Monday, April 26, 2010

Photography and the Spirit of the City

Wandering around Central London, one often comes across a piece of unique architecture and might wonder as to when aand why it was built. Such buildings can be left stranded amongst new ones without any clue to their original identity.

An exhibition of photographs at the Royal Academy of Art are mostly from the late 19'th century, black and white prints, records of buildings that once stood but were later destroyed or of buildings that still stand albeit in different circumstances. These old originals are accompanied by lengthy captions written at the time by Alfred Marks, Honorary Secretary of the Royal Academy at the time, and give a historical background to the old buildings. Above them hang modern colour photographs by a Michael Doherty yet these are captionless and one does not know exactly when they were made; it is possible however, to see that these contemporary images relate to the black and whites below creating an interesting juxtaposition that spans over 100 years.

Of the two dozen black and white images in the exhibition, one of old houses in Holborn stands out because they do not look so old then as they do now! This is a result of restoration work carried out, particularly in 1937, when a tudorised oak frontage and lead windows were installed to give an "olde London" look. A similar development can be seen in  photographs of St. Bartholemew's Church where in about 1877, the likely year when most of these old photographs were made, the church had quite a basic front which was later given a much more ornate facade while the gravestones were cleared to make way for a green. Another photograph of the same church again shows more ornate window frames being added while surrounding buildings have been destroyed.

Some of the images are of buildings that no longer exist and hence are interesting and informative records. A photograph made in College Street appear to show a street that had been straightened yet in fact, the area was badly bombed during the Second World War and so the whole area has been rebuilt including the church that was modelled on the previous one, making these two images appear recognisably the same. Another example of the way the camera innocently records yet the mind of man distorts according to his preconceptions.

What if anything does this exhibition signify for the photographer of the present generation? Perhaps it is the reminder that photography does have a role to play, this old collection was made of buildings under threat, and with time passing, the images it conjures up can be of interest and value in understanding the ever-changing world in which we live as well as exuding the charm of the past.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

portrait photography at the National Portrait Gallery

Our photographer for the day is Emily Harris ( who is interested in themes of male authority and power and has recently been photographing ex-servicemen who have been psychologically damaged by war.

She starts by taking us to see painted portraits of militia and statesman from bygone days that live upstairs in a couple of the National Portrait Gallery's rooms. There are various points of reference that she sought to imitate for effect such as 3/4 length portraits, fixed gazes, deep blacks in both the garmets worn and the background, lack of humour in the faces and more gravitas than usual, a light in the eyes, hands and face kept bright within the image and quite strong sidelighting that helps bring out facial features.

Recreating this in a studio portrait setting was done with a window light to one side and a reflector to the other to create a difference of about 1 stop (2 EV) of exposure between the two sides of the face. This took a little time to set up using a flashmeter in the process. The placement of the reflector was crucial as slight adjustments could make a lot of difference; the main window light needed to be slightly to the fore, giving light that raked across the image and brought out texture. The window light needed to be positioned in such a way that the background remained dark and unobtrusive.

It took a little time to operate the camera as one was unfamiliar with the digital set up of controls required to alter aperture (we were advised to use f16 not just for detail but to assist in fall off of light behind the subject), ISO ( we were advised to use 100 to avoid grainy prints while this film is also fairly true to life with regard to colour) and shutter speed (the recommended setting here was 1/125'th of a second to avoid any slight movement that might occur).

By the lunch break, we had got the set up right and produced a few images. I was happy to get shots of one of the two women I was working with that reflected the theme for the day .. that of authority and power. She looked quite imposing! After this I was not interested in doing much more. We did fool around with a bowler hat and a black veil but these images were not indicating anything other than what they were of.

An Italian woman, apparently a proffessional, came aropund taking photos. I felt it intrusive as we there were working to create something and explore the technique we had been shown. She fired away even asking me to pose with my hat on at which point I objected though later allowed her a few poses. My hat proved quite popular as a prop with other people from the day putting it on.

