Tuesday, March 27, 2012

P34: using a graduated filter

Well I'd rather not and as a rule don't.  But, hey, in the spirit of learning I have dug out my Cokin filter set and mounted a +2 Grad on my 24-105mm lens attached to my full frame Canon 5D Mark II, with it's 9 stop dynamic range.  Herein lies the problem, the dynamic range of a good modern camera coupled with the capabilities of the latest RAW processing engines has made use of a grad filter somewhat redundant.  I can recover enough shadow detail and selectively darken the sky in software, without incurring the often unfortunate colour cast that a grad filter induces.

I think this is a point where the course materials need to be updated for the Digital age, grad filters are very relevant to modern photography, it is simply that these days they can be applied more easily in software than in hardware.  Perhaps there is a quality issue and I would be the first to admit that Cokin's plastic is unlikely to deliver the best optical qualities.

My final thought here is that I also do not like the moody contrasty skies so typical of "traditional" landscape photography made with heavy use of filters.  I tend to like the slightly blown out pale skies that I see in work such as that in the New Topographics.

But hey, we are here to learn, so in the spirit of discovery I have created 6 sets of images, with and without the 2 stop grad, bracketed +-1 stop and for the three suggested scenarios:

In each case the filtered image is the second row.  I have not made any adjustments to the images, simply presented what came out of the camera.  Looking closely at the images the filtered sets are on the whole better balanced and more contrasty, as I would expect, the filters do the job they are designed for.  The cost in eVs is just under 2, at f/4 this is not a problem.

However, coming back to my starting discussion.  The first image below is as taken and without filter.  It is clearly exposed for the sky and suffers from a very dark foreground

A little work in Lightroom and I achieve the image below

Compare this to the filtered image, also enhanced in Lightroom.

The only processing step I did not take with the filtered image was to add a filter, wanting to compare a digital with a plastic filter.  I found that it was easier to get the image I wanted starting from the unfiltered image, the filter took away from the image quality and was ultimately of no value in building the final view.

OK, Cokin is hardly top quality, but again I can get to where I want to go without it.  I also was not using one of my best contrast delivering primes, so am aware that there is some distance to go in terms of image quality.  The tilt-shift optics would have delivered a better image and taken out the dreadful perspective faults.  However, these lenses have too wide a field of view and filter size to successfully use with a filter.

Ultimately my views on the use of filters do not come down to technology it is more about the aesthetic value of images requiring filters, I just don't like them very much.  I do use filters sometimes, my Polar filter regularly goes on holiday with me, I even have several of them, essential for shooting in tropical lagoons.

Next Steps

I find myself rapidly approaching the end of Landscape, a year has nearly passed and it now seems a long time ago, in June last year, that I first starting typing into this blog. The last weekend has been a time of trying a few new things, looking at some great art and thinking about the next steps in my path towards a degree.

In May we head off on vacation, another 2 weeks in Borneo, taking underwater photographs on some of the greatest dive sites in the world. This is as much a phototography trip as anything else, but this year will not be tied into my course work. But, it still needs much preparation and the publication of a book chronicling the trip will take up much time on returning to Germany.

Taking this all in, I realized now was a time for a little introspection and planning. I am not going to get my 5th assignment done before the end of April, so am going to push it out into June/July, when I am back. Between now and the end of April will be a good time to finalize my portfolio. I still have Spring photos to take. Currently the weather is fine, but the trees have yet to leaf, leading to a landscape that still gives the impression of winter, albeit a bright warm sunny winter. Easter weekend is 10 days away, those 4 days should be enough to finalize my portfolio, good weather will be nice, otherwise, it'll be April showers. Then editing and selection of the final 12+4 images and off to my tutor for comment.

In the mean time I also plan to complete the remaining projects, those in chapter 5 look interesting and quite challenging, will be a welcome change from grad and polar filters - quick aside, but what are these doing in a Level 2 course. By this stage you either use them or have rejected them, I love this course, but I do wonder on occasion. Hopefully on return from vacation all that will need to be done will be to shoot assignment 5. Although, when I say "all" this is a big all, I suspect that this will need several weeks of planning, shooting and image preparation. I already have in mind that each image will be an individual created work of art, not simply a photograph. My theme is plain, the chaos of urban life, however, getting there in a way that works for me and channels Gursky will be a great challenge.

