Friday, February 24, 2012

Gallery Visit: MOMA

Two of the first books I bought after joining the course, were written by John Szarkowski, "The Photographer's Eye" and "Looking at Photographs". Each was an excellent introduction to the art form and its history. Szarkoski, potentially the most influential man in the history of art photography, was the curator of the photographic collection at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).  He introduced the world to the likes of Stephan Shore and William Eggleston.

So, it was with no small amount of excitement that this morning, I got to visit the museum he worked at for so many years. After an almost endless wait in line to check my rucksack only to be told that I could not check a camera bag, we headed up to the 3rd floor to look at the photographic gallery. Probably the smallest space offered to any art form in the museum , this exhibit still managed to cram into its few rooms an amazing range of photographs: Atget, Fox Talbot, WeeGee, Shore, Eggleston, Sherman, Walker Evans, Man Ray, Brassai, Cartier-Bresson, Stieglitz, Adams (Both of them), the list goes on. A major proportion of the gallery was given over to a large number of Atget photographs, strangely beautiful records of a Paris long gone. Another hightlight, a typology created by the Becher, the photographs on display presented in the usual highly geometrical grid.


Everywhere I looked I found photographs I had seen over and over again; in books, on the TV, refered to in essays, it was quite an emotional experience. As I increasingly realize, seeing the original is far superior to reproductions in books, the level of detail and tonality simply cannot be reproduced in a mass market book.

I am not sure what I learned, however, there was simply too much material. I could not really focus on any one style or artist. Having said that it was still an experience to remember, humbling and at the same time a source of inspiration.

 If there is one thing I took away, it is the growing awareness that a photograph is a print not a collection of pixels on a computer. Only when the image meets the paper does a photograph become a document. Ink and paper is not cheap, but then neither was photographic paper and chemicals. The masters of photography whose work I witnessed today, would not have simply looked at their negatives on a light box and decided great, I'm done now.

Oh and we also got to see Van Gogh's Starry Night, a massive Jackson Pollock, and some fabulous pop art by Lichtenstein and Warhol.  OK, not quite as impressive as the tiny Fox Talbot print that simply took my breath away, but an added bonus all the same.

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.

Monday, February 20, 2012


This weekend passed by without any progress or sense of achievement, leaving me feeling a little down and dispirited.  This course is therapy, providing me with a sense of purpose and when I achieve something I am pleased with leaves me feeling as if I am progressing.  Whether this is real or not makes no difference, it lifts my spirits and leaves me with a good sense of well being.

The downside of this therapy program is that when things don't work or I get distracted from my studies I get very low.  This is one of those times.  I am reading a very good book right now comprising interviews with practicing photographers and am augmenting my kit with a few new toys, a Samsung NX200 mirrorless camera added into my portable outfit.  I should be feeling good, ho hum!  I think the problem is that I am in a creative gap, not working on any assignment photographs and not yet getting my teeth into Andreas Gursky.  Coupled with bad weather and the tailing off of some private projects I am not sure where to go right now.  Maybe the thought of writing an essay, attractive though it seems in theory has stopped my progress and is forming a mental block.

So to look to the bright side.  First the weather is finally picking up and I might be able to start some spring imagery and do some work in the inner city with my tilt-shift lenses (they do not like the wet).  Secondly I was passing the Haus der Kunst on Saturday and saw this:

A Thomas Ruff exhibit just opened the day before and will run for a few months.  Great, Thomas Ruff is another member of the Duesseldorf School of photographers and as I write my essay it will be important to add the context of other graduates of this influential school.  So far I have seen work by Thomas Struth and the Bechers, so seeing some original work by Ruff will be very useful.

I also managed this photographic doodle - symmetry, detail, it is a me type of photo, however boring and touristic

Hand held, low light, ISO800 and still sharp, really happy with my X100.  However, I digress!