Emily was interesting to chat with. She has been to Gujerat where she studied at the National Institute of Design. She plans to visit Afghanistan this year! She contacts her military subjects by going to social events for the military.

Perhaps what I really learnt from this event was that a window and a reflector can be all you need to make portrait photographs with a bit of drama. Although this was not suggested, it is something I have been considering and now want to try. The addition of a reflector is not something I had thought of while one would need to consider the background; a wider aperture of f8 might be enough to keep the face, ears and hair in focus and hence create an abstract backdrop yet the bckdrop would still need to be considered in terms of form and brightness.

Sunday May 25'th 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Photographic portraiture and commodity culture

In Liz Wells' book "Photography: A Critical Introduction", there is a section by Anandi Ramamurthy concerning the development of portraiture photography and the important role it played in the development of photography.
There is mention of the way portrait photography developed as capitalism grew during the nineteenth century and it became a medium through which the middle and lower-middle classes could try to elevate their social status through images that conformed to certain established conventions with painted portraiture. Initially, this took place with the daguerreotype and the carte-de-visite and had the effect of stifling creativity within the medium. Not only were such photographs meant to establish bourgeois credentials they were also meant to elevate photography as a high-brow art.
These kind of photographs are themselves an expression of bourgeois culture upholding capitalist values relating to the nation-state, the family and the individual.
The upper classes also used photography to assert their influence with Queen Victoria leading the way while President Lincoln that his carte-de-visite made by Matthew Brady was in part responsible for his election as president.
Nowadays, the high-street studio still continues to uphold such conventions.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Where three dreams cross

"Where three dreams cross" is a photographic exhibition presently being held at the Whitechapel Gallery in the City, London. It represents perhaps the first attempt to provide a history of photography from the "primordial soup" that presently exists, according to co-curator Sunil Gupta.

There are over 200 photographs in this exhibition. I shall just mention a few from the portrait section.

The first grouping is from Raghu Rai, a Magnum associate but not full member. He has been photographing in India for about 50 years, covering many major events of that era. However, his images are not in the photo-journalistic section of the exhibition but do represent perfect people and place photographs!

His subjects include the former prime minister, Indira Gandhi, and the Catholic nun, Mother Teresa. None of these images result from formal portrait sessions but are made as the women concerned go about their daily business. Hence, we see Indira Gandhi in conversation with her ministers, attending functions and also in reflective mood. Mother Teresa is seen walking around her centre for unfortunates, the bright sunlight illuminating her robes.

Raghu Rai's photographs here are all in black and white though later work is in colour. He was much respected by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and his work seems to reflect much of the real India, something that might be considered as lacking from this exhibition. What for instance of the wildlife and landscapes the country has to offer? So many images seem to be of poor people.

The other photographer whose single work hangs beside that of Raghu Rai's is Pamela Singh. This is a self-portrait. She lies in bed, eyes closed and largely covered in sheets with only her head, shoulder and some arm visible. Beside the bed is a table with a few objects on, one of which is a telephone. The back ground is simply a wall which has been coloured in, for this is a black and white photograph.

The impression is of a hotel room; the meaning unclear.

In some ways, this exhibition is largely about people and the way they interact with space. While this is interesting, it does seem rather limiting. Are the Himalayan peaks to be ignored? Surely they are much photographed. One feels something of India is being overlooked; its' spiritual heart perhaps.

Irving Penn on portrait photography

It seems worth quoting verbatim what Irving Penn says about portrait photography.

The following is from a lecture he gave at the Wellesley College photographic symposium in 1975 ...