So, that will be the end of Landscape, another 2-3 months work and it should be in the bag. What next? This more than anything else has been preying on my mind. It always does as I near the end of a course, decisions made now affect a whole year of my life. All I seem to do these days is work for my company and then work again on my courses. When I embarked on Landscape it was with Social Documentary in mind as a 2nd course, ind fact SocDoc was the firm choice, I only elected for Landscape becuase the PWDP course looked so dire. The update to PWDP has caught me in a quandry. This is now the course I would have done rather than Landscape, it addresses many topics that I am fascinated by, type setting, book making, writing about photography. However, as my tutor suggests SocDoc would be a better development pathway right now. It also offers me the chance to continue my study of Munich and it's inhabitants. Although, so would the new PWDP, as I can pretty much choose what to shoot during that course.

No decision yet, but I feel my head and my heart are now firmly towards SocDoc, pity about PWDP. Maybe I should do both, after all there is nothing to say you cannot do 3 courses rather than 2. I enjoy the work and it would provide a better foundation for my final year studies. Question, questions. In any case I plan to enroll when I return from Borneo, I will have plenty of time to think and should be much clearer by then.

Now where is that damn Polar filter...

Monday, March 26, 2012

Gallery Visit: Pinakothek der Moderne

Yesterday I finally got of my backside and decided to do something with my Sunday versus the usual loafing around the house.  A new exhibition at the Pinakothek Der Moderne, "True Stories", featuring original work by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Larry Clark, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore was more than enough encouragement.  I also wanted to take another look at their modern art collection in light of the investigation I have been doing into the influence of art on Andreas Gursky's photographs.  The clincher was the 1 Euro entry price on Sundays.

True Stories

The was photographic bliss, not only a chance to see the real work behind so many books in my library, but all together in what is also a photographic wonderland:

However, it was the photographs I went to see:






This was the first time I had seen original works by many of these artists and it was also fascinating to see them alongside one another, seeing the mutual influences, but also their different takes on modern American life, well that of the 1960's in fact.  The set of images by Larry Clark, Tulsa, were in many respect the most interesting.  I do not have the book, but know it to be a deeply insightful record of a very shocking lifestyle, small town drugs, guns, and sex.  While I contemplated this display, about 18 fairly small images I watched the reaction of people getting in close, shock was the main expression.  The most terrifying shot was a pregnant women injecting heroin, adjacent to a photo of a dead baby in a small coffin.  This was documentary photography at its very best, in close, personal and very revealing - a story was told, not one we might wish to see, but perhaps one we should see.

As my internal debate rages about which course to do next, PWDP or Social Documentary, it is the work of the American photographers of the 1960's that excites me and pulls me in the direction of the latter course.  The counter issue is the seemingly strong emphasis of getting very close to the subject, Larry Clark versus Stephen Shore.  I am more with the New Topologists and their take on social documentary than that of the photographers that chose to deeply involve themselves with their subjects.  This gallery provided useful food for thought.

My other reason for the visit (in addition to the very nice 60 minute walk) was to take a look at some modern art.  I have only captured two works on camera, the first by Palermo.  Here I see structure and shape building towards such images as Rhein II, although my knowledge of this work is not yet strong enough to make much more comment, other than to say that I very much like this type of modern art, simple, yet powerful.

The other piece that caught my imagination was the following.  500 Japanese steel workers were given a foil wrapped chocolate bar and then asked to create something out of the foil wrapper.  These were then arranged on a white table against a grey backdrop.  The repetition of form contrasting the individuality of each piece, coupled with the collective creation makes this very powerful.  Again I like the geometric simplicity.

Visiting the Pinakothek der Moderne I always find something new about the building to photograph.  This time it was looking down from the Rotunda to the grey floor that sits between the entrance and the galleries, The entrance is a wide circle topped by a glass dome supported by highly geometric structural beams.  In the center of the floor is a small circular metal plate that signifies the center of the floor space.  This is the only feature visible through a 35mm focal length lens, that is until people walk into view.

This is very different from what I was working on earlier in the weekend, combining multiple people into a single frame.  Here the fascination was trying to capture different patterns created as people cross a floor space.  This is an idea for some work that could map neatly into Social Documentary, how people interact with buildings and in particular art galleries.  I have done something similar for People and Place.  What was really quite impressive this weekend, was my camera.  I set the Fuji X100 to silent shooting, wow, I really had to check that thing had taken an image it was so quiet, what a tool for the anonymous shooter, plus the high ISO capability is simply stunning.

MY final shot is one I can never resist when leaving the museum.  I have shot this building so many times, The Brandhorst Museum.  However, it was a chance to try the colour on my new X100.  Enough said I think

All in all a good day and one that will be repeated before the True Stories exhibit finishes at the end of September.  Now, should I get a copy of Tulsa or not?