Back to the course, I will also not make much progress now for a couple of weeks and suspect I am going to need to warn my tutor that my essay might be a little late.  BUT the reason is that next week I am nipping over to New York for 3 days of MOMA, BH Photo and some of the best street photography in the world.  Oh, and most importantly having a ball with Heidi!

So why I am feeling so down?  Who knows, guess it is just one of those things, a creative glut that has me doubting myself.  Hopefully my next blog entry, perhaps from New York will be a little more enthusiastic...

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Portfolio: Winter

The past few weeks have changed my winter around, ice and snow have dominated driving that wonderful monochromatic wilderness look in the park.  I have made a number of forays out onto the Olympiaberg, some successful others not.  A minus 12 day and strong wind defeated me a couple of weeks back.  However I have persevered and obtained some passable shots that should leave me with 3 keepers for my portfolio.  Still not understanding the portfolio,but then, whatever! Attack of the Inner Teenager!

This is not a very thoughtful post, in a sense it is simply a record of some exploration of ideas, a visual versus written statement.

As I have discussed before the snow changes the visual structure of the world we see, it delineates things and draws attention to shape versus colour or texture.  As such it creates an almost monochrome world, with blue as frequently the only tint.  My photographs seem to divide into two distinct approaches, a wide angle that tries to encompass the white bleakness of it all or the close up that focuses of the structure that the snow reveals.

My first shots in this post reflect the vista approach, although starting with yet another shot of the Preying Mantis like entrance to the Olympic park.

The alternate is the detailed view of shapes, but often times with a strong background to place the objects into context:

It was powerfully cold that day and as a result I met or saw few other people, meaning that these photos are less likely to make the cut as human presence is a key element of this portfolio study of the Olympic area.  

Although I started with 2 ideas, here is a third, although one very unlikely to make the cut, the aerial photograph, these 3 taken from the observation deck of the Olympic Tower.  Sadly for safety reasons I could not go outside, so these are shot through darkened glass, reducing quality and requiring some correction back to pristine white

It is interesting how the snow has really helped define the structure of the landscape, shapes are much more visible than during the summer months.

OK, just a visual record, no great philosophy, but I have probably spent 3 or 4 days in the last weeks stomping around this place slowly freezing, so thought it worth while adding a few results of my suffering to the blog.

Assignment 5: Getting Started

Given that I have yet to start on Assignment 4, this is very much getting ahead of myself.  However, Assignment 5 is directly related to the subject of Assignment 4.  In my case this means that Assignment 5 is going to be a series of photographs in the style of Andreas Gursky, the subject of my as yet unstarted essay.

This has led to a few sleepless nights. Whilst I can fully comprehend the structure of an essay discussing Andreas Gursky and the impact he has had on the art world, emulating his style is very challenging.  First of all Gursky uses medium and large format cameras, then composites multiple frames together to build truly gigantic images of great complexity.  The technical challenge of doing anything remotely similar cannot be underestimated.  Secondly and more importantly Gursky's work is now almost a cliche, something art students are prone to emulating and if done badly will simply look unconvincing.

My challenge will be to channel Gursky's approach and visual style into my work, but retain the sense that this is my work.  The assignment states "In the Style of an Influential Photographer", I am going to choose to interpret that as influenced by, rather than in the style of.  So what does that mean for me.  First of all I must distill the elements that make up Gursky's style and understand what they are.  I must then find a subject that I can work with over a sustained period of time that incorporates some of these stylistic elements, but one that also drives my passion and joy in photography.

I will evolve my thinking about this over time, however, I plan to work on the essay and the photographs in parallel, the rationale being that I will be better able to write a critique of Gursky once I can translate his visual language into mine.  This might delay my essay into April, not sure about that, but it does bring forward the start date for my Assignment 5.

