Influence as Context – Evans, Frank, Shore, Ohtake, Graham and me…

For further reading after assignment 1, my tutor suggested that  – among other things – I should read Tod Papageorge’s essay on the way Robert Frank had been influenced by his friendship Walker Evans and by Evans’ book American Photographs. The content of Papageorge’s essay did not directly appear to feed into the work I did in part two, but then, as part of the work leading up to Assignment 3, I kept a diary, which included sequences of everyday photographs taken as I wandered through my life, seeing things. While the most obvious influence on this work was Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces (I was working with a compact, portable camera, often using flash and generally the pictures were taken while I was on the move) the range of photographic reference points was not limited to Shore’s work. The photographs illustrating this post, I hope, demonstrate this. 


Following the link given to me by Garry, I found the essay online, read it and was immediately engaged. I own both of the books compared in the essay – Frank’s The Americans and Evans’ American Photographs – but, while I have always found it easy to admire Evans’ book, I had found The Americans to be a lot more opaque. After reading this – particularly the  section contrasting the two photographers’ techniques – I found that not only could I see things in The Americans that I hadn’t even been aware of (to my shame, I’d never noticed that the bus on the cover was ‘about’ racial segregation  in the 1950s US South, for example) but I could also see how Frank’s movement – the characteristic ‘gesture that he made as he framed his pictures ‘ (Papageorge p.68) could be traced through into the pictures themselves (like Pollock’s gestures while dripping paint, making Frank very much part of his times, in the same way that Evans’ pre-war work makes total sense in the context of High-Modernism) as he turned, raising his camera, pressing the shutter without quite stopping and was off, like a proto-Winogrand. Or indeed a proto-Papageorge, but that’s another story of influence and one I don’t have time to dwell on here…

Papageorge’s essay has two main strands: the first deals with the way Evans encouraged and helped Frank in his build up to the road-trip when he took the pictures, while also providing a set of things to photograph through the example of American Photographs. Underlying this part is the fairly incredible – to someone interested in the photographic canon in 2017 at any rate – relative neglect of Evans’ work between 1950 and 1980. Now he has reached a position where I can refer to him as “The Photographic Beethoven” without anyone batting an eyelid; in the fifties, sixties and seventies it would appear he was virtually unknown (at least in part through being eclipsed by his protege Frank.) Papageorge, seems from his essay to feel that Frank was the more exciting and – to him – influential photographer; although he was able to see the merits in Evans, he was less moved by his pictures.

But of course, Papageorge was writing in the early eighties, and was working within the part of the American photographic tradition that had taken Frank’s book as its starting point. The Americans was relatively recent; Gary Winogrand was still pounding the streets with his Leica and Papageorge and Joel Meyerowicz trailing in his wake; colour and view cameras (and post modernism) were only just beginning to intrude into the world of art photography.

But from my viewpoint in time – thirty-five years after the essay was written, sixty years since the Grove edition of The Americans and eighty years since American Photographs was on at Moma – it is Frank who seems more dated, with his small camera, black and white, grainy shots of people who look, well, old-fashioned. Evans on the other hand with his formal compositions made (mostly) with a large format camera could almost be working today, a perception that is probably helped by the relative absence of people in the pictures contained in American Photographs. There are plenty of people there in part one when you look, but the two titles make it plain that where Frank was interested in the citizens who made up the body of the American people, Evans was trying to picture something much more abstract: American-ness perhaps, in the same way that Barthes talks of Italianicity in his essay, Rhetoric of the Image.

The main thing I got out of the essay though was a sense of how photographic paradigms work by people building on and expanding the range of subjects that have been incorporated into earlier photographers’ work on similar themes as well as adapting their formal approaches to what it is they are photographing.

This is also the central idea in Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment,  where themes and items – hats, barbers’ shops, blind accordionists, hands etc – pass through the history of photography like the baton in a relay race,  but here the writer is himself a photographer – while both Dyer and Barthes (like Susan Sontag as well) stress that they do not take photographs – and this process of being influenced by, and adding to those influences yourself, is turned into a practical as well as critical journey.

At the heart of On Influence, there is the comparison of the way the two men had worked as they took their pictures and also the direct comparison between pairs of pictures present in both books – gas stations, public statuary, barbers’ shops – but as well as this paradigmatic rhyming between Frank and Evans, there is also a syntagmic level that this process of influence works on, in the way that the format of the pictures’ presentation can be borrowed and expanded as much as the area of their subject matter. Also operating in this way is the organising principle of moving through a country – “the road trip.” – While this is mostly latent in Evans’ book, it is at the heart of Frank’s and is a feature of much of the anchoring text in both of them: place names  – Alabama; Butte, Montana; Hoboken; Florida; New York State – tie the pictures to places as the photographers move through the country they are examining.