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Assignment 5: Experimentation and Art

During the writing of my essay on Gursky it began to become apparent that many of Gursky's most famous and valued images contained strong visual influence from modern art of the 20th century.  I am now reading around this and thinking about how this could be worked into my own imagery for assignment 5.  I have already discussed the stylistic cues that I need to consider, however, another avenue to work  would be to also "borrow" from modern art.  This would entail looking for urban landscapes that possess similar structure to key movements or artists.  In Gursky's case I would immediately note the following:

  • Montparnasse - Richter's paintings of palettes of colours
  • Rhien II - Rothko and his broad stripes of colour (although very toned down)
  • The stock exchane images - The ordered disorder of Pollock
  • Race Track composites - reminiscent of cubism and Picasso
  • Untitled series - minimalism

Not something I necessarily plan, but worth keeping in mind.  Heading out to the Pinakothel der Moderne today to actually look at some modern art and see how it grabs me.

In the mean time I have completed my first exploratory shoot for the assignment, more a technical test of techniques that I might adopt for some of the images.  Thematically I am currently planning a series of photographs that speak to the pressures of modern urban life, the crowds, the dirt, the colour, in essence the visual cacophony of a city.  So far my assignments have skirted around the city, looking at the special spaces, parks, places of worship, and sports arenas, now it is time to engage with the reality of city life.  I suspect these will be images that most stretch the definition of what is a landscape photograph.

On Friday I spent the morning at the cities' main railway station, both inside and out, as well as on one of the bridges overlooking the lines running into and out of the city.  In each case I placed my camera on a tripod and mounted a wide angle tilt-shift lens, either 17 or 24mm depending on the location. I then exposed around 20 frames over a period of time waiting for something to happen.  Back in my office I spent several hours yesterday building composite image from the photographs that I had taken.  I was trying to enhance the sense of "business" of the photographs, very much in parallel to the techniques that Gursky's assistants use.

The first composite is of the railway lines leading into the city.  In each case I will show a first and final image in the composite.  I started with a nearly empty scene with a single train heading towards me:

Here I was trying to capture the sense of the energy of a modern railway station, the continual rush of trains in and out of the station.  What I have ended up with is what looks like a parking space for trains.  Technically this has demonstrated that I can fabricate such an image but aesthetically it does not work.  A possible thought here will be to use very much slower shutter speeds which will blur the trains, I can then merge multiple trains into composite lines of flow.  Another improvement would be to be about 10m higher up, but that is not going to work for me.  Gursky could hire a crane for the day, too expensive and I would get arrested.

Inside the station I had more success, the second image is composed of around 10 additional photos.  I did have a problem as I was nervous about my location and the use of a tripod on a station.  I did not use a remote release and so the camera shifted position, not by much, but enough to lose registry between shots, making the overlay much much harder.  In this image I have deliberately included the same person several times, in a sense a symbol of movement through the frame. This has good potential and I may return to try again.  An overcast day might also be better as I would have less contrast to deal with, although to a degree I like the areas of light and shade.

My final composite is a little less ambitious, but similar to the inside station shot.  Again I have included the same person twice, here looking at herself in the middle ground.  This image also added a further twist, the shadows and the stationary objects moved during the shoot, easily fixed, but an issue that must be considered.  This scene also contains a taxi rank, movements within which would also create both challenge and opportunity.

In all of the images I am experimenting with the multiple frame technique of Gursky with the goal of creating metaphors for modern life.  I learned a lot about the clone tool.  It was key to ensure that I had identically framed images that I then cloned between using the same reference point in each image.  I cloned fairly roughly using my tablet and pen, then in finer detail used the erasing tool to refine the edges.   None of these images are perfect, all have some issues, but as a proof of concept I am quite happy.

Next step will be to start building a list of location for similar shoots and also to consider other elements of Gursky's visual style that I can build into my shooting.

Assignment 4: The Essay

I have thought a while about putting this on my blog.  In the end I am doing so as it is a key element of my course and also a stepping stone towards Assignment 5.

Rhein II,  Worth $4.3M?
On November the 8th, 2011, the hammer fell at Christie’s Auction house in New York; $4,338,500 was paid for a 190 x 380 cm chromogenic colour print of a photograph.  Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II (1999) had captured the title of “Most Expensive Photograph in the World”. 

The Blogosphere erupted in indignation, electronic roars of “$4M for a photo?”, “I could have taken that!”, and “more money than sense”, typified the responses.  More serious commentary was mixed: Maev Kennedy of The Guardian commented somewhat pithily “a sludgy image of the grey Rhine under grey skies” (2011).  By contrast Florence Waters of The Telegraph wrote; “This image is a vibrant, beautiful and memorable – I should say unforgettable - contemporary twist on Germany’s famed genre and favourite theme: the romantic landscape, and man’s relationship with nature.” (2011)

Four years earlier, another photographic work of art by Andreas Gursky had sold for $2.48M, 99 Cent Diptychon (2001).  Gursky now held positions 1 and 3 in the value stakes for art photography. In both cases the art works were huge in scale and significant digital alterations had been made to the original photographs. 