With this in mind, what does Gursky's style say to me now:

  1. Symmetry - Most of Gursky's work exhibits distinct symmetries, either horizontal reflectional symmetry or multiple translational symmetries.  By this I mean that many frames contain strong left to right lines or are composed of large numbers of similar repeating objects.  Rhein II or the shoes on shelves are examples of left to right symmetries, whereas the many shots of masses of people have the translational symmetries.
  2. Complexity - Although some of his images are very simple, most are very busy, very complex
  3. Colour - More recent work uses very deliberate and bold colour, this can be through strong contrast, saturation or even selective removal, but a clear decision has been made
  4. Precision - Gursky does not wander the streets with a hand held camera and allow serendipity to drive his decisions.  He plans every photograph very carefully and demands complete control over the shots 
  5. Post Production - Although not a visual style in itself, the way he creates his art strongly influences the visual statement.  Recently he has exploited digital technology to create final images that combine multiple individual photographs, sometimes very overtly, at other times with amazing subtlety.
If I bring that back to myself, it means that I need to look for very strong geometrical material, exhibiting richness in colour and complexity.  In other words a city.  Munich.  Well if you had read any other part of my blog, you would have seen this coming.  Thus far I have taken my camera into 3 distinctly different areas of Munich, starting with the Olympic Games site, then focusing in on the Jewish Quarter, and most recently exploring the green space that is the Englischer Garten.  I want to finish my course by tackling the downtown area, the equally beautiful and grimy inner city.  This is a colourful, complex, ever changing, ever moving place, replete with visual material, but not the easiest place to work.

This weekend after my weekly jaunt around the Olympiagelande, I headed into the city to play with some ideas based around this theme.  The area I chose was around the main station, very colourful as well as very dubious, typical european blend of red light district, cheap hotels and small shops/cafes.  Whilst my first example image has nothing to do with the theme, I thought it quite funny and wanted to post it here

They did not come out of Sexyland, but they look like they did!

OK, back to my exploration of ideas.  The concept I have in mind is a series of photographs at street level or elevated if I can get access of rows of buildings typical of Munich.  These should exhibit strong symmetry and interesting content.  For my exploration I had a FF camera with a 16-35mm zoom, not ideal for this, the following required a great deal of perspective management, but again this was a conceptual process, not a final shoot.

The previous two photos exhibit the in close compressed view that Gursky sometimes shoots, there is no sky, the buildings should look endless.  An option here might be to extend the photograph by adding additional rows of windows via photoshop.  Maybe shooting at different times from the same place so that the windows show variation.  Dusk may make this work better.

Another possibility is the above here the bicycles and taxis are the repeating form standing against the banality of the 1960's edifice of the main station behind.

The final shot has the strongest potential, this is the front of the station with tram tracks running along the bottom of the frame.  This is a strongly horizontal image with symmetry only broken by the cars and street furniture. 

Taking the final shot as an example, my current thinking would be to return with a tripod and my 17mm TS/E lens which will enable me to correct for perspective.  I would then plan to take maybe 20 identical shots over a period of an hour or so watching how the constellations of people and cars inhabit the space in front of me.  I could then fill that space by cloning to and from the various photographs to create a single composite image that brings together a multitude of people in the same photograph.  A similar technique could work in several spaces that people move through in the city.  I would also like to try this in the station if security permits.  One idea will be to use the main station as a subject creating several large photos with multiple frames.  One aspect of the TS lenses is that by shifting left and right, up and down I can move the image circle by 12mm, not much, but compared to a 36x24mm frame this doubles the image size converting my 35mm FF 5D2 into a 42MP almost medium format camera.  There are issues in doing this, but it expands my possibilities.

So  have a start and an initial idea for this work, I now need to build out the concept and plan the photographs.  That will be a major difference for this sequence.  Each final photograph will have to be scouted, with test shots and then decisions made about time of day for lighting or weather conditions.  I may need permission for some potential shots.  The biggest question will be one of coherence, essentially avoiding this becoming a set of technically interesting but unrelated photographs.  That is the part that still bothers me about this exercise.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Georgia O'Keeffe - at the Munich Kunsthalle

In all my reading about photography, Geogia O'Keeffe's name is the most prominent of non-photographers.  Her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz and his subsequent influence on her career tie back to the origins of photography as an art form rather than a form of documentary or record.  One of Stieglitz's ambitions was to chronicle the life of a single person from birth to death, paralleling his desire to document the city of New York, O'Keefee became that person, although she outlived him by a good 40 years.  As a result I have seen very many pictures of O'Keeffe and yet had never seen any work of her own.

