Tag Archives: Photography

Gillian Wearing: Disrupting the Surface of Everyday Life

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Since the 1960s, and particularly since the advent of conceptual art, photography has played a varied role in the fine arts. Photoconceptualism, for instance, uses the photograph as a document of artistic ideas and practice rather than as something that emphasizes the virtuoso craft of photography. It draws on the shoot-from-the-hip style of certain street photography, aiming for a non-art, ‘non-authored’ look; the ideas and acts that the photograph casually represents are more significant than the quality of the photograph itself.

Photoconceptualism can be used to disrupt the surface of everyday life, revealing its undercurrents. Gillian Wearing’s Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say (1990s), is an example of this. Standing in a busy area of South London, Wearing stopped passers-by and asked them to write down what was on their mind on white sheets of cards. With their permission, she then photographed them holding their words. Wearing has written that this collaboration ‘interrupts the logic of photo-documentary and snapshot photography by the subjects’ clear collusion and engineering of their own representation.’ A broad cross-section of people participated, so the series offered a social and historical document. It referred to the economic decline in Britain in the early 1990s, one individual holding up a sheet saying, ‘Will Britain get through this recession?’ Most of the signs revealed intimate thoughts or personal convictions, though. A tattooed man held up a sign,’ I have been certified as mildly insane’, while a smartly dressed man with an ostensibly self-possessed expression had a sheet saying, ‘I’m desperate’, and a policeman held up, ‘Help’. These photographs form part of Wearing’s broader interest in the interface of public image and personal identity, and demonstrate how it is through artistic strategies and interventions, rather than through the artistry of photography, that the depths of ordinary existence can be explored.

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The Unwieldy Music of Geese…

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“…and then comes – question, is it?

Assertion, prayer, aria – as delivered

by something too compelled in its passage

to sing? A hoarse and unwieldy music

which plays nonetheless down the length

of me until I am involved in their flight,

the unyielding necessity of it, as they literally

rise above…”

Mark Doty – Migratory

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Bill Brandt: A World Fresh and Strange

Bill Brandt (1904-1983), a founding father of modernist photography and one of the ‘greats’ of British photography, believed in “the power of seeing the world as fresh and strange” and thought photographs could help people “see the world anew…as something interesting and exciting.” His images are atmospheric – a penchant was for sombre, brooding scenes, with strong tonal contrasts and dramatic formal compositions. His vision and reputation were cemented in the 1930s in London but drew on his time in Man Ray’s studio in Paris, which gave his work a psychological complexity, even latent surrealism. While his style is distinctive, he was known for the diversity of his subjects, from social class, to London in wartime, to Northern industrial towns during the depression, to portraits of British literary and artistic figures, to landscapes, to strange, sensual nudes on the Sussex coast.

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Bombed Regency Staircase (1942)

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Battersea Bridge (1930s)

Bombed Regency Staircase (1942) was part of his series photographing London during the Second World War. Although the subject is obviously bleak, Brandt brings to the staircase a startling vision and latent beauty, with its arresting contrasts of shadow and light and sweeping lines of the cast-iron banisters, which seem to twist back on themselves improbably. In Battersea Bridge (1930s), taken from a low angle, the curves of the River Thames and its shoreline have a sensual, organic quality, while the sharp distinctions in tone and bold horizontal line of the bridge with the bus add visual drama. Francis Bacon (on Primrose Hill, 1963) combines portrait and landscape, the receding diagonal of the wet path contrasting dynamically with the oddly tilted lamppost and with Bacon himself, who has a dour, introspective expression yet stands solidly against the stormy weather. There is a surreal sensibility here, the work seeming both familiar and strange, and a narrative quality – the image could be a still from a film about Bacon or one captured at a significant point in a story. These three photographs all attest to Brandt’s sophistication as an artist. “[The] viewer will sense himself in the presence of a rare concentration of thought and feeling,” observed Clive James in 1981.

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Francis Bacon (1963)

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Cobweb, a Secret Music Score…

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“And the cobweb is the secret score/ To the music we are searching for.” Hugo Williams.

