Category Archives: Research and Reflection

Assignment 4 – A coda

At the end of my second walk taking photographs for this assignment (down from Ladbroke Grove and through the Avondale conservation area) I noticed a laminated notice cable-tied to the railings of the western-most spur of maisonettes that fan out south from the base of Grenfell Tower. I bent down and read it.

I hadn’t noticed the laminate during my first walk (around the tower site) and so already had a lot of photographs taken from quite close to the tower’s base with a long lens. They showed damage to the tower in considerable detail. I had also taken pictures which showed how the remaining members of the community were both memorialising the fire and it victims while trying to gain some control over the narrative of the fire in preparation for the upcoming enquiry.

At the end of that first walk, as I was waiting to get the tube at Latimer Road station (one of the stations where the platforms are on the surface) I saw the tower looming over the awning on the other side of the tracks. It was quite a striking image. As I raised my camera and a woman told me sternly: ‘Some people round here don’t like people taking photographs of the tower.’ I stopped and thought. ‘Doesn’t it depend what you do with them’ I said? ‘Just saying’ said the woman, turning away while clearly putting herself in the no photographs group. I didn’t take that picture.  But I did make my second walk up over the hill and  down from Holland Park, taking photographs of the tower as I went.

At this point I could have (perhaps should have; still not sure) simply shelved the project and found something else to do for this assignment. I didn’t, so why?


This ties in almost too neatly with the opening of section two of Rosler’s In, around and afterthoughts (1981) where she reflects on the reaction by the residents of the Bowery to being photographed (‘you are likely to be met with hostility, for the men on the Bowery are not particularly interested in immortality and stardom, and they’ve had plenty of experience with the Nikon set’) and where the people can reasonably be described as ‘victims of the camera‘. This  leads on to her discussion of the fearless documentarian, risking all to bring back their despatches from the edge.

I had no interest in using my camera as a tool to make victims of the people who still live around Grenfell Tower or of seeking out survivors of the fire for inclusion here. They were already well advanced in the process of creating their own narrative(s) and memorials and these activities have fed into the enquiry and the press. They have successfully broken down the monolithic idea of ‘the dead’ into a series of portraits of individuals –  real people with lives and hopes and fears. The local community  – supported by sections of the press – are doing this without any help from me. They have a voice and they are using it at the enquiry, in the media and on the streets.

While I did not abandon what I was doing, I realised that I certainly needed to be careful in setting its scope. I already knew that what I was doing involved real, serious subject matter. While I could not untake the pictures I had already taken (I could have deleted them from my hard disks of course, but that is something I have great difficulty doing, even in the case of images which are wildly deficient in some way) I could reassess which of them I would use.

I resolved to use only pictures where there was an obvious distance between the tower and my camera. Ideally there would be some sort of object – a leafless tree, some fencing a row of terraced houses – partially occluding the view. There would be no ‘stolen’ pictures of people (going through my contact sheets, there weren’t any of those anyway). There would be no attempt to aestheticise the pictures or to awaken in the viewer their sense of the sublime. The photographs would show what the tower looked like from outside its immediate area. They would only be there to contrast with the statements from the planning documents. They would not draw attention to me, the photographer.


I think the key thing here is not whether you take photographs  but rather what sort of pictures you do take and what you do with them afterwards. Don’t take selfies with the tower in the background. Don’t stick the pictures up on Facebook or Instagram as if you had just come back from holiday or had a nice meal. Have a clear idea why you are taking photographs in the first place. Remember that getting involved with real events is a political action before it is an artistic one.

(I am, of course, also aware of the irony that this post is in part ‘about me’ and how – while I did not take physical risks in making this work – I have potentially placed myself in a place of moral and ethical hazard. Such is my bravery. Such is my burning need to show you the truth.)

I don’t think the act of taking photographs is automatically hurtful (or for that matter automatically beneficial either). While I made most of the pictures for this assignment with my D610, I don’t aspire to be part of Rosler’s ‘Nikon set.’

I don’t think my assignment is disrespectful either to the dead or to the living. It expresses a truth, but that of course is only a partial truth. There is plenty in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea planning documents which is not concerned with the visual impact of the refurbished tower. If there is a problem with all this, and my response to it, it can be found somewhere in the certainty with which I seized upon the gap between some words and their visual  contradiction as being suitable raw material for what is simply an assignment making up part of a course…

 

 

 

 

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A quick note about what’s going on here….

I have finished working through the exercises from The Art of Photography, but have not managed to write all of them up into post-able combinations of pictures and prose. Similarly there are exhibitions I have been to and books I have read that have generated drafts which still need some work. I’m not going to start Context and Narrative for a couple of weeks (it’s always good to have a breather; I don’t think I could do two courses simultaneously either). And lastly, I need to do some basic neatening to get everything ready to be submitted in September for the November Assessment Event.

