Friday, February 24, 2012

Looking at Photographs

As I progress through the courses one aspect of visual education that has eluded me is exposure to the everyday deliver of a newspaper. When I lived in England I was a regular subscriber to the Independent, looking forward each day to the thunk of the paper as it arrived through the letter box. Living in Germany the earliest I can get a copy of an English paper is late afternoon and that involves a trek to the main railway station. It is Sunday when this loss really hits home. My ritual was to put on a pot of coffee, walk to the newsagent for a Sunday broadsheet and arrive home to the smell of fresh coffee to spend a blissful hour or two quietly reading the paper.

The Internet has provided access to the news at least, I am able to keep myself informed about the daily happenings of my home country. But somehow this is a soulless experience too like what I do all week long, staring at a computer screen, scrolling with a mouse, and not sitting in a nice comfy chair.

So why the comment about photography? Internet websites do illustrate their news columns with photographs, but they are small and seem to lack visual impact. The result is that I rarely see photographs other than in photographic books, often away from their original context and also in a place I really have to actively go and look at. So photographs I see generally fall into four groups, art, my own work, the work of fellow students, and social images posted by friends/colleagues on networking sites. I have very limited exposure to photojournalism, social documentary, or illustrative work.

I think a result of this is that my work becomes increasingly impersonal, lacking in movement and meanings I build context through addition of a narrative, but I think struggle to impart it in a single photograph.

Recently, however, perhaps I have found a solution to these two problems in the form of an iPad based newspaper subscription. I recently bit the bullet and bought a new iPad 2, primarily to gain access to the media this device can deliver. I resisted, I nobly bought HP's doomed TouchPad, soldiered on with it for a while. It did a fine job of delivering mobile Internet and email, but the total absence of a content delivery platform such as iTunes or the new magazine subscription service on the iPad meant this was an exercise in futility.

As I write this, on my shiny new device, I am sitting on CO107 about two and a half hours out of New York. I subscribed to The Guardian iPad version to help pass the time on the flight, not expecting too much, but found that I was reading something as close to a "Paper" as I have yet experienced, without the real thing. The big surprise was the quality of presentation of the photographs, colourful, contrasts, bold, the pictures had a presence that drew me into the image in a way that no PC based web site could achieve. I also found myself looking at them as a photographer, thinking how would I do that, what could be improved, or most importantly what did that mean and could I achieve the same.

A particular photograph caught my attention because it worked in two very distinct ways. An old bent woman in black walks past an imposing yet unidentifiable building, her hand outstretched. In the foreground a blurred woman walks quickly past. At first I interpreted this as a commentary on age and youth, however, reading the caption my understanding changed. The older woman was begging, the building was a bank, and the photo was taken in Greece. A piece of street photography capturing a metaphor for a world crumbling. Looking further I then became rather fussy, the photo was clearly taken with a wide angle lens, barrel distortion was taking away the geometric cleanliness of the lines in the image. I would have corrected this. It would not change the message, however, and probably indicates my priorities still rest with the art versus the context. Perhaps it is also unethical to make such corrections to journalistic photos. I don't know.

Many other photographs caught my attention and gave rise to similar analysis. I think I have found a solution to my two problems, maybe not as I would wish, a weighty English paper dropping on my mat at 7 in the morning, but at least Ian form that is comfortable to read portable and with the ability to display beautiful photographs in manner that enables me to think about them and consider their impact on my own photographic practice.

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