As well as making me think about the work of Evans and Frank I started thinking about other photographers whose work had appealed to me as soon as I set eyes upon it and also the way that their approaches and subject matter had filtered into photographs I was taking. I had bought the book that contained Papageorge’s essay alongside other critical pieces he had written and it went with me on the various work trips I made while I was keeping a diary as part of the third C&N assignment.

So, while my starting point was Stephen Shore’s stream of visual consciousness that had made up American Surfaces, I was thinking quite consciously in terms of “that’s a (insert name)” and “that’s a (insert other name)” as I worked with subject matter and style cribbed from a number of photographers – including Franks and Evans –  who had made significant bodies of work while on the move.

The remainder of this post will look at this a bit more closely.


Papageorge’s essay identifies Evan’s style in the thirties as being characterised by a dispassionate plainness, often creating arrangements which only just escape being essays in geometry. While I have not always been aware of Evans’ work per se, I have  enjoyed this process of compressing views into two dimensions for pretty much as long as i have used a camera. As a result there are a lot of Evans-influenced pictures in my diary streams:

After Walker Evans

I suspect that – while growing up in the seventies and eighties – I absorbed many of the ideas of modernist photography without really having to think about them at any conscious level. Buying books from the Time Life Library of Photography from remaindered books shops; an interest in 20th century history lead me to the FSA’s work in America and Rodchenko in the Soviet Union; reading colour supplements and being exposed to advertising – there was a lot of modernist photography simply ‘there’ in the culture.

And then, as I became more consciously aware of the photographic canon over the last decade or so, I noticed that Walker Evans was one of the people who could relied upon to turn up in big retrospective photography shows at the Tate or the Barbican. Labor Anonymous and his covert pictures of people on the New York subway both caught my imagination at the exhibition Exposed in 2010.  At the same exhibition, I was also hugely taken by Sophie Calle’s Venetian hotel room pictures, making my tutor’s suggestion that I look at them as part of his feedback on my prep for Assignment 3 feel surprisingly on the nose – indeed I tried to do something with the idea of creating a picture of myself from the detritus in my hotel room on the next trip, but it didn’t quite come off, probably as a result of my becoming too self conscious and somehow unable to create a semi-fictional, parallel, third-person me to go alongside the first-person one holding the camera.

But I do spend a lot of time on public transport; I have taken a lot of pictures of my fellow travellers, though never going as far as to hide what I am doing. And I know that this means that, even if there are parallels, I am doing something different from Evans in more ways  – the gaze of my subjects into my lens is open to many interpretations for example –  than simply the use of colour.

Also after Walker Evans

Papageorge catches several recurring things in The Americans, where Frank moves beyond the work Evans was doing fifteen to twenty years earlier. As well as “signature gesture” discussed earlier (and Papageorge is very good on the physical actions of photography: in the same essay he runs through the likely process used by Evans when he was working and the collected essays in the book I went on to buy (Aperture, 2011) includes an essay on Atget with a super passage painting a word-picture of Atget flitting through a park with his view camera over his shoulder and then setting up and framing one of his late pictures from the 1920s) he identifies a tendency to static groups of people waiting or  – if they are walking – moving away from, or towards, Frank’s camera and a less detached relationship between Frank and the people in his pictures which – with his outsider’s viewpoint on America –  combined to produce a sense of general social criticism rooted in the specifics of the country, rather than the universalism of the prevalent take on photography, exemplified by MOMA’s (1955 – the year Frank started work on the pictures that would become The Americans –  and then touring internationally) exhibition, The Family of Man.

Frank’s pictures don’t skip over the differences between people or between the official and the unofficial view. There are also the pictures of flags – lots of flags – and the view out of Frank’s hotel room in Butte, Montana (p. in the Americans). I tried to feed all this into my diary pictures too, attempting to get in amongst the flow of the city more and also – a direct lift from Frank’s paradigm – adding a daily first view from the window of wherever it was that I found myself.

 

After Robert Frank

Frank’s 1955 extended road trip to take the pictures in The Americans is one of the journeys covered in David Campany’s book The Open Road. On p. 27, Campany states: “The Americans was definitive and inimitable, but in its perfection it signalled that if more were to be said […] other directions would have to be taken.” And this is where Stephen Shore and American Surfaces comes in and I move beyond the scope of the original Papageorge essay.