So, the next few posts here will mostly consist of exercises and reviews, well out of sequence (either in course terms or in terms of when I did something.

I need to work out how to display (and navigate) the material in a better sequence than the simple chronological by posting date one that wordpress defaults to, and I suspect it has to do with Pages. Let’s see…

a reaction to robert adams’ why people photograph

Orkney – 1967

 I’m not concerning myself here with the review section (Examples of Success) in the middle of the book (covering – amongst others – Atget, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Dorothea Lange in short reviews of books, or parts of introductions to books or exhibition catlaogues) but instead looking at the opening section (What Can Help) which looks at the things that can keep photographers going. I’ve also had a good read of the final section (Working Conditions)and its couple of longer pieces, but think I’ll save my thoughts on them for later.

So, a few words about what I can deduce from the book’s contents about Robert Adams…

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Tate Modern – Conflict. Time. Photography

I went to see this twice when it was on . I think generally it was very good, but at the same time have needed quite a bit of time to let the ideas settle in my mind into some sort of writeable-about-thing. The exhibition was arranged according to the elapsed time since a wartime event  took place, with the early rooms containing pictures that took place seconds or minutes after an action working up to the final rooms which were distanced from the action by a century or so. I suspect this applies not only to photography focused on war but to anything photographic that is dealing with the past.

What follows are my distilled thoughts, three months after… Continue reading

Assignment 4 – further reading; stems, weeds and studies

In the tutor’s  feedback for assignment 4, I was pointed in the direction of Lee Friedlander’s Stems and also to a wider list of other photographers’ work dealing with the flowers and the way you can light them, in a variety of ways. I was aware of some them already, others were completely new to me.

Two modern Americans, with contrasting approaches to flower pictures:

Friedlander’s Stems: I’ve known about Friedlander for a while now and have the catalogue from the 2008 MOMA retrospective. While the catalogue contains a number of the Stems pictures, I hadn’t consciously spent time looking at them, paying more attention to the exterior shots earlier on in the book (and Friedlanders chronology). However the similarities between 2 and 5 in my set and the pictures here, suggest that – at some level at least – they had penetrated my consciousness.

They don’t deal with the flower heads, but instead play with the transparency of glass vases, the distortion created by water and the structure and shape of a bunch of stems and leaves. They take something commonly regarded as an aesthetic cliche (flowers) and then ignore the obvious to find further ideas of beauty in the bits that most people pass over. This oblique view of the subject is further emphasised by being in black and white, removing colour from the equation as well. It’s not for nothing that the Russian for “flowers” is the same as the word for “colours” and its absence turns the subject into something else entirely.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Flowers Portfolio (1978 – 1989): In contrast these seem very classical in their concentration on individual named types of bloom, either in black and white or colour. They are crisp enough to be  scientific illustrations, and  – unlike Friedlander’s pictures – are titled according to the flower name. I really like the contrast between the flatness of the backgrounds and the heightened form of the foregrounded flower heads. Orchids, 1989 (one of the coloured pictures) could almost be a watercolour; Poppy, 1988 captures beautifully the hairy texture of the flowers’ stems, the red of the petals again seems exact. Lovely!

3 photographers producing images that could be described as typographic:

Charles Jones (c. 1900 and rediscovered in 1981): Peas, Carrots, Sprouts, Roses, Marrows, more Roses, more Peas, Strawberries; all set out like illustrations in a seed catalogue. All slightly rougher and less perfect than the fruit and veg you get in a supermarket. The text with the pictures linked above describes them as “portraits” and, like with portraits, there are things that give them away as products of a particular time; for example, the variations of grey that depict the red of the strawberries or the green of the pea pods seem slightly “off” in a way that presumably comes from the non-panchromatic way the chemistry of Jones’ plates reproduced colours as greys.

Karl Blossfeld’s Urformen der Kunst (1928): ‘Urformen’ translates from German as ‘Archetypes’ and these pictures seem very much an attempt to set down the underlying structure of the plants photographed by Blossfeld in a way that relates them directly to elements of design used by humans for either aesthetic or engineering purposes. There is no drama in the uncontrasty lighting here; no strong shadows and no dazzling highlights.

My favourite of the three linked above is Laserpitium Siler, (Laserwort, Part of a Fruit Umbel) with the starry umbels illuminated with their supports darker and in soft focus behind, reminding me of the yellow stars painted on the mid blue ceilings of the tombs in the valley of the kings.

