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