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Littleness in the Bigness

A boy on a bicycle rides along a difficult path, between a corridor of tall cow parsley and other vegetation; woods rear up in the distance and a hint of storm menaces the sky. I don’t know who the boy is – it was a serendipitous snap as he just happened to pass when I was sitting a distance away. The line of an e.e. cummings poem came to me as I watched: “man plays with the bigness of his littleness”, which evokes human hubris with deceptive simplicity. The boy in this photograph, though, is the inverse of that line – he plays with his littleness in the bigness. For me, the photograph seems to be about the humility and innocence of a boy alone in the engulfing largeness of the surrounding world, a world which appears intimidating but which he negotiates through determined play. I liked the photograph best in sepia as here the foreground vegetation and background woods joined up in a continuum, and the sky took on a more perilous tone.

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Photographs Dense with Experience: Eugène Atget’s Paris.

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Misty mornings in parks, the shape of statues echoing that of nearby trees; long cobbled streets that invite the eye to wander down them; mannequins in shop windows that appear oddly animate. These are some of the 10,000 images that Eugène Atget (1857-1927) took of Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century, which are both visual documents of the city and carriers of a poetic sense of place. Atget’s photography was a quiet, personal obsession – this was long before the advent of the ‘photo-essay’ in contemporary art, in which a subject or world is photographed multiply and explored in depth. Atget didn’t even consider his work as art although his work was lauded by the Parisian avant-garde, by Man Ray who saw in his work a latent surrealist sensibility, an unexpected evocation of the unconscious life of the city; by Andre Breton who published him in Le Revolution Surrealiste and in his own books.

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Atget used old photographic equipment with very long exposures so his photographs are often devoid of people. This allows the form of the city to be clearly seen, its architecture and arched bridges, its sweep of streets and stairwells. Yet the empty city still bears a palpable, if mysterious, presence of real lives lived and so invites narratives, stirs the viewer to imagine. Atget’s images also appeal through their nostalgia. They were memory traces of a vanishing world – he worked in the old parts of Paris being bulldozed to make way for wide modern boulevards. John Szarkowski, former director of photography at MOMA in New York, believed that the way Atget blended documentation and a distinct personal vision made him the first real modernist photographer: “The pictures that he made…are seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious, and true” (from Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs).

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atget

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How do you photograph dreams?

man ray profiel and hands 1932

The advent of the avant-garde in the early 20th century had a liberating effect on many photographers. Surrealism in particular was a godsend for those frustrated by the verisimilitude of photographs, by their adherence to realism. Man Ray (1890-1976) was the driving force behind revolutionising photography in this way, turning it into a poetic means to investigate the world and the depths of the human psyche. New techniques like solarization and negative prints produced dream-like transformations that could provoke (at least at that time) a kind of psychic shock. In an interview in 1964, Man Ray observed, “The [solarization] technique allowed me to…get away from banality…to produce a photograph that would not look like a photograph.” His ambition was to photograph dreams and ideas rather than things. Using the new techniques, parts of the body – hands, faces – metamorphosize into dream-like aureoles that are alluring and strange. The lines which trace the shape of the body parts are sensual – almost erotic contours that fingers might map.

man ray  study of hands (negative solarisation) 1931

Man Ray – Study of Hands (negative solarization) 1930

man ray l'oeuf et le coquillage 1931

Man Ray – L’oeuf et le coquillage 1931

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Hands Reading Braille

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Turning the photographic eye on particular parts of the human body was a distinctively 20th-century phenomenon – perhaps a latent metaphor for the fragmentation of the modern condition itself. The hands and the eyes, which lie at the root of the photographer’s craft, have been particularly privileged within the modern ‘focus on the fragment’.

An example is Imogen Cunningham’s (1883-1976) ‘Hands Reading Braille’. The pale hands, which emerge from a diffuse blackness – evocative of the man’s blindness – sit over white braille paper. The striking composition, and contrasting shade and light, suggest it is through the man’s hands, through touch, that he is able to reach out and ‘see’ in the darkness. The details of the bodily ‘fragment’ – the skin creases, protuding veins and tidy nails – accentuate the man’s profound humanity. Altogether this feels a quiet but potent image.

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