So, who is Andreas Gursky and why is his work so valued?

Andreas Gursky was born in January 1955 in Essen, the heartland of Germany’s industrial Ruhr.  He was born into a family of commercial photographers: both father and grandfather worked in advertising, however, Andreas was to be the first artist in the family. Subsequently Gursky was never far from a camera; even appearing in some of his father’s advertising work (Galassi 2001). Growing up during the time of Germany’s Wirstschaftswunder (Economic Miracle), he directly experienced the explosive growth of the economy and surge in consumerism that marked the 1960s.  As did many other German teenagers he rebelled against the new materialism, a rebellion that echoes in his subsequent work.  Rather than do compulsory military service he took the longer road as a Zivi (Zivildienstler) – in other words a conscientious objector who performed public service in the community.

In 1977 he returned to the family trade and enrolled in the photography program at the Folkswangschule in Essen.  Under the tutelage of Michael Schmidt, the emphasis was very much on preparation for a career as a photojournalist or commercial photographer: a 35mm Leica the camera of choice and Henri Cartier-Bresson the paragon the students strove to emulate.  Looking at Gursky’s work during the time he spent at Essen it is not easy to see the beginnings of the work that subsequently brought him fame.  Schmidt also brought to Gursky awareness of the emerging American art photography movement, and in particular the influence of Robert Adams and his objective documentation of the suburban sprawl of mid-west America.

Whilst his days at the Folkswangschule grounded Gursky in the basic tenets of photography, it was his next step that would begin the rise to the summit of the art world.  Completing his studies in Essen, Gursky packed up his best work and sought employment as a photojournalist.  Without success.  Consulting a friend, Thomas Struth, he was firmly pointed in the direction of the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf.  Here he came under the influence of the husband and wife team, Bernd and Hilla Becher.  Although Bernd Becher held the title Professor, he and Hilla worked and taught as a team, indeed much of the tuition and critical discussions took place at their home rather than at the Akademie.   Inspired by the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) of Weimar era Germany, their work and tutoring emphasized a practical engagement with the world, through photographs that accurately and faithfully recorded that which stood before the lens (Gronert, 2009). Above all a dedication to craft and method infused their ethos; they were the diametric opposite of the Otto Steinert influenced Folkswangschule, where the serendipity of street photography was a stronger influence.

It was into this demanding yet intimate world that Gursky entered in 1980, one of a class that at the time included Candida Höfer, and Thomas Ruff.  After a year of general tuition Gursky engaged in a six year Master Apprentice relationship with Bernd Becher, at the end of which Becher alone would decide whether or not he deserved the title of Meisterschüler (Master Student). 

This was the beginning of the development of Gursky as an art photographer, although still within the strict constraints imposed by the Bechers.  A core element of their training was the construction of typologies, requiring the repetitive creation of a series of photographs of thematically linked subjects.  In Gursky’s case this involved two notable studies: one of details of the interiors of bars and cafés (a natural choice for a student); the other of Pförtner (desk attendants) who sit at the entrance to German companies. This latter series earned Gursky his Graduation from the Akademie.  Gently humorous, these observations of the serious faced desk attendants draw attention to the fact that they sit in pairs, ensuring the security of the building not only from interlopers, but also from each other.  Pförtner, Spaeter, Duisburg (1982, pictured) already contains essential elements that would become Gursky’s  trademarks: a nascent commentary on the commercialism of the modern world, deadpan framing and the reduction of the photograph to a single image plane.

A vital aspect of the education Gursky received from the Bechers resulted in the replacement of his Leica by a 5x4 or 7x5 view camera (Galassi 2001).  Gursky also came under the influence of the New Topology movement in the USA and in particular Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld.  The view camera and American influence further supplemented his visual style, by inclusion of penetrating detail and the adoption of colour, stepping away from the stark monochrome of the Bechers own work. 

To this mix of framing, detail, colour, and social commentary, a final component was needed that would eventually propel his work into the big league of art photography: theatricality.  Whilst at the Kunstakademie Gursky had met with and become a friend of Jeff Wall, the Canadian artist noted for elaborately constructed photographs that have a cinematic quality, both in creation and structure.  Wall was to have a significant influence on Gursky’s direction as he made his first forays into large scale imagery (Burnett 2005).  Fortunately, whilst Wall clearly influenced the size and chromatic intensity of Gursky’s work, Gursky did not follow his path of constructed realities: his photographs remained grounded in the real, even if it was an intensified real.

Upon graduation Gursky’s work centred on people within the environment, sometimes portrayed as lonely aliens in a mechanistic world, but mostly captured en-masses at their leisure; always small, rarely identifiable, just dots in the landscape.  Chance development of a photograph taken whilst vacationing in Austria (Klausenpass 1984 – Plate 1 in Galassi 2001), revealed within the rugged mountainous terrain tiny dots, people walking up and down the hillside.  At first glance the walkers appear randomly scattered; however, careful study reveals patterns created by the morphology of the hillside and social relationships of people in the photograph.  This almost revelatory experience led to a series of photographs that revealed the manner in which humans cluster together.  A prime example may be found in Schwimmbad Ratingen (1987, pictured). Gursky positions the camera high above the scene and looking down; people become objectified and the eye dwells not on the individual but upon their relative position within the community.

During the late 80’s and early 90’s Gursky created a number of photographs that revealed the vulnerability and isolation of mankind confronted by nature: Seilbahn, Dolomiten (1987 – Plate 7 in Galassi 2001) and Niagra Falls (1989 – Plate 8 in Galassi 2001) both place the subjects in the grip of forces seemingly outside their control.  Gursky also made what at first glance seems a rather bland, almost banal landscape of the river Ruhr (1989, pictured), showing a stretch of the river bounded at the far end by an Autobahn bridge, occupied by small groups of anglers.  This photograph captures two key elements of Gursky’s philosophy at the time: the encroachment of modernity represented by the motorway, contrasting with the need of people to find a space within which to shelter from this intrusion. Greater knowledge of the location reveals the precious nature of this viewpoint; to the side and behind the photographer sat industrial works characteristic of the Ruhr valley (Hentschel 2008).  An example of objective reality obscured by the taking of a photograph, or perhaps the beginning of the intensification of reality that Gursky brought to his later work.

The stage was set: Gursky had the tools, a distinct world view, and now entry.  He was an established artist carrying art world credentials granting him access to normally inaccessible places from which he would start to create some of the most stunning photographs of the past 20 years.  The small groups of people became vast crowds filling the frame, his objective viewpoint became almost godlike, and the detail captured by his view camera was multiplied by the digital merger of multiple frames to create huge tapestries of colour and complexity.  His photographs grew in size to a maximum height of 180cm limited only by printing technology, width essentially bounded by the length of a roll of paper and the ability to frame such a colossus (Galassi 2001).  The size of these images was driven not by grandiosity, but by the need to reveal the detail within the frame.  This was the moment that photography began to seriously rival painting in demand for gallery space: the size of the images brought a similar gravitas that fine art painting had exclusively enjoyed for centuries.

Gursky was now producing carefully planned singular works of art, the medium of photography enabling, but not constraining his vision.  Each work required months of planning and conceptual thought.  The act of photographing would take place over several days and involve multiple exposures, often needing very sophisticated lighting.  The negatives would be scanned and then combined on a computer, not by Gursky himself, but by a technician working under his direction.  Further photographs might need to be made, enabling the addition of details not present when the original shots were taken, and unnecessary elements of the original images could be removed (Schmidt-Garre 2011).  Hamm, Bergwerk Ost (2008, pictured), chronicled in Schmidt-Garre’s documentary, presents a good example of the complex image construction and working technique favoured by Gursky.  The hanging baskets containing miners’ personal effects are a fabrication of overlapping individual images; the people below were shot days later and added into the photograph to create a human dimension.

Contained within Gursky’s visual creations are a number of elements that build not only upon his own history, but also draw upon the world of modern art.  His repetitive themes echo the work of Gerhard Richter (Paris, Montparnasse 1993 – Plate 28 in Galassi 2001), whilst his frequent use of horizontal stripes of colour and form bring to mind Mark Rothko (Rhein II 2001, pictured).  This, combined with the craftwork involved in the creation of his works and the lengthy production process leading to a limited flow of new work, makes a Gursky photograph more comparable to a painted work than the mechanical reproduction referenced by Walter Benjamin (1934). I believe this underlies the rapid rise in value of Gursky’s work; his creations are not valued so much as photographs, but as unique statements in modern art.  The fact that they are photographs is almost incidental to their worth.

Ironically whilst he profits from his endeavours, I suspect that Gursky is gently mocking the worlds he portrays: the stock markets, the docks full of cars waiting to be loaded, the towering architectural edifices, and artificial islands built to house the obscenely wealthy.  By photographing these spaces and enhancing their reality through digital repetition of form and structure, he is drawing attention to the innate commercialisation and hectic speed at which the modern world proceeds.  The Chicago Board of Trade (1999, pictured) is typical of these “commercial” photographs, replete with colour and energy, money is being made.