I had become aware of Shore after reading The Nature of Photographs during my previous OCA module and worked then worked back from his book of pictures taken with a large format camera (Uncommon Places first published as a book in 1982) to the earlier American Surfaces (trips undertaken in 1972-3, first published in 2004) . This became the touchstone for my diary project.

Shore was using a simple 35mm camera, often using its fixed flash; unlike Frank –  quoted in the notes to Papageorge’s essay (2011 p. 75) as saying “If the photographer wants to be an artist, his thoughts cannot be developed overnight at the corner drugstore” –  he trusted the corner drugstore to develop and print his pictures.

For several years, I had carried an Olympus XA with me pretty much everywhere and used it to take pictures on trips for work. I looked it out again and put a battery in the bolt-on flash. It started coming with me on trips to Glasgow and – for work – overseas again. It seemed important to move away, at least for a bit, to a camera where I couldn’t chimp each picture to make sure I’d got it; it also mattered that I would be able to get the pictures processed and printed in Snappy Snaps and to accept them as they came – slightly cropped and with that high contrast, quite saturated look that commercial labs’ machines apply as default.

Shore was able to trace his influence back to Evans:

“I remember thinking that it’s important to put cars in photographs because they are like time seeds. And I learned this from looking at Evans”

– Stephen Shore, interview by Noah Sheldon

And I found it useful to use Shore’s idea from the heart of American Surfaces as a jumping off point for my diary streams:

“I wanted to be visually aware as I went through the day. I started photographing everyone I met, every meal, every toilet, every bed I slept in, the streets I walked on, the towns I visited. Then when the trip was over, I just continued it.”

– Shore, quoted in Bob Nickas’ Introduction to American Surfaces (p.9)

This accumulation of detail from the day, I found relatively easy; adding in people was harder, but I forced myself  to take pictures of – if not everyone I met – at least a goodly number of them.


After Stephen Shore

 


 

A few days after my return from that first trip to Moscow, I got along to see Strange and Familiar  – an exhibition of pictures taken by foreign photographers, working in Britain from the thirties onwards – at the Barbican . Towards the end of my journey through the exhibition space – Shinro Ohtake’s pictures on display there were instantly recognisable as the next step in this trail (road?) of pictures that were feeding into my ongoing project stretching back to the 1920s. The catalogue summarised them neatly as:

“Rather than recording scenes or events, the images zoom in on details of the city’s landscape that are rendered interesting first and foremost as they are seen through Ohtake’s unfamiliar eyes. […] An occasional glimpse of the photographer himself as a reflection in an Underground mirror or a window, or even as a shadow on a wall reminds us of his presence.”

– Pardo and Parr (p.190).

Unlike Shore, Ohtake was using a “serious” camera (a Nikon F) and was prepared to shoot portrait format as well as landscape. There also were recurrent shots individuals walking away from the camera…


After Shinro Ohtake

His room in the Barbican gallery included excerpts from scrapbooks of stuff gather during his time in S.E. England. I am by nature a hoarder, I think, and generally come home from trips with pockets full of ticket stubs, boarding passes, hotel pens, beer mats and endless other mementos of my trip; when I have traveled for work I also have all the receipts I need to claim expenses. I don’t have space to keep all these, let alone make physical scrapbooks, but perhaps some post-trip recording of these artifacts could take place. I could make compilation prints – similar to those of the pill strips from assignment 2 – assembled from pictures of the stuff from my pockets. And then, I could throw it all out!

Evans, Frank and Shore were working in America; Shore and Evans were American, while Frank seems to have been slotted neatly into “American Photography” despite being Swiss; Ohtake and the others shown as part of Strange and Familiar were offering a foreign view of the UK. The Ongoing Moment does not really deal with British photography (although the cover images are by a British Photographer  – Michael Ormarod – whose main work was made in America and who fitted within the American tradition, Michael Ormarod) and I realise that  – until very recently at least – far more of my photographic references have been drawn from the line established by Szarkowski and others working as curators and critics in the US rather than from Europe or the UK (or the rest of the world for that matter). The result is that – whenever I have been in the US – I have found it hard to get past seeing things that are at best quotes of earlier people’s work.

And while I can trace several lines through photography in the US, there are massive gaps when I try to do this for Britain. Bill Brandt is cited as being a (more minor than Evans) influence on Frank, and I liked Frank’s pictures at the Barbican. The Conceptual Art exhibition at the Tate was packed with photographs by British Artists and gave impetus to my idea for Assignment 3 proper, but it was much harder to find inputs to my travel diaries closer to home.

Martin Parr doesn’t really do it for me in this context, but another of the photographers we were pointed at in Part 1 (Colour and the Street, p.32 in the Coursebook) was perfect. I’d bought Paul Graham’s Hasselblad Award book from the bookshop at the Photographer’s Gallery and both the bodies of work featured in it were relevant here: A1: The Great North Road (1983) has obvious connections to Shore’s Uncommon Places (large format, colour, photographs of vernacular England and has the cool sense of distance that  I like in Evans’ work from the 30s); his series of books, A Shimmer of Possibility  (2007) adds new elements to the syntagm of organising street shots in a way that moves them away from the singular decisive moments associated with Winogrand and others and turns them into quiet sequences using a single location as a stage, framing something that happens there – a man smoking a cigarette, pedestrians moving across a road crossing, a man mowing some grass during a sudden shower of rain and so on. In the chapter

I am much less likely to take a single picture of something (or somewhere) if I am using a digital camera. Rather than pushing the button and moving on, the blip of taken image in the eyepiece of my Fujifilm X100 as often as not will trigger another go, and then another. Sometimes this will lead to a sequence of pictures that never really get better than the first one. These are mainly pictures of static things – a detail or a static composition – and I am trying to stop making these. Others though lead to interesting variations on a theme as some unfixed element in the picture changes as I work. The first of my diary sequences (getting a visa to go to Moscow) as taken before I’d found and loaded my XA; looking through the pictures, I was able to identify at least one possible sequence for this treatment:

 


After Paul Graham

On the last afternoon of my final trip to Moscow I was descending on one of the long escalators into the metro when I was struck by the way small groups of people, or couples, or individuals stood out as they passed by on the up escalator opposite. Quiet, everyday dramas were being acted out all around me and short sequences of pictures focussing on one of them as it approached, passed and then slipped away could possibly capture this.  I didn’t have time to explore this further (and the fixed 35mm lens on my camera and the 400 asa film in it wasn’t really up to taking useable pictures in the location) but I’m sure I’ll make another trip to Moscow at some point, and be able to play with this idea further.

Also I could try to identify some places in London where the characteristic dramas of the place are acted out in public, although it becomes easier if you go to places that are unfamiliar to you, I think. For years I struggled to see subject matter in London, but was fascinated by what I found in the streets of Moscow, Miami, Kiev, Skopje, Belgrade, Sao Paulo and others. I felt more at home taking pictures when I was away from home. Perhaps the possibility that I would never again be in a position to take a particular picture made me less likely to wait until the light was better or I had a different camera with me, or the season suited the place more and so lose it forever.

But events can render the familiar unfamiliar: I had a postal vote in the EU Referendum last year as I was in Moscow for the second of my three trips last year (this was when I took the four “after Shinro Ohtake” pictures). I flew back on the 23rd of June, landing just after the polls shut.  When I woke the next morning, remain had lost (but not in London, or in Scotland – the two bits of the country with which I am most familiar) and somehow, everything was strange and different. It still is.

I suspect that this – along with the earlier Independence Referendum in Scotland (and its likely rerun in the near future) – has somehow changed the way I view my place in the UK and the world and as such will affect my photography. We shall see.

On a more positive note, Graham’s a shimmer of possibility is described in the Photography Tomorrow chapter of Durden (p.444): “The photographs reflect a clear excitement with the pictorial possibilities of things seen in the world, a return to something basic and primary in the act of photography […] The pictures are full of surprises, a sense of wonderment with things in the world…”

I I think I can see a way forward through all this…

 


Picture Sources:

  • Walker Evans – American Photographs (Tate, 2013)
  • Robert Frank (with an introduction by Jack Kerouac)  – The Americans (Steidl, 2008)
  • Paul Graham The Hasselblad Award 2012 (Mack, 2012)
  • Stephen Shore – American Surfaces (Phaidon, 2005)
  • Alona Pardo and Martin Parr (eds) – Strange and Familiar; Britain as Revealed by International Photographers (Prestel Verlag/Barbican 2016)
  • Stephen Shore – Uncommon Places (Phaidon, 2014)
  • Shinro Ohtake – UK77: Digging My Way to London (Tankobon Hardcover, 2004)

 


Critical Sources:

  • David Campany – The Open Road (Aperture Foundation, 2014)
  • Mark Durden – Photography Today (Phaidon, 2014)
  • Geoff Dyer – The Ongoing Moment (Abacus, 2006)
  • Tod Papageorge – Walker Evans and Robert Frank: An Essay on Influence  (1981) collected in Core Curriculum, Writings on Photography by Tod Papageorge (Aperture, 2011)
  • Noah Sheldon – Interview with Stephen Shore on ASX: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/12/interview-stephen-shore-with-noah.html (accessed 11/03/17)
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