Garry Fabian Miller: I looked at his pictures of Honesty Seed Pods and Bramble Crosses. If I hadn’t read the text, I wouldn’t have picked up on the religious subtext that surrounds these images (although ‘Crosses’ in the title of pictures made at Easter, should have alerted me, I think) leaving me to think about the way they work with repetition of form and variations of colour within depictions of the same thing. Unlike the pictures by Jones and Blossfeld, I don’t see anything that places them in time but – given that they were all made within the last 10 years – the time-specific signifiers probably haven’t started to become obvious yet…

All three sets of pictures looked at here take the plants and flowers pictured out of any sort of historical context, presenting them instead as exemplars of their type, showing details of structure in a scientific, detached way. It is possible to date the pictures however and to place them within the development of photography from technical characteristics of the prints such as the way colours are reproduced (or converted to greys); Jones’ pictures of vegetables or flowers could probably be placed within the context of the cultivation of different types by market gardeners too – they’re not as much a give away of a subjects location within time as clothes on photographs of people would be, but to my relatively ignorant eye, his carrots and marrow don’t look like their 21st century equivalent…

3 photographers whose pictures of flowers seem more concerned with the conditions where the flowers grow than with the flowers per se:

Chris Shaw – Weeds of Wallasey (2007-2012): Purposefully rough pictures printed in a messy high contrast style (“creating an aesthetic of bad printing” is the way Shaw puts it  in the video made by Tate Britain to tie in with a show that paired him with Daido Morayama). Centred, foreground objects are overlit by explosions of flash; the edge beyond  the exposed area of the film is left in; there are stains and imperfections everywhere; and there are also hand-written humorous titles (I particularly like “The Haywain” where you struggle to link the view of a bus stop with one pane of glass shattered into a drift of ice, in front of a box bridge receding into a fog that is either real or a flaw in the exposure of the print with the picture by Constable, but somehow still end up accepting them both as encapsulations of a certain type of ‘England’). Shaw has written that “Weeds are us” which I take to mean that we are the things that spring up between the cracks in the post-industrial world. As someone with two grandfathers who made a living from ships and the Mersey and who grew up in a house called Bidston, I feel a connection with this series, even if my father managed to think his way out of that particular ghetto.

I’d already linked his pictures with Morayama, before I saw the Tate video by the way; I’m not sure why I feel the need to type that, but for some reason (and I suspect my smartarse motives here) I do…

David Axelbank’s  Still Life:  harsh, high contrast single flash, outdoors at night, giving extremely vivid, coloured flowers against an inky black background. They’re not unlike Terry Richardson’s fashion stuff in their harshness, or possibly even surveillance pictures; I found myself thinking of the Japanese bloke who took pictures of people having sex in parks in Tokyo or Weegee taking photographs of couples on the beach at Coney Island or snogging in the pictures. Some of them (the ones of round puffy blue flowers, say) could be taken deep underwater or of tiny things viewed through a microscope; they are photos taken somewhere we don’t belong (night) and of things that we don’t normally see.

Julian Anderson, Cinder Path (2009): 6 centrally placed flowers lit within a square frame with a sense of the much darker surroundings not enclosed within the depth of field. Another set that dares to be ugly, eschewing conventional ideas of “prettiness”.

Where the typography pictures aspire to some sort of perfect reproduction of their subject, these images all revel in their imperfections; smudges greyness, text from outside the boundaries of the frame. The making of the pictures and the photographer making them is as important here as the subjects; the flowers provide a pretext for photography, standing in for something larger, odder, more significant perhaps.

If the typographies have more in common with the Mapplethorpe pictures, these all share something with the tensions between order and chaos between the conventional and the individual in Friedlanders’ Stems. It’s also, I think significant that the type of plant is not of significance here; rather the place or the time when they were taken seems to be of greater significance. We have moved from depiction to an interpretable meaning here…

So, how do I relate these to the pictures I made for assignment 4? Some relate directly – Stems match up with Fig, 2 and Fig. 5; I can see a link between Axelrod’s flowers at night and the last of my pictures where everything is made strange by the mixed light from dawn outside and the interior tungsten filtered flash; the second texture picture (Fig. 6) fits in with both the typographies and with Mapplethorpe’s pictures. All of mine could be pushed further I think, but that wasn’t what I was asked to do; I was trying to play with lighting.

References (all accessed 06-vi-15):

A quick note – Margate, Trish Morrissey + A Sotherby’s Freak-Out*

Margate, looking South West, 13:00, 17th March 2015

Margate, Kent; looking South West, 13:00, 17th March 2015

It was my birthday yesterday, and to celebrate it, we drove down to Margate, because I’d never been there and because it’s on a corner. The weather was warm with the first hints of spring, so we sat outside and ate fish and chips for lunch and then had a beer at the pub on the pier. There was a slight mist which diffused the light spilling across the beach from the south west and caused everything to gradually dissolve into the distance. You could see where Turner (a onetime resident of the town) got it from…

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