Saturday, June 9, 2012

Assignment 5: New Direction

Looking at my previous blog entries on Assignment 5, they are dated Feb 16, Mar 25, and Apr 16.  I have been thinking about this assignment for a very long time, mulling over different ideas, experimenting a little with the camera and photoshop, but most of all trying to figure out how to channel Gursky into my own work.  I started by taking his highly Digital style and trying to build my own composite images creating virtual crowds at a few Munich locations.  Whilst I could achieve some modestly interesting results, it rapidly became apparent that I would not be able to get vaguely close to Gursky's imagery, and also why would I want to?

Two aspects of this settled in my mind, the first is that I do not have access to skilled photoshop professionals,  nor the ability to command access for prolonged periods of time to significant Munich landmarks.  However, it is the second problem that finally steered me away from this approach.  Whilst I admire Gursky's complex imagery I have no desire to replicate it myself.  His subject matter and style are not my own.  I have come to the realization that it is critical for me to NOT emulate Gursky.  What I need to do is to learn from his style and working practice, then use that knowledge to improve my own photography.  I must create my own photographs in my own style building upon my learning.

So what is it about Gursky that I can bring to my own work, what elements of his style most interest and inspire me?

  1. Framing: Gursky very carefully controls the edges of the frame, rarely enclosing his subjects within negative space.  The subject matter usually spans the frame.
  2. Compression:  In much of his earlier work Gursky compressed the image plane presenting the subject as a series of overlapping sheets of information.
  3. Subject:  In his earlier work Gursky spent much time studying German suburbia.  I do not feel a need to deliberately select the same material, but I have an interest in recording the social landscape of modern Germany.
  4. Series:  Today Gursky creates one-off highly individual works of art, however, he started creating serial work, typographies, under the guidance of the Bechers.
What becomes obvious is the it is his earlier work that has the strongest influence over me, perhaps this is because the later work is beyond my current skill set.

With this in mind I have been trying to find a subject that I can apply some of these ideas to, but also one that builds upon my previous assignments.  So far I have explored Munich's parks and aspects of the inner city.  I have considered a series of images within the city center, exploring the shopping streets and entertainment districts.  This did not work for me, I could be anywhere and somehow I found it hard to add any personality to the images.

Shortly before we went on holiday in early May, our tiny mother cat, Doro, went missing creating a major crisis.  We delayed our vacation for 3 days hoping that she would return, but also realized that we could not sit waiting for ever and so with a heavy heart we headed to the airport 6 days after she went missing.  3 hours before we were due to take off, an SMS arrived from our next door neighbour and cat sitter, Doro returned hungry but otherwise fine.  We guess she got locked in someones garage or basement.  With a few tears of relief we headed off for a slightly curtailed holiday.

This event provided the idea for Assignment 5.  During the time she was missing we hunted all over our neighbourhood, putting up posters and asking local people if they had seen Doro.  As we live in the center of a city this led us to search the inner courtyard of many of the apartments nearby.  Called Innenhofs in German, these spaces occupy the center of most city blocks.  In Germany most older apartments are built in a hollow square enclosing the Innenhof.  It was only on vacation still puzzling over Assignment 5 that I reflected on what I had seen in this search.  Each Innenhof was very different, some ornate others disorderd, some peacful green spaces, others grim concrete wastelands.  Each Innenhof had a personality of its own that some how reflected the people who lived there.

So with Assignment 5 I plan to turn my eye towards the inner landscape of the city, an exploration of shared and yet private spaces, spaces that speak of the personality of the city and the people who make it their home. I may turn this into a book as I did Assignment 3, but I am secure that I can find 12 images that can tell the story of these spaces.

There is one major aspect of this work that will differ from the working practice of Andreas Gursky.  I plan to shoot this with small compact cameras, a Fuji X100 with a fixed 23mm lens (35mm FFE) and a Samsung NX200 mirrorless system camers with an 18mm lens (27mm FFE).  Both cameras have an APS-C sensor equal to or even better than that found in many DSLRs.  Innehofs are private spaces, I need to be respectful and discrete.  If I start walking around with a Canon 5D Mark II with a tilt-shift lens on a tripod I am going to attract to much attention.  If challenged with the small camera I can easily say that I am looking to move to the area and want to get some photos of different apartment buildings, this will not hang with the DSLR.  So I am stepping far away from Gursky's 5x7 view camera.

The final point I need to address before presenting some initial photography is that I accept that this is on the borderline between Landscape and Social Documentary, however, looking back I realize that most of my landscape work has a strong social element supported by a narrative.  With this assignment I am turning my eye to documenting society through the urban landscape.

I have already completed 3 photo walks in my immediate area.  This is an interesting process, I have to walk the streets actively look for entries into the building complexes.  When I find an access point (many Innenhofs are behind locked doors) I have no idea what I will find once inside.  Each Innenhof is a new exploration.  I have to move fairly quickly to avoid looking creepy, but each shot has to be very carefully lined up, parallel lines dominate the spaces, and there are a vast number of compositional options.  I typically set the camera to f/8 or f/11 and select an ISO that provides comfortable hand holding.  I cannot shoot in sun light, the contrast would be far too high, shadows hiding detail.  I must wait for overcast conditions.  The Fuji is excellent for this use as the high ISO capabilities of the sensor are superb.

Overall the feeling is one of street photography, but with space as the subject rather than people.  I am avoiding inclusion of people (except in a small number of cases) as I want the images to reflect the people through the space they occupy not there own appearance.

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