Gursky’s rise to fame mirrored that of his contemporaries Ruff, Struth, and Höfer, all graduates of the same school during the same era, often collectively referred to within the context of Düsseldorf.  However, I feel that the differences are greater than the similarities.  In their early work the Bechers influence is plain to see, but within a few years of leaving the Kunstakademie each took their own distinct path.  Struth and Gursky are alike in their attention to detail and the monumental scale of their work, but separated by subject and philosophy (Kruszynski et. al. 2010).  Ruff’s highly experimental style has taken him far from Gursky, his reworking of JPEGs and Nudes being the anti-thesis of the detailed work of Gursky (Ruff 2012). Höfer seems captured by an almost “Becheresque” compulsion to photograph empty indoor spaces (Krüger 2003). 

The guiding hands of the Bechers have provided the art world with a new creative force, a group of now mature artists taking photographic art to new heights and in new directions.  They are not without criticism; an oft quoted article in Professional Photographer asks “Has the Düsseldorf School killed photography?” (Scott 2011).  There is some truth in this statement, the risk is ever present that young or aspiring photographers will slavishly create similar imagery, but devoid of emotion and containing oppressive visual complexity.  I feel this is always the case in art; leaders influence followers who try in vain to reach the same heights, then another leader comes along and the crowd changes direction.  Critically for student, emulating, but not aping the work of the greats is an essential way to develop one’s own practice.  The key is selectivity, take elements that drive individual progress, but do not simply recreate existing work.  In examining Gursky’s 30 years of work it is his attention to detail and working ethos that influence me, not the subject matter nor even his visual style, much as I admire both.

Returning to the rhetorical question that opened this essay, is Rhein II worth $4.3M?  Of course it is: two reasons!  Firstly the art market operates as any other market does; value is determined by balancing scarcity with demand.  Gursky is highly popular, but works at a relatively slow pace, so demand is high yet few works enter the market; values subsequently rise.  This is, however, a facile answer to the question posed.  Of far more importance is the fact that Gursky’s work bridges the gap between photography and the historically accepted view of what constitutes fine art.  His photographs present unique views of our modern world using the visual language of painting but drawing upon the unique ability of a photograph to capture detail. They are no less complex and take no less time to complete, than masterpieces of oil or watercolour.  Each is a unique and special object.

Perhaps a better question to pose would be: “Is Rhein II a photograph?

Shaun Clarke, 2012

Referenced Works

Benjamin, W (1934), The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin
Burnett, C. (2005) Jeff Wall, London: Tate Publishing
Galassi, P. (2001) Andreas Gursky, New York: The Museum of Modern Art
Gronert, S. (2009) The Düsseldorf School of Photography, London: Thames & Hudson
Hentschel, M. (ed.) (2008) Andreas Gursky Works 80 – 08, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag
Kennedy, M.(2011) Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II photograph sells for $4.3M, The Guardian, 11 Nov
Krüger, M. (2003) Candida Höfer A Monograph, London: Thames & Hudson
Kruszynski, A., Bezzola, T. and Lingwood, J. (2010) Thomas Struth Photographs 1978-2010, New York: The Monacelli Press
Ruff, T. (2012)  ‘Thomas Ruff’ exhibition, Munich: Haus der Kunst. 17 Feb – 20 May
Schmidt-Garre, J. (2011) Long Shot Close Up – Andreas Gursky, Germany: Art Haus Musik (DVD)
Scott, G (2011) Has the Düsseldorf School killed photography?, Professional Photographer, Jan
Waters, F. (2011) Why is Andreas Gursky’s Rhine II the most expensive photograph?, The Telegraph, 11 Nov


Beil, R. and Feβel, S. (2008) Andreas Gursky Architecture, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz Verlag
Darchinger, J. (2008) Wirtsschaftswunder Deutschland nach dem Krieg 1952-1967, Cologne: Taschen
Hughes, R.(1991), The Shock of the New, London: Thames & Hudson
Lange, S. (2005), Bernd and Hilla Becher Life and Work, Cambridge, USA: The MIT Press
Rugoff, R. (1999) World Perfect: Andreas Gursky, Frieze Magazine, 43, Nov-Dec
The Economist (2009), Bedfellows: Two artists who understand the beauty of business, 20 Sep

Friday, March 23, 2012

P33: using a tripod

This is one of those projects that seems to be both oddly placed and somewhat redundant.  As Project 33 out of 40, a tripod would either be or not be part of my working process by this stage of a landscape course.  Personally, I prefer not to use a tripod and for most of the this course have actively avoided using one other than when absolutely necessary, primarily night photography or when needing to be very precise about composition.  Indeed today when out shooting today I carried a tripod, a carbon fiber Manfrotto, but this was more about composition than steadiness.