"In portrait photography there is something more profound that we seek inside a person, while being painfully aware that a limitation of our medium is that the inside is recordable only insofar as it is apparent on the outside ... I have at times seduced myself into a mystical belief in the penetrative power of the camera, but reflection always brings me back to accepting the picture process as simply the bounce back of light from a momentary arrangement of atoms that are a face. But that is not to say that the power of a tender word, or a clumsy one, to affect those atoms can be overstated. When light and the situation of the portrait picture are found and the sculptural arrangement made, it may be that the word is after all at the heart of the whole thing ... Sensitive people faced with the prospect of a camera portrait put on a face they think is one they would like to share the world. ... Very often what lies behind the facade is rare and more wonderful than the subject kinows or dares to believe."

In regard to portrait photography, such words seem profound and match the gravitas of many of his portraits.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

private view of the Irving Penn exhibition

Having missed the study day of the Irving Penn exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I lost no time in booking for the private view. This included a drink and a talk by the curator, Magdalene Keaney, as well as a relatively uncluttered gallery.

The talk by Magdalene Keaney (the quotation marks include her text from the introduction to the book accompanying the exhibition) lasted about 15 minutes and was an introduction to both Penn and the exhibition. The work on show here not surprisingly represents only a small part of his work, concentrating on cultural figures, most of whom were photographed for Vogue. He also did many photographs of ordinary people who were selected on the basis of their occupation; however, the images seen here are of those "people whose ideas and work have shaped our own" and for this reason, they are worth seeing as they strengthen "our understanding of the importance of their accomplishments" . Those represented are artists, writers and musicians rather than those famous for being famous.

The exhibition consists of 120 images, some of them vintage prints which means that they were made at the time the negative was made. All the photographs are in black and white revealing the expressive characteristics of that medium. Often, there are areas of solid black which serve to dramatise form and content yet offer up no detail.

Penn worked for Vogue, once desribed by Avedon as a magazine afraid of anything to do with age and death. Those who knew Penn described him as humble and modest. His work was mostly done in the studio with plain backgrounds notably in a tight corner or on a cloth covered plinth. He used the photographer's tools of light and space while his sitters assumed different usually striking postures; Penn refers to these as sculptural.

Kearney writes that "It is not possible to have a meaningful discussion about the development of portraiture since the 1940's without reference to the work of Irving Penn. He challenged and changed expectations of what a studio portrait can be." This is great praise that lifts Penn from his status as photographer to that of artist. She goes on to point out that, "In 1947 and 1948,, Penn made a series of portraits that represent a major breakthrough in the history of photography - a stylistic and coneptual break from mid-twentieth-century conventions. At a time when other leading magazine photographers either incorporated complex and dramatic sets or portrayed subjects in their surroundings, Penn developed a new approach". "Penn's images remain a fixed beacon" that have instructed "photographers and designers across many generations who have assimilated his visual language into their own picture-making."

His style did change over the years though. During the 1950's and 1960's, he closed in on his subject with head and shoulder portraits with greater emphasis on gesture and expression.

Penn obviously realised the importance of a rapport between himself and the sitter considering it one of the most important aspects of the portrait process. He was aware of the need to find the real person behind the mask shown to the world. He did this by, in his own words, by "the subject and I relating equally to each other as one human being to another". He did not like to use the word shoot saying that a photo-session was more of a love affair.

He was also aware as Keaney writes of "his journalistic responsibility to communicate to readers at every level"; Penn is quoted as saying, "My client is the woman in Kansas who reads Vogue."

While Penn is relevant to me as a portraitphotographer, his work does reflect on the theme of People and Place since the latter is almost entirely absent although some portraits do include not just the effect of theatre flats forming a corner but also include the theatre flats themselves, an effect which helps to deconstruct the portrait photograph.

What concerns me about the images, is the large areas of solid black. I would be happier if they contained detail and am left wondering whether this was deliberate or brought about by the limitations of the darkroom processes of his era.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

web links

here is a link to the National Portrait Gallery's Photo of the month !

the NPG is one of the best places to see photography in the capital although the photographs are of course always portraits; nevertheless, one sees the best of this genre here.

their own annual competition is also worth seeing online if not actually ... its' called the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize ...