Books

100 Ideas that Changed Photography

This book is a very inspirational read. Reviews on Amazon say that there are a few mistakes in the book and that it is obvious that the writer was commissioned to write it without a lot of prior knowledge of photography, but I don't really care about that. The level isn't supposed to be too high anyway and I find it a very good read.

In 100 small chapters, ideas and practices that shaped photography as we know it are described in a concise, informative way and illustrated with beautiful examples. I have read the book in one piece, but think that it might also be nice to read one idea a day just as a little inspirational thought to get you started. 

After reading this book I made a list of all ideas that I would like to try out, or use in my own work.

- I would love to work with old development processes for example, I know there's an organisation that offers courses and I'm going to give it a try.
- I would also like to experiment with painting on a photograph, even though I'm a terrible painter, but just for fun and see the results.
- I would like to make flip flop book of moving objects.
- I would like to photograph a nude.
- I want to take a series of really saturated post card pictures.
- I want to do street photography with a flash.
- I would like to make a Refractive Hexagon, like Robert Heinecken's (pg 110).
- I want to make an abstract image.
- I want to explore the 'thingness' of things (pg 151)
- I'd like to make photo collage.
- I want to experiment with self portraiture.
- I want to experiment with surrealism.
- I want to go to the outskirts of Delhi and photograph.
- I want to experiment with text and images.
- I would like to fabricate a staged photograph.
- I want to experiment with combining video and photo.

It seems like quite a long list and thank goodness I have a life time to work on it, along with my OCA courses of course!

Marien, M. W. (2012) 100 Ideas that Changed photography. London: Laurence King Publishing.

Photography - A Very Short Introduction

The 'Very Short Introduction' books are always a pleasure to read. When I started this one I thought it would be a lot of repetition of subjects I had heard or read before, which in a way was true, but the author, Steve Edwards has a way of putting the facts, developments and stories together in a very interesting and stimulating way. 

His discussion on the differences of a photograph as a document or a piece of art and how different developments in ways of thinking about art influenced the medium and photographers themselves was especially insightful. 

The advantage of all concise overviews of an entire genre or subject is that it really helps you to see where you have positioned yourself in terms of ideas and ways of thinking about photography. Especially as a beginning student I often find myself reading about a subject, let's say street photography and immediately adapting to the way of thinking of the author or photographer I'm studying. This little book shows that there is much more on the horizon and that there is no 'right' or 'wrong' in how you work, just an acknowledgement that perceptions and ways of working are fluid and it's fine to just work along. Knowing that there are many ways to approach photography. Ideas and art are subject to change and that is something to be really excited about!

Edwards, S. (2006) Photography, A Very Short Introduction. 1st edition edn. New York: Oxford University Press.

Mary Ellen Mark - Twins

The photography section of my children's school library has quite a surprising good collection of photo books! When I stumbled upon Mary Ellen Mark's Twins (2003), it immediately caught my attention. I have an identical twin sister and am a mother of identical twins and I was very interested to see in which way Mark was going to portray the unique bond that I'm experiencing myself and see in my own girls. 

The book consists of images of sets of twins that were taken on a twins' festival 'Twins Days' in Twinsburg, Ohio. The photos were taken on a Polaroid 20 by 24 camera and are supposed to be of exquisite quality. Mark flew in a crew of 20 people and set up a tent during the festival to take the images. Quite a production, I'd say! In the second part of the book you can read snippets of interviews that Mark had with the twins and their caretakers after the photos were taken. 

The front page announces that 'In Twins, Mark turns her acute eye and her heart to the extraordinary bond that exists between these very special siblings.' I think it is this sentence that annoys me most about the book. The images are all very stereotypical, not only of what you expect of twins, but also of teenagers, women, kids, Afro Americans, overweight kids, etc. I don't think Mark put the twins these costumes on, but the fact that she chose to photograph her subject matter in Twinsburg, on Twinsday, already shows that her approach was to get all the stereotypes on paper. 

Most twins have tautological names, like Kelsie and Kiara, Jim and Jeff, Melanie and Michelle and Kayley and Kaitlyn. In the interviews we can read that most of the twins either live very close together or live in the same house. The questions in the interview are closed and Mark asks all the stereotypical questions I have been asked about being a twin. It's just all very stereotypical.

I found it all very unsettling and I wondered why. I mean it's not the classification in itself, or showing the weird side of people that makes me feel like this. I really like the way August Sander made classifications of people and their profession, or Arbus' approach in showing people's rarities. But in this case, I get the idea that Mark's approach to twins is very shallow and even though she says she is looking for the special bond they have, she just wants to freak her viewers a bit with the fact that twins are a bit freaky. 

I miss respect for the individual and it sort of triggers a frustration that I have felt all my life about being compared all the time, the assumptions that my life was sort of dependent on the other and the struggle to find myself. I have to say everything is fine now and I love being a twin, but when I look at my own daughters, I would never want them to be portrayed like Mark does. It's denigrating and lacks respect. Or maybe from a less frustrated response, it's very shallow.

References:
Mark, M. E. (2003) Twins. First Edition edn. New York: Aperture Foundation.

 

Chapter 4 Train Your Gaze - Tremors of narrative: Portraits and Eventfulness

I feel that I can write a reflection of almost every chapter in this book, it's so interesting! Anyway, this chapter has influenced my final assignment a lot, especially the part about private narratives, in which the work of Allen Frame is discussed. 'Allen Frame has been described as a photographer who photographs people in transitional moments (for example, as a dinner party winds down) and transitional spaces ... where anything or nothing could be happening.' Angier discusses the photograph "Martina, Eiko, and Mathias, Berlin, 1997", an image that was taken after a dinner party seemingly at the moment when the guests were about to leave. I like how Angier calls these moments fragile and open ended and that as a spectator, we can't particularly define what has happened before or what is going to happen afterwards, but that the compositional solid structure of the image gives us enough clues to get a sense that there is meaning to the moment itself. He continues with looking at other work of Frame and pointing out the same visual connections that point to a certain emotion even though the images look completely different. 'an unplanned, found moment, framed by rigorously placed architectural details' Both images convey the feeling of a 'suspended narrative'. Gosh, how I like that expression!

I looked up more images of Frame on his website and got more and more intrigued by this idea of suspended narrative. I notice that it's not just the composition of subjects and objects in the frame that build towards this sense of meaning, but also especially the use of light and shadows, darker and lighter areas that guide the eye from one specific point to the other. Every point gives you a clue or brings unanswered questions, all adding up to the narrative that eventually is not told.

Thinking about Cartier Bresson's work and the way his compositions work towards a 'decisive moment' I see a clear diffence in the sense that Bresson's work (especially his early work) seem to represent stories that are captured just at the right time to bring a fantastic balance and grand closure, while Frame's compositions let the eye wonder and suspect a certain story, but leaves it that way, or leaves it curious and unfulfilled. 

I learn from this that rules of compositions can work either way, can have different effects on the viewer and depending on what the photographer wants to show, or feeling it wants to convey, it's ok to break the rules, it's ok to leave parts in the dark or portray moments that are not decisive or meaningful at first glance. As long as the viewer is triggered to a certain feeling, whether it might be a longing to know more about what's happening or a satiated feeling of wonder what happened right in front of the lens at that moment.

 

Chapter 3 Train Your Gaze - At the margins: The edges of the frame

I've been reading 'Train Your Gaze', by Roswell Angier. I find it a great read and it is giving me an other layer of meaning to photographer and my own attitude when I'm taking photos, the decisions I make of what I'm going to photograph and in what sense my own disposition and preconceived ideas play part in the end results of an image. The assignments in the back of every chapter are very challenging and I am thinking of picking a few and adding them to my blog. Looking at an image, then thinking about it and furthermore, trying to produce something in the same context or thought is very helpful and really deepens my photography skills and vision.

In chapter 3 'At the Margins: The edges of the frame', Angier discusses the intentions and seemingly relationship of the photographer and its subjects and the questions about truth and integrity that arise from that. He comes up with examples of Riis, Lange and Evans, who all went out to photograph a certain group of underprivileged people and portray their situation. Reading this question made me realize that documentary photographs give the assumption that the one taking the image has sort of stepped over in the world he is photographing, has become an expert in what he sees and that somehow the fact that he knows how to materialize his vision, gives him a better understanding of what he is seeing, or gives him more authority to show expertise about the subject through what he shows. 

Of course, one might already see through the work whether a photographer has a deeper understanding of a subject, or has been photographing something for a long time, but, also referring to the earlier part of the chapter, when one speaks about a decisive moment, a photographer may just have the visual skills and a little bit of interest to make a compelling image without knowing anything about the subject. (I find the example of Lange's Migrant Mother, napalm, California, 1936) very striking.

But then, is there something wrong with that? Thinking about myself, when I go out and about to photograph a place I don't know, I'm most of all driven by my curiosity. When taking images of people, I always try to have a conversation with them and have some kind of rapport, but I realize even more that these small moments don't give me a revelation of how somebody might be. Maybe just a slight little bit in that moment of time.

The chapter continues with the discussion of 'crisis photography', in which photographers come very close and capture tragedy to the core and the approach photographers like Guy Tillim and Leif Claesson, who try to establish a discernible frame of reference and through that avoid melodrama and portraying its subjects as victims.

I still don't know where I stand in this discussion. Regarding ideas and opinions, I find myself more connected to the philosophy of Guy Tillim, on the other hand, I find that my curiosity sometimes gets me to take images that could be called voyeuristic or unethical. 

This may sound really awful, but after having lived in developing countries for so long, I feel that I am not shocked by poverty at first sight anymore. If I were to take photos of poor, or underprivileged people, I would automatically want to go deeper than their outward misery. I want to know who they are, what brings them where they are and look for common things that make us humans. Because of that, maybe a person who has not had the life I'm living will look differently at my pictures, in a voyeuristic way, while I myself might have taken them in a completely different context. Or maybe my images will look different at all, mainly because I'm not interested in photographing misery in itself.

I don't know if that sounds harsh or not, I do know that I am much more hardened from the things I see, but on the other hand I feel that this hardening has helped me to look beyond the surface of poverty and maybe for a photographer, this is a good thing.

 

Ways of Seeing - John Berger

Last summer I took my children to the Kroller Moller Museum in Apeldoorn. This museum is home to the second largest collection of paintings from Van Gogh and has an impressive number work from famous painters included Monet and Mondriaan. The kids had studied Van Gogh in school and I thought it would be nice for them to see the work in real. You can image how surprised and at the same time disappointed I was when they were very quickly bored and wanted to leave: 'We can look at all these paintings online', they said!

'Ways of Seeing', by John Berger discusses this issue, amongst others. How has the function and status of an image changed now that it can be copied and seen on different sites by a large public? Has it devalued the image itself, in what sense has the viewers experience changed now that it has access to the images everywhere, any time? 

I enjoyed reading this book. Berger gives a very no nonsense, demystified as he calls it himself view on art and images, the way we look at them and how the meaning and value of its subjects has changed and is viewed at. 

I found this mind map on a blog by Austin Kleon and it's a nice reflection of the book's main ideas:

Kleon, A. (2008) WAYS OF SEEING BY JOHN BERGER [mind map]. Available at: http://austinkleon.com/2008/10/19/ways-of-seeing-by-john-berger/ (Accessed: 10 August 2015).

I have written down a few quotes that I found particularly interesting and had a look at a lot of the paintings that the book refers to. All in all a great read and I'm eager to read more of Berger's books!

'Mutual solitude: The way in which each sees the other confirms his own view of himself.' pg 96

'The special qualities of oil painting lent themselves to a special system of conventions for representing the visible. The sum total of these conventions is the way of seeing invented by oil painting. It is usually said that the oil painting in its frame is like an imaginary window open on to the world. This is roughly the tradition's own image of itself. - even allowing for all the stylistic changes (Mannerist, Baroque, neo-Classic, Realist, etc.) which took place during four centuries. We are arguing that if one studies the culture of the European oil painting as a whole, and if one leaves aside its own claims for itself, its model is not so much a framed window open on to the world as a safe let into the wall, a safe in which the visible has been deposited.' pg 109

'Within publicity, choices are offered between this cream and that cream, that car and this car, but publicity as a system only makes a single proposal.'

'It proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more. This more, it proposes, will make us in some way richer - even though we will be poorer by having spent our money.

Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.' pg 131

'The happiness of being envied is glamour. Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. '' pg 132

'The publicity image steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.' pg 134

'publicity is essentially eventless' pg 153

'All hopes are gathered together, made homogeneous, simplified, so that they become the intense yet vague, magical yet repeatable promise offered in every purchase.'

References: Berger, J. (2009) Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Group UK.

Street photography - A quick comparison between different photogaphers, continuing with Ed van der Elsken

Last year I bought a book 'Hallo!' from the Dutch photographer Ed van der Elsken (1925 - 1990). Ed van der Elsken has travelled all around the world photographing people in the streets and public places. The book 'Hallo!' is a collection of some of these images. What is special about the book is that with the way the images are arranged, visual connections between the subjects in the images are made that otherwise would not be connected at all.

Because of these connections, the viewer gets an insight in the way the photographer sees things and what he marks as special. On this page you can see a few examples. Sometimes it's the movement a person makes or a striking resemblance of patterns or shapes that he has seen elsewhere. Compared to Meyerowitz, Van der Elsken is looking for a reaction, sometimes from the subject photographed, but mostly from its viewers. He is purposely taking a position, showing the extremes of society, or the things that stand out. He makes fun of people considered as normal and normalises the extremes of society through making connections that otherwise would not be obvious. 

I look at his book and burst out laughing all the time. I wouldn't call Van der Elsken critical, but more a person who is looking at life and seeing the things that make it exciting, provocative and funny. Van der Elsken has a very sympathetic world view and it's obvious that he is able to connect with all different people, but still stay true to his ability to find the wacky things in either weird or plain places.

Thinking about what I can learn from this way of working I come to the conclusion that first of all, do photograph everything that you find visually stimulating. Looking back at my own work, I will discover the elements that connect it all together, whether photographed in Amsterdam, New Delhi or Dakar. Secondly, what I photograph is a reflection of my own character and I shouldn't be shy about what I'm drawn to or what I find stimulating. I like Van der Elsken's open mindedness, with all its wittiness and curiosity. He certainly stayed true to himself.

Diane Arbus and Susan Sontag's 'America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly'

I had already planned to write a blog post about Diane Arbus and been looking at her images, read a few websites etc, when I stumbled on the chapter 'America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly' in Susan Sontag's 'On Photography'. So first I'd like to discuss this chapter and how Sontag describes whether photography is a private vision versus a reflection of reality. She shows that Diane Arbus' work is mostly a result of her own voluntary consciousness. That even the weirdness and sadness that the subjects show is a result of her private vision and have little to do with the subjects themselves.

Susan Sontag describes how photography shifted from 'showing identity between things which are different (Whitman's democratic vista) to images where everybody is shown to look the same'. Even pain and terrible atrocities are presented in the same way, as 'Art that is a self willed test of hardness' High art in capitalist countries is there 'to surpres, or at least reduce moral and sensory queasiness. Much of modern art is devoted to lowering the threshold of what is terrible'. Diane Arbus' work is a pure example of this shift. 'She does not play her subject matter, all her subjects are equivalent'. It's 'not journalistic, sensational, rather surrealist, taste for the grotesque, professed innocence with respect to their subjects, their claim that all subjects are merely objets trouvés'. I find Susan Sontag's conclusion very striking. The price of this shift is that photography does not serve as 'a liberation, but as a subtraction from the self'. 

According to Sontag Arbus is not an ethical photojournalist, nor does she show any moral values in her work. Her work is an escape from boredom, a drive to explore the reality that she missed in her upperclass Jewish upbringing. Maybe that's why her photographs don't arouse a certain compassion for the subjects, it seems irrelevant to have any feelings towards them at all. Susan Sontag describes Arbus way of photography as a colonization of new experiences, finding a new way to look at familiar subjects, a fight against boredom.

Reading quotes from Arbus on the internet, I notice that her ideas of the work only reflect Sontag's in part. She does describe it as an escape from boredom, 'the naughty thing to do', but also says '“For me, the subject of the picture is always more important than the picture.” Reflecting on Sontag's ideas I wonder if this is true. Isn't it that the most important aspect of her photography was to get the subjects to look weird, estranged?

In some images I read a direct reaction to Arbus' on the subjects faces. There is obviously a clash of misunderstanding going on and not a willingness to open up to each other. In the case of Arbus, to wait with shooting the image till the subject is at ease, or in case of the subject, to be tolerant of the strange photographer in front of them. There's a decision from both sides that determine the look of the photograph, although the photographer always has the last say in what is portrayed.

When I looked up these images I stumbled upon an article that has a completely different view on Arbus' work and has changed my look on her as well. In its conclusion it says: 

'Arbus might be the paradigm of the psychological portraitist, exploiting her subjects to a degree by utilizing them as sounding boards through which she could plumb the depths of her own psyche. Yet the psychological is seldom wholly divorced from the social, and Arbus surely recognized this, intuitively and artistically. She used this insight to create a gallery of American characters that, on perhaps narrower but no less epic canvas, echoes August Sanders' heroic characterization of Weimar Germany. Diane Arbus fashioned her own, cogent critique of American mores, enlivened by an absorbing inversion of finite sexual roles and gender imperatives. Her view was complex, highly individual, perhaps a little perverse, but never perverted - a sad moving testament to the human condition.'

(Diane Arbus: "Notes from the Margin of Spoiled Identity - The Art of Diane Arbus"  Gerry Badger (1988))

I don't feel I have the capacity to express my thoughts and gut feelings in the same way the authors of these articles have done. For now is most important to realize how quickly I'm influenced by different point of views and that also a critique is never objective and always made from a certain paradigm which might not even be suitable for making claims about the art that is discussed. 

Questions to ask myself:

1. How can I develop a way of thinking critically when reading these kind of texts and looking at art?

2. What are my inner drives and convictions to take photographs and how much do I let these drives rule the outcomes, or am I still working from other people's examples, or ideas of how photos are supposed to be taken?

Notes 'On Photography' - Plato's Cave

I've started reading Susan Sontag's 'On Photography' (1972) and have just finished the first essay 'In Plato's Cave'. in this chapter she discusses how photography is more than extracting snippets of reality from the world, but that the photograph itself is the result of an intrinsic relation between the perception and paradigm of the photographer and the reality that is being photographed. She then explores the meaning of taking photographs itself. First of all how it changes the world into a 'set of potential photographs' and therefor giving every reality and happening an extra layer of meaning. This layer has the function of 'democratizing' and freezing every image and moment, making it available to everybody at any given moment.

The photographer itself is instead of experiencing the moment, already focused on this other layer as Sontag describes it: 'refusing experience', or a way of taking possession of space in which they feel insecure by transforming it into a way of image taking and creating the image in which they feel secure. The paradox lies in how '...Photography has become one of the principal devices for experiencing something, for giving an appearance of participation' while at the same time an '... escape of real participation of the moment and the taking possession of a past that is unreal'.  The value of the images seem to overtake the value of reality itself. 'Picture taking is an event in itself, and one with ever more peremptory rights- to interfere' The example of war photographers who take images while other people are taking other people's lives or are literally being shot accentuates this value. Photographs outlasts us all. Referring to the title of the essay, one could conclude that with taking photographs, when enters Plato's cave and creates a world that seems to be build of snippets of reality, but which in truth is no 'generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth'.

Sontag quotes Diane Arbus saying: 'Photography is the naughty thing to do' Why did she perceive this as naughty? The essay goes on in describing the aggressive element in taking photographs. The subject is completely impotent to have an influence on how it will be photographed in a sliver of time, the camera, or 'photographers are always imposing their standards on their subjects'. I find this link between impotence and aggressiveness fascinating. Sontag makes clear how photographing people violates the 'seeing as they never see themselves' and how it turns people into objects that can be possessed. Looking at images of people, whether they are dead or alive, always installs a sense of nostalgia, a memento mori. As Sontag writes: 'To take a photograph is to participate in another person's mortality, vulnerability, mutability.' In a way it creates a 'pseudo presence and a sign of absence'. I think this describes the way the photography cave looks like, and especially what kind of feelings photographs bring about. 'They are attempts to contact or lay claim to another reality.'

From here is a very thought provoking explanation on how photographs can awaken feelings of conscious and desire and how these feelings are brought about through opposite forces. With raising consciousness, an image should not be to general, but always linked in a given historical situation. If not, the effectiveness in trying to raise a moral conscious or bring about change becomes lower. 'Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one, and can help build a nascent one.' That's why documentary photographers need good captions, or give an explanation about the context in which an image was taken, in order to have effect. Sontag adds to that that there needs to be a certain relevant political consciousness to let viewers be morally effected by photographs. Creating a shock effect by showing suffering is not sufficient. The ethical content of photography is fragile. 'In these last decades "concerned" photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it. 

Personal thoughts after reading:

1. How do I feel when I take images? Am I looking for a moment to disconnect from reality? I guess that's how it started and maybe also what I enjoy very much about photography. My first years in photography were definitely an escape from my busy family life and a way to focus on an other world. 

2. How do I stream the aggressiveness that comes from my images? Am I bold enough to follow my own vision, or am I too apologetic so that I won't take the image that I would?

3. If I want to explore documentary photography in Senegal, how can I be sensitive to the moral response of the viewers?

4. How do I want my photographic cave to look like and be influenced by?