Sunday, July 31, 2011

Assignment 1: Success and Frustration

3 day weekend, plenty of time with my camera, and then a foot injury stops everything.  I am very frustrated and running out of time to complete the assignment with the weather I need.  There are 5 weekends coming up, only 1 is free to work on the assignment.  The challenge I have is that I want to go to the Olympic Site during the weekend when the park will be full of people enjoying themselves.  An early morning trip during the week provides good light, but is not so great for shots of people lounging in the sun.  Perhaps this is not going to be for this assignment.

Am hoping the injury is minor and that I can recover quickly and get out again this week.  However, I feel as if I am closing in on the end, each trip now is yielding high quality material that works with my narrative, if anything my current problem will be trimming to 12 separate images.  During the past week I have made 2 visits to the site, each time in interesting weather.  With this blog entry I simply want to group some of the images that are working for me into a visual essay, with 32 shots this may be a few too many, but they are a record of my developing theme at this stage.

First of all I am trying to develop something that works with the legacy of the village as a place where people now make their homes.  In this I am torn between doing something very graphic, influenced by Michael Wolf or Andreas Gursky, or something more vernacular along the lines of Stephen Shore or William Eggleston.  The following 3 photos have elements of these ideas within them

I am still very much intrigued by the overhead pipes and the lead in that they provide to the photographs, here are a few new thoughts on that.  The challenge is to include them in a way that adds to the photograph and is not simply an image of pipes

A simpler problem is that of creating an introductory panorama to set the stage.  The first shot uses my 17mm to create a single shot landscape.  The second also using the 17 stitches two images together for a broader viewpoint.  I clearly prefer the second as an individual shot, the sky is dramatic and the foreground figure adds some scale, however, colour wise the first fits within my current approach.  Final choice will be influenced by the other images in the set:

From the easy to the tricky.  I want to make the hill a major thread within the image set, several shots will be taken from it, but how do I actually represent it.  The first in this sequence is a different slant on answering this problem, showing a tiny but poignant aspect of the hill.  The hill superimposes on the city out of which it is built.  Maybe...

The next two are more conventional shots that try to encompass the hill:

An important feature of all of the photographs in this set will be the presence of people, either directly or implicitly.    These 4 shots are examples of placing people as onlookers or participants, the subject is never the person, rather what they are looking at or even where they are going.

Curves, the entire area is a set of interleaving curves, here are a few visual musings:

I still have a fascination for the architecture of the site and in particular the roofs of the stadiums.  In these two I am pulled to the second by the quality of the sky, an ominous almost inky blue.

Getting underneath the canopies also creates some interesting shapes, the final image in this section being the most interesting to me, the cyclist adds scale and direction to the photograph.

To the side of the site BMW has one of their largest factories adjacent to which and within the park is the BMW museum.  The first of these shots shows the HQ taken from within the park, superimposing against the bridge.  The second two show the museum and HQ.  I feel the shot with the two girls in it is strongest, once again the presence of people is important to my concept.

Returning to the hill, here are a couple of photographs looking south away from the games site.  I am unlikely to use them, but they are truly characteristic views of Munich, making the alps look a lot closer.

Finally a couple of shots that contain some risk for me.  I want this set to portray the use of the games site 40 years on from the Olympics, both of these illustrate that element, just not sure if they will fit with the rest of the set and whether they are of high enough quality.

As I mentioned in the preamble, I have had some success with the camera and like many of the images I have shot, the problem I wrestle with is still where am I on the spectrum of bad to good for a second year photography undergraduate - never had this problem in Physics, it was obvious if I was right or wrong, whether I understood or not the material.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gallery Visit: Bernd und Hilla Becher, Bergwerke und Hütten

The second major photography exhibition in Munich this year was the Becher exhibit at the Munich City museum, a museum well worth a visit under any circumstance, the cafe is excellent and the standing exhibition always worthy of inspection.


I have blogged recently about the Bechers and their impact upon the art photography world through their students at the Dusseldorf School of Photography, so it was with considerable excitement that I finally had an opportunity to see their work in the flesh, hung on the walls of a gallery.  The exhibit featured a selection from their huge opus covering industrial buildings, this time Mines and Cabins, although the cabins in question were immense factories.