I have a number of different tripods, from sturdy heavy duty aluminum studio tripods, through lighter weight but stiff carbon fibre, through to a super lightweight gorilla pod that I take on vacation.  However, it is the head not the tripod that makes the difference, again I have several.  I mostly vary between a precision head with tri-axis fine adjustment and using a ball head.  I use the former mostly for macro work, the latter for landscape.  The ball head is not too heavy and faster to adjust when out and about.  I have a number of quick release plates that attach to the camera or to directly to the lens bracket for telephotos.  However, I mostly use them indoors.

A better discussion at this point in the course might have been around balancing ISO with lens speed, investigating the practical limits of hand holding a camera and where the ISO noise limit kicks in.  A few years ago noise was noticeable at around ISO 400, now it is 800 on my 5D2, with my new Fuji X100, I am now up to around 1600.  The next generation of cameras are delivering clean images at 3200 or even 6400. I suspect we will see fewer and fewer tripods as time goes on.

Returning to my photographic practice.  Unless the weather is really overcast a tripod is not needed for stability.  Today I was shooting at ISO 100 or 200 and at f/11 easily able to maintain 1/200s to 1/400s.  With a 17mm or 24mm WA lens this is easily hand held and delivers good quality results.

In each of these cases I shot the handheld image above and then used the tripod for a follow up shot.  If I had not know the order of the shots I could not have told the difference.  My rationale for the tripod today was the fact that I was using a pair of tilt-shift lenses, much easier to adjust when static and the fact that I was interested in combining several shots into a single image for my next assignment preparation.

It is said that a tripod slows you down and leads to a more contemplative form of photography.  I don't agree, this is like saying that dragging a grand piano behind you makes you walk slower and take in the scenery better.  Contemplation is a state of mind, whether a photographer is slow or fast is a personal choice.  Some time ago I was very much in the benefits of tripods school, now I am not.  It is a pain to carry and brings unwanted attraction when working in a city.  I use one only when there is no other choice, adding several Kg to my back back only focuses my mind on my aching shoulders, not my image making.

P32: telephoto views - a variety of views

Well, I could not resist this one.  Staying on the 39th floor (actually 37th given there is no ground or 13th floor, don't you just love America), the view out of our bedroom window was impressive, to say the least.  Our hotel was on 34th street and we looked South over midtown onto the downtown financial district.  To the left was the empire state, to the right the Hudson river and in the far distance the building work replacing the twin towers was just visible.

This was in a sense a perfect position from which to shoot a variety of images using a telephoto lens, everywhere I looked there was detail, rooftop gardens, cooling systems, water reservoirs, decorative stonework themselves, it just went on and on.  The detail then combined with the overlapping buildings to create a bewildering array of possible shots.  Ansel Adams comment in the notes was very applicable to the scene that I could see.  Using my NX200 with a 16mm (24 FF) I shot the following two images to provide a sense of the scope of the world just outside the window.  It was not a bright day, drizzling steadily, and I was going to suffer a little from the fact that the windows were a long way from clean:

I have reduced the saturation and increased the contrast to match the atmosphere of that morning.  I then placed the camera on a window mounted gorilla pod, handy little device for shooting from hotel rooms and mounted a 50-200mm zoom, not a great optic, but light weight and the one that was there in my bag for this shoot.  Always the best quality lens, the one you actually have with you!

First I shot a sequence looking towards the turquoize building in the middle ground of the above shot, using 50, 100, 150, and then 200mm focal lengths.

Each time I adjusted the framing to capture the sense of overlapping buildings within the city scape.  These shots whilst nowhere near the quality, were reminiscent of Alfred Stieglitz's shots of the city skyline from his hotel/studio windows.  I was thinking about his work and presence in the city whilst working these images.

I then moved from views of the buildings to picking off details of the building tops:

My elevation provided a unique and the lens an almost intrusive view into the world below me, I especially like the table and chair on the roof top, with the cones placed to remind people (I guess) not to get too close to the drop.  Turning back to a more angled view of the overlapping buildings I took the following:

These fascinate me, if I lived in the US I would be tempted to rent a room on a fine weekend and just spend the day shooting details from the window. The overlapping shapes and forms, built out of cubes, cones and cylinders, seem like a giant child's building block set, or alternatively cubism without the need to distort reality.

I have very many more similar photographs, the opportunity was essentially infinite.  This was a dramatic outlook on an  world very alien to someone who grew up in the low rise cities of Europe.  You cannot imagine the glee when I got to the room and looked at my camera bag.  That is my final post from my New York trip.  A city of unbelievable photographic potential, from grubby urban social documentary, through marvelous colorful street photography and into landscape imagery that verges on the abstraction of early 20th century modern art forms.  We will go back, but next time I will have a single photographic goal not many as in this trip, the tough question will be what?

