice with Vermeer's name on it. Although the composition corresponds to the original, the lines within the image tend towards an off centre focal point loosing the balance of the original while there is also some distortion of perspective.

There is another After Vermeer portrait, this time entitled Woman with a Jade Necklace. The woman here is Chinese, an ethnic twist, but the photograph suffers from having to make what was a beige coloured top light yellow. The colour contrast works well but the overall effect may be a little tacky.

The photo entitled Palzome, the monk's daughter, I find quite intriguing as a result of the model and the background which clearly occupies half of the image. The model's face though has not reproduced well so I am considering another photograph.

The last photograph is of a teenager, only 13 in fact, posing in her ballerina costume. I had intended to photograph her in the archway of a local Tudor mansion but that location fell through at the last moment and I ended up photographing here in a corner of our garden. This maybe too eccentric a composition but the image has an atmosphere that seems to work. Its' called The Young Ballerina.

Probably I am being a bit too critical here but I do not expect to win anything although if one of the images is selected for the exhibition, it will have been worth all the effort. In fact, it is already worth the effort as it has helped me to come up with an idea or two for more original portraits and obliged me to consider the finished image.


"Thank you for entering your work into the above competition.  The judges have now made their final decision and I am sorry to inform you that on this occasion your work was not selected for exhibition.  We do however feel it is important to tell you, although you did not get in to the exhibition, your photographs did make it to the second day of judging, which is the point at which the judges make their final selections for the exhibition. This year there were 5,984 images submitted for competition and only 60 were short listed for exhibition so the competition was very strong. We wish you the very best in the continuation of your practice and hope that you will consider applying to the competition again in the future."