Their style is at the same time very simple and very complex.  The buildings are photographed under identical grey overcast light conditions, almost always from an elevated vantage point, using a large format camera.  Achieving such consistency is difficult, they are reputed to have spent days waiting for the correct weather conditions.  The images are very carefully composed and the quality of the prints is remarkable, the detail contained is quite astonishing, a testament to the resolving power of a large format camera.

Detailed inspection reveals very high depth of field, clearly produced by long exposures, indeed the only clear flaws in some of the images is the fact that vegetation is often blurred as any wind would create movement.  People are largely absent from their photographs, although the machines that they work in are clearly occupied.  In several of the prints peoples homes intersperse the industrial landscape, sometimes in terrifying ways, the juxtaposition of domestic normality with the mines and blast furnaces points to hard lives.  The exhibit contained over a 100 large format prints, each roughly A2 in size, framed and lit identically and arranged in orderly rows along the walls of the gallery.

Commenting on any one image is a pointless exercise, even though I would be proud to create an image close in quality to any one that was presented.  There impact is as a whole, a typography of buildings.  The relentless presentation reinforces the similarity of the structures separated sometimes by continents, this is very much a case of function driving form.  The work is designed to be seen together.

The rhythmic placement of the photographs and the lighting of the gallery was interesting in its own right, learning about placement and presentation is a useful aspect of gallery visits:

When I compare a photography exhibit to the way paintings are hung, there are very distinct differences, first of all the frames do not detract from the contents, there is much greater creativity is spacing and the lighting is far better tuned to the subject matter.  This may reflect the difference between and permanent and temporary exhibit, but I do find the treatment of photography exhibits to be more expressive.

Turning back to the content, the work of the Bechers has influenced the practice of many modern art photographers, I also sense their influence, although in my small beginnings this is more in their approach than outcome.  Their craft and technical competence enable high quality final product.  I am by nature very impatient, slowing my work down always improves my image making, the Bechers are an inspiration in the systemic approach to making photographs.

Exploring Legacy

The idea of legacy as a thread for assignment 1 is beginning to resonate strongly with me and I am considering extending it beyond the current piece of work into other aspects of the course.  I am working within a primarily urban context; the buildings and spaces I image occupy more than simply a 3 dimensional physical world, they also have a temporal existence, their history stretching backwards and potential stretching forwards in time.  In Munich this is particularly true, history permeates everything, the legacy of the past still constrains the behavior of the present.  The city has a long history, stretching back to a first mention in the records of 1158, however, it is the past 100 years that have defined it's footprint on the world, and a terrible one it has been.

To photograph in and around Munich, it is impossible to avoid the 3rd Reich and the malign influence of Adolf Hitler on the first half of the 20th century.  Small and large reminders exist in every district and neighbourhood.  To date I have avoided this as an angle within my work, not really sure how to pull it together into a coherent whole, the narrative is certainly there, however, how would I create meaningful images to support a 10-12 photograph assignment submission.  With the advent of the new PWDP course and its emphasis on publishing, I have started to revisit this idea, a series of 80 or more images could be worked together into a narrative that explores the remaining legacy of those times.  I am still unsure as to how I would develop this in my current course, so it may be necessary to park this idea for future consumption.

Poor weather has forced a break in the development of imagery for the assignment, so yesterday Heidi and I headed into town to visit the Becher exhibit (More about this later), on the way we stopped to take a look at some of the more obvious legacies of the 1930's and 40's.  We live in a district of Munich called Bogenhausen, an area renowned for an area of large houses occupied by the wealthy elite of the city, as well as plenty of flats for the less well healed such as me.  Bogenhausen has been a focus for the wealthy and powerful for some time, just around the corner from where I live is the house that Hitler purchased for Eva Braun.  More remarkable to me is that the large apartment that he called home is still standing, although now acting as a Police station.

All over Munich there are reminders of Hitler, although you need to look for them carefully, they are understandably not marked with nice little blue plaques.  There are bars he used to frequent, other dwellings, meeting halls, and even the Nazi Party HQ still stands in its original place.  This offers potential, but only if I can find a way to image the places that works with both the narrative and as interesting photographs.