Friday, March 16, 2012

Assignment 4: Writing my Essay

Two major landmarks today! First of all this is entry number 114, making this now the longest blog I have yet to produce, testament to the more involved nature of the Level 2 courses. Secondly I just completed the first draft of my Landscape essay on Andreas Gursky.

This assignment felt rather strange, no photographs, no sussing out locations, no early morning jaunts in the freezing cold. Just a large pile of books and articles to absorb and then build a concept that can be fabricated into a coherent essay. I have done a considerable amount of research, reading books, contemplating images, downloading articles from the web, and even finding a DVD that chronicled the creation of a work of art by Gursky.

Today I finally bit the bullet and took a day off from work to write the essay. Having spent weeks rehearsing in my mind what I planned to write it was time to turn ideas into prose. It took me 10 hours to compile a first draft of roughly 2,700 words, slightly over the limit, but this does include 150 words of bibliography that I do not think shoul count to the total.

My basic premise for the essay was to pose the question as to whether Rhien II was worth the $4.3M it recently captured at auction. To answer the question I traced Gursky's history as student and artist, trying to chronicle the artistic influences that brought him to his current state. I analysed the work of his early career and that of his latter years. In doing so I also looked at How he was influenced by the Bechers and how he compares to his contemporaries. I finished the essay shifting from 3rd to 1st person to provide a more opinion based piece about how his work sits alongside more established modern art and what I take from it.

I have nt written a great deal about the influence of Gursky on my own work, I feel I will write enough on this topic when I develop my imagery for assignment 5 and attempt to emulate his style. My current concern is that the essay is too biase towards hIs early work, however, I feel I need to build the picture of where he comes from to better understand who he is today.

In any case at present all I have is a first draft, I still have a few days to refine the content prior to submitting on time to meet the deadline on Monday. I could take longer, but I now want to get this out of the way and move onto some photographic work.

Speaking of photographs, here are a couple of illustrations for this blog entry, starting with my office work space in the midst of essay creation.

Essay writing 1

As it was a fine sunny day today, I waited for the sun to warm the patio and decamped to the back of the house for a few blissful hours writing in the open air. This really helped the creative process and I found that I was writing more fluidly.

Essay writing 2

Although I had been dreading getting down to some serious writing today turned out to be both fun and very satisfying, perhaps essay writing is not so bad after all. On the other hand perhaps I simply wrote a pile of crap.

We will find out when my tutor gets a chance to read it early next week.

Friday, March 9, 2012

P31: telephoto views - compressing planes

A city is an interesting place to explore with a telephoto, it is a landscape that favors the compression of planes that a tele can produce.  As with the last project, I kept this one in mind as I walked around New York always thinking about opportunities to use a longer focal length.  The tighter angle of view is a benefit rather than a restriction in a space that is dominated by long narrow streets.

Modern telephotos have pretty good image stabilization these days, obviating the need of a tripod, although the 50-200mm zoom tele that I carried with me is not the best performing in its class.  Some of the images I captured were a little soft, but only when looking very close at the 100% enlargement of the images.  When using a larger lens on my FF SLR I often use a monopod which provides a good balance between portability and stability.

My first shots were taken from the window of my 37th floor hotel room, a vantage point that proved ideal (apart from very dirty exterior windows).  This enabled long shots that compressed many city blocks into what look like almost flat planes.  This is not ideal from a visual separation standpoint, but does create interesting patterns:

Angling the lens across the building tops creates a far more 3 dimensional, although still very compressed.  The Hudson river appears narrow but at this point in the city is very wide indeed.

Waiting until nightfall, the telephoto creates a very abstract collage of lights from the brightly lit buildings contrasting with the darkness of the night.  This would have been something I could have explored for many hours, each shot creating new juxtapositions of colour and pattern, but without the form of the buildings being clear.

Returning to street level the telephoto creates a much more claustrophobic feel to the city streets, a better parallel to the experience of being there than is delivered by a wider angle lens.  The tele also brings foreground and background together, I used this approach for this shot of a man walking near the Flatiron building.

Another compression of planes can be achieved by looking at the overlap between buildings at the long end of the lens.  In my first example I have omitted the sky again to retain the claustrophobia of the densely packed city.

My final example takes a low rise of no more than 10 stories against the massive height of the empire state building.  The tele and clear weather makes them appear very close, however, there are many blocks between these two buildings.

One aspect of walking the streets of a large city is the joy of looking for the sudden revelation of a unique viewpoint, the overlap of shape and forms and trying to construct an eye catching composition out of these elements.  A telephoto delivers the tool needed to make these shots work.  At 200mm the world looks very different than at 16mm.