At first glance this assignment should be pretty straightforward; produce 12 photographs in the style of an established photographer about whom I have already performed detailed researched. However, applying the word “style” to the complete oeuvre of an established photographer is not a simple task. Over a career exceeding 30 years Andreas Gursky’s style has evolved, he has experimented with techniques, explored concepts, and occasionally changed direction. His current style, that for which he is understandably famous, is one of complex multi-layered composite images, containing dramatic contrast in both shadow and colour. This is quite different to the work he did shortly after graduating from the Düsseldorf art academy, the Pfötner and studies of suburban 1980’s Germany. Even considering his more recent work; without knowing that the photograph was a Gursky, would one naturally associate “Rhein II” with “Bergwerk Ost”, a highly stylistic flat landscape with a deep shadowy image of miners clothing?. Both images share many attributes in their size, construction, and reference to modernist abstract art, but at the same time offer a very different visual experience.
Prior to even synthesizing a definition of Gursky’s style, a more basic question must be answered; what does it mean to produce work in the style of? Where is my style in this equation? To what degree should I balance my own aesthetic to that of my chosen “style guru”? At a very early stage in the development of this assignment I realized that I could not and should not attempt to imitate the work of Gursky. So what was I to do, I was becoming concerned that I had bitten off far more than I could chew in my selection of Gursky for my essay.
My eventual answer lay in consideration of my own style rather than that of Gursky. I took a step back and looked at my recent work and how this has evolved during the past 2 years. I realized that a number of key elements from the manner in which Gursky constructed his images were beginning to unconsciously appear in my own photography.
Taking these elements and combining them with what I have learned from my conscious exploration of Gursky’s work, I have identified the following aspects of his style or approach that I want to bring to my own work:
· Ensuring that the subject fills the frame, even completely spanning the image space
· Making the frame a strong element in the definition of the photograph
· Imposing a very clearly defined rectilinear geometry to the photograph
· Creating a very distinct image plane that will contain the subject matter
· Controlling colour in a very precise and strongly delineated manner
The realization was not to imitate Gursky’s style, but to channel elements of his image construction into my own work. My task was to produce a set of photographs that were distinctly my own work, but at the same time infused with learning from my study of Andreas Gursky.
Having decided on a philosophical approach to this assignment, subject matter became the next question. I needed to continue my study of the city landscape, but this time get closer. So far I have dealt with monuments, places of worship, and park land, in essence formal public spaces shared by the citizens of the city. Now I needed to do something more intimate. My first thought was to study heavily used spaces, environments in which I could even imitate Gursky’s multi-layered composite image building. Initial experiments with this technique were disappointing and not really me, so something new was needed.
An accident led to subject selection. Our cat, Doro, managed to get herself lost; 3 days before our annual vacation to Borneo. We searched high and low, executed a poster campaign, even delayed departure by 3 days, but no sign. With very heavy hearts we eventually accepted the inevitable and drove to Frankfurt to stay a night before catching the 12 hour flight to Malaysia. That morning 3 hours before the flight departed she sauntered back into our house, very hungry, but otherwise fine. The SMS from our cat sitting next door neighbour led to a very happy and ultimately boozy journey.
Looking for a tiny ginger cat led me into an ever expanding circle of exploration and a very detailed awareness of the local landscape. We live in the city grid in an area dominated by apartment blocks. Outwardly these apartment blocks look bland and faceless but within each there is an interior space of great variety and contrast. In German these spaces are called “Innenhof”, inner courtyards. Ideal places for a small cat to hide in; they are very private spaces normally only experienced by people who live locally. They provide space for parking, playgrounds for the kids, areas to relax in the sun, somewhere to hang the washing, and in the summer a safe spot to light the barbeque.
On returning from vacation I set out to create a photographic study of the Innenhof’s in my immediate neighbourhood. This required a considerable amount of exploration and also discretion, these are shared but at the same time private spaces. I resolved to pretend to be looking for a new apartment if challenged, using my camera to record the area for later reflection when choosing my new home. I did not set any limit on distance; however, I was able to complete the study to my satisfaction traveling no further than a quarter mile from where I live. The number of possible spaces to explore essentially grew with the square of my distance from home. In all I probably explored around 40-50 different Innenhof.
The spaces I discovered varied dramatically, each reflecting the lives and wealth of the people living in the surrounding buildings. Some spaces were virtually derelict, others pristinely groomed. On the whole they reflected the orderliness that Germans are justifiably stereotyped with. What also became clear was that these were transient places, I found many under redevelopment, and during shooting one local space was completely demolished, my photo now becoming a record of a lost landscape.
The greatest challenge with this assignment was my need to respect the privacy of the residents of the places I was photographing. The subject matter, buildings and gardens, would have ideally suited my Canon DSLR coupled with a wide angle tilt-shift lens, all mounted on a sturdy tripod. This would also have attracted immediate attention and most likely led to some uncomfortable discussions about what I was doing and why. Germany is truly a difficult place in which to work on public photography projects. I opted, instead, to use a small handheld fixed lens compact camera, a Fujifilm X100, a very nice Christmas present from my wife. The fixed 35mm viewpoint of the lens worked very well for this subject. It enabled me to create the frame edge to frame edge aesthetic I wanted and the high ISO abilities of the sensor meant I could work handheld in poor light.
Technically I had to contend with two principal problems, light and architecture. Inside the courtyards I was working at the foot of 5 or 6 story buildings, on sunny days the contrast between sunlit areas and shadows completely obscured the detail of what I was trying to capture. Subsequently I could only shoot when the sky was overcast, limiting the number of days on which I could work. Fortunately, my choice of a local subject meant that I could rapidly react to good light and run out with my camera.
The second problem, architecture, required care both when taking the images and in post processing. If I had been able to use my DSLR I could have emulated Gursky’s very precise large format camera framing approach, ensuring that verticals remained vertical and parallel lines did not converge unless I wanted them to. With a handheld camera I did not have this precision, but still had to be very conscious of my position relative to the building and of not tilting the camera up or down. An Innenhof is dominated by straight lines, any perspective error would be immediately visible in the final print. The hardest problem was ensuring that I maintained the image sensor plane exactly parallel to the wall of the building facing the camera. At time of shooting converging vertical lines are quite easy to see, horizontal ones are a much greater challenge. With care I was able to limit the amount of work needed in post processing and keep any perspective adjustments within limits consistent with not badly degrading image quality.
As I write this I am currently in the bay area, South of San Francisco, on an extended business trip. I have a camera with me, but so far have struggled to take any photographs. All around me is the sprawling US suburban landscape, so redolent of Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, or Robert Adams. This is something I have dreamed of photographing many times, walking in the photographic footsteps of people I greatly admire. The problem is that I have no connection to it; I have no relationship with what I am seeing. The landscape appears as a random kaleidoscope of picture potential, but with no connections.
I realize is that my photographs are not individual standalone expressions of art; they are always part of extended studies. I can no longer simply take a photograph or even admire a single photograph; I want to see a book, a series, a set of images that exist with context and narrative. Frequently I reject a photo, individually more pleasing/impressive/structured/meaningful (pick an adjective) than the others in my submissions, because it is not part of the story or does not align graphically with the others in the set. During my studies for this course I have developed a strong sense of the relationships that exists within series’ of photographs.
This is the single most important thing I have learned so far and I believe it has taken me to a new place in the creation and contemplation of photographs.