Another legacy of WW2 is the existence in Munich of over 22 air raid bunkers.  These bunkers stand above ground.  At the time it was too expensive and would have needed too much time to dig them into the ground.  The answer was to build massive vertical bunkers, typically 4-5 stories tall and possessing steel reinforced concrete walls with a thickness of 80-100cm.  Topped by an ant-aircraft battery these bunkers were designed to withstand a direct hit as well as to protect the inhabitants against shrapnel and falling buildings.  They were so well constructed that they are more or less impossible to demolish, attempts using explosives failed.  This means they still stand, many subverted into art galleries or offices.  A cluster of 4 of them is just around the corner.

This one is close to the city center.

Most of them are in and around the industrial areas of Munich, designed to enable workers to rapidly access them as air raid sirens sounded.  As with these two they have been painted and roofed to disguise their original intent, however, they are permanent reminders of the wartime years.


There is also a personal link, the batteries of guns that topped the towers were largely staffed by the Hitler Youth, however, many young women were press ganged into the airforce to serve the guns.  My wife's mother was one of these people,  forced to fight for a regime what murdered half of her family.  She is remarkably sanguine about this part of her wartime experience, however, she departed Germany for the US as soon as she could and is now a proud American citizen.  It is ironic that the guns she served fired at the airmen of the country she was shortly to become part of, particularly as her future husband was WW2 USAF bomber crew, but fortunately in the Pacific theater.

There are roughly 22 of these scattered across the city, a thought has struck that I could attempt a typography of these buildings, inspired by the work of the Bechers, similarly in B&W and with a coincidental approach of similar framing and structure.

The darkest legacy of the 3rd Reich is undoubtedly the slaughter than took place in the concentration camps, a subject difficult to approach and fraught with difficulties in presenting even a degree of the suffering.  However, this is a part of Munich's legacy to the world and any exploration of the Nazi past would need to include this aspect.  Close to Munich is the town of Dachau notorious as the site of the first concentration camp opened by the regime.  It was used to house political opponents to the regime, and although many people died there (more than 30,000) it's primary purpose was not as part of the final solution.  It still stands in place, a memorial to the deaths inflicted by the regime, above the gates is written "Arbeir macht Frei", three words with a terrible echo.  I have never been there, even writing about it is a challenge for me, but, photographs of this site would be an essential part of the study I am considering.  This would be a piece of work that will challenge in ways deeper than artistic questions.

Within the city itself a strong Jewish community was all but erased, few reminders remain of a people who were a major part of the population.  A new subway line is being planned for the city and prior to its construction a dig has begun to excavate the old Jewish quarter, just behind the city center town hall:

It is strange to look into the cellars of these long destroyed buildings and wonder what lives were led there. More recently a major Jewish center has been built in the city with a remarkable synagogue, Munich's Jewish community is slowly rebuilding and reclaiming it's place in society.

I have processed these images in Black and White, a medium that seems to suite the somber subject matter, but also suits the weather we have had recently.  Colour treatment will be a key question for this project, my usual bright saturated colours will not work well in the context of suffering I will need to expose.

It is important not to dwell too much on Munich's Nazi past, very few of the current population were old enough to participate in the evil of the 30's and 40's, many people are sick and tired of its constant reminder.  As an Englishman who grew up in the 60's and 70's the war was an essential part of my childhood culture; we played at war, the Germans were always the bad guys, my comics featured heroic commandos and fighter pilots, and the films I watched bounced bombs across lakes or jumped motorbikes into barbed wire.  For me it is hard to escape from this programming.  Munich is over 800 years old, the wall in the background dates back to the cities origin, there is history every where you look in this city.  There are the palaces of the Kings of Bavaria, beautiful Baroque and Rococo churches, Jugendstil architecture, and the intellectual legacy of the artists, philosophers, and scientists who made the city their home.  Much of what Munich has represented in the past is good and noble.