Yesterday I made it my goal to change that situation and spent an hour or more viewing the latest exhibit at the Kunsthalle, a rotating gallery that hosts major exhibitions.

Georgia O'Keeffe at the Kunsthalle

This retrospective look at her work encompassed here entire creative output, with paintings, drawing and photographs created over a period of 70 years.  Her longevity as an artist and the presentation in a single exhibit enabled me to see how a single artist developed over a lifetime, her work evolving in subject and technique, and yet always unmistakably O'Keeffe.  Her focus on colour versus precise depiction of form was powerful both in her abstract and more representational work.  Of particular interest to me as a photographer was the pervasive influence of photography within her work, clearly the influence of her husband, but also within the circle she moved.  Her paintings frequently cropped objects filling the canvas with a flower, the strong colours extending to the very frame edge, in much the same manner as a photographer might fill their frame with a subject.

Following my recent experiments with Tulips I found these paintings to have great beauty and harmony, the composition fitting well with my personal aesthetic.  

The exhibit contained not only her own work, but that of her husband and other photographic friends of O'Keeffe.  It was particularly thrilling to see original prints from Stieglitz's New York work alongside her paintings of the city.  One particular wall was of note, on it were hung photographs of O'Keefe taken by a variety of photographers, but most notably by Stieglitz and Ansel Adams.  What I found rather strange about these photographs was that the Adams portrait was far more sympathetic of her, it really brought out her spirit and joy in life.  This contrasted dramatically with the photos made by Stieglitz.  These seemed rather stiff, more an exercise on composition versus a husband portraying the love of his life, almost as if Stieglitz clinged to his formalism at all times, never letting down his guard and allowing any element of sentimentality to enter into his work.

I learned a lot from this exhibit, seeing a life times work by a single artist helped me to understand the process of developing a style and the changes that occur due to external influence.  Seeing the interaction of photography and fine art painting was thought provoking and suggests a need for me to continue to look at non-photographic art.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Tulips - A week later

After much musing on the fleeting existence of life and in particular its expression through a tulip, I am drawn once more to consider the way that a photograph can capture a moment in time.  A photo is a frozen expression of what once was and can never be again, immediately sad and yet with the passage of time gaining a warm glow of reminiscence and perhaps nostalgia.  Serious photography seems inexorably drawn towards the fringe, decay and often destruction take center stage in the photographic contemplation of life.  Yet we strive among the chaos to find beauty and order.

Two weeks ago the perfect form and silky colour of spring tulips caught my attention resulting in a sequence of almost dream like photographs delving deep into the detail of these flowers.  A few days later the blooms have fallen and their shape begins the transformation of decay.  At this stage a few flowers entered a brief period of new exuberance, a comment on one of these photos compared them to Henry Matisse' "Dance".  Truly they did seem to have the life and swirl portrayed in this great painting:

It is almost as if with the end approaching the flowers made one last attempt at there former glory.  Within days all was gone, the petals shriveled and the colour darkened to a sickly purple

The dance of life had come to an end, still strangely beautiful, but melancholy.  Each tulip came to an end in a different way.  A single bloom retained its shape and slowly shriveled in upon itself, like an aging actress desperately clinging to former beauty, but surrendering to the wrinkles of time:

The colour echoes the excess of rouge that feebly attempts to mask what we can all see.  Two other blooms died a similar way, but without the symmetry of life

Now part of some landfill on the edge of the city, these once fragile flowers will only ever live on as pixels on my hard drive and perhaps as a print to decorate the walls of somebody trying to make sense of the passage of time.