I love this city, it is my adopted home and my playground, as a subject for photography it has everything I could ask for, exploring it's past fascinates and at times horrifies.  Whilst this project might become an interesting, even compelling activity, I must also look to the positive.  In a sense this is what underlies my current assignment, the positive present and future of a city with a dark and distressing past.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Assignment 1: 12 Photographs

As I develop the concept that underpins this assignment I am also starting to build a shot list.  The more measured approach to landscape photography provides time to plan each shot and think ahead of time how a story might be built around the photographs.  In the case of this assignment narrative will be important to tie the images back to the idea of Legacy.  A challenge I currently have is atmospheric, I also want to clearly represent Summer in these shots, I doubt that an argument about it being the Summer Olympics of 1972 will wash, although there has to be some mileage in that parallel.

Rather than simply list the shots I plan to use, I have dug into the discovery work I have already completed and chosen 12 images that represent how I am thinking, this is a visual rather than text list.  With each shot I am also going to identify the focal length that would work best, this will help in planning the final shooting of the locations.

1. Panorama of the games site from the mountain - 17mm

This would be a documentary image designed to introduce the overall set and provide some context.  The challenge will be to find a view/angle that also makes an interesting photograph.  The above framing might work, although this is a poor image showing quite a bit of distortion having used a wide angle zoom.

2. The Olympic Mountain - 17 or 24mm

I suspect this will be the hardest photograph to do well, however, it is important to my narrative that the mountain and its story is prominent.  From this side of the lake a wider angle than this (24mm) would be needed, although I could also stitch two 24mm frames together to make a letterbox shot.

3. Shapes and Patterns on the mountain - 35-100mm

With this shot I want to explore the mountain in a little more detail, preferably when people are using the space to enjoy the sun.  A tighter framing will be needed, this was 100mm, perhaps too narrow.

4. Curves - 70-100mm

Shot 3 starts to look at details, but in that case natural ones. With this shot I want to start to bring the architecture of the site into play juxtaposing the more natural shapes with the stadium.  This is too tight at 100mm, 70mm will be better, however, this is very close to where I want to be with this photograph.

5. The roofs - 70-100mm

This is another shot that I want to take from the top of the mountain looking down.  The question will be how wide to go, show the lake and surroundings or simply focus in on the artificial landscape of the stadium roof.  If I go tight the challenge will be to keep the idea of Summer in the image, which I consider to be nearly impossible.  Wider and I may simply keep this, it has what I want in it already, especially the pedallo in the foreground, now if that does not say summer what else could.

6. Under the roof - 24-35mm, maybe 17mm if I can make it work

This is another shot that I think would be very striking, but not easy to tie to summer, however, the trees in the background and a few people walking through in T-shirts might fix that.

7. BMW - 24mm

Stepping away from the Olympic legacy this is still within the grounds of the Olympic site, however, the legacy would be industrial rather than recreational.  The above shot is not bad and shows what 35mm framing can achieve from the bridge, a little wider will offer more scope.  The red car is an issue and I will need to wait until the car colours align to the sky colour.

8. The Village - 24mm

I need a shot that references the student village and the larger blocks behind.  This is too low, I need some more height, luckily there is a good vantage point nearby.  A question will be to make the painted side of this building as prominant as this or not, the colour is great, but very distracting from the rest of the shot.  Like the crane.

9. In the Student Village - 24mm

I really like this shot, it is simple and yet asks some questions, my concern is whether anyone else will get it.  I may not be able to improve it as the blue recycling bin is an essential balance to the rest of the image, it amy have been moved.  Something of a Stephen Shore influence here. The current shot has issues with the tree being clipped.  I want something inside the village that illustrates the space.

10. Recycling and Rebuilding - 24mm

This is a complex image containing many elements and stories, it is about legacy for the future.  If I frame wider I may get more in, but at the risk of too much foreground and also confusion.  Needs some thought.

11. Pipes - 24mm

Another photograph that might just work as is.  I want to feature the remarkable pipe network , this is one of the better angles.

12. Living Space - 17mm

My final shot should look at the living space that people enjoy in the village.  This composition dwells on the structure of the brick work.  Another thought I have here is a shot of the side of a building, focusing in on the balconies, something of a Michael Wolf style image.

This is my current visual shot list, however, I am not closing my mind to new visual opportunities and the unplanned but wonderful opportunity that might come along.  I also want to explore the PLO angle a little, there is a monument at the site to the dead Israeli athletes that might work into these shots quite well and this is a legacy that should have a part in my imagery.