Sunday, August 26, 2012

Assignment 5: Rework

I have now reworked the assignment text adding a tie back to Gursky to the preamble and replacing 3 of the less "Gursky-esque" photos with ones that I think make the set a more harmonious whole:

These are the images that I have pulled from the set together with their replacements:

replaced by

In many ways I think the original image was better, however, the depth in the photo contrast very sharply with the others in this sequence.

replaced by

The bin image was the only one my tutor rejected. I have replaced it with the most geometrical image I captured.  I agonized about this one, I really like it, but thought it too simple.  In fact I now think it captures the modernist stance that Gursky does in his work.

replaced by

The original image was part of a narrative that I tried to develop and did not work.  It does not have the symmetry that other images possessed and so I have replaced it with the jungle shot in the set.

The new package is on its way to my tutor, let's see what next.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Assignment 5 - Initial Feedback

Just hit a major, but not totally unexpected snag with my subject selection for the final assignment.  I deliberately chose not to select subject matter that would be suggestive of Gursky's own work, choosing instead to go with my own subject but try and bring what I have learnt from my studies to this work.

I think I may have strayed too far and pushed the limits too much.  My tutor has got back to me concerned that the examiners may not see a link between my work and Gursky's.  I am a little disappointed as I do believe that the goal of the exercise is not to copy a master, but to learn from their work and I did think that I had demonstrated that in this work.  In fact my tutor was quite positive about the images that I prepared:
I am not making any comments on each of your images which, in my opinion are of excellent quality and are redolent of the Germany and the German character that I have been acquainted with in the past and that Gursky has showed the viewer’s of his work.

I have achieved what I set out to do with the set, which was to capture the essence of a hidden German landscape.  I do not think I am being told that I have done wrong, more that the examiners simply might not get it and mark my work down.

Here is what I stated in a reply email:

First of all thanks for your very forthright comments, they were not unexpected. Whilst working on this assignment I wrestled with the same problem of how to “work in the style of” Gursky.  I wrote the essay on someone who divides the photographic world and has arguably had more of an influence recently than most any other artist.  However, at the same time one of his greatest critiques is that his influence has been too great and recently many photography graduates are copying him and producing grand but soulless work.

Initially I was going to work in the commercial heart of the city and considered working on a multi-shot basis doing some preliminary tests.  I also considered the possibility of working from elevation as he often does.  The problem both approaches brought for me was that whilst they might have paralleled Gursky’s recent visual  statements, they would have been very far from the direction I have been going, which is an increasingly intimate exploration of my city.  Throughout my landscape work I have been drawing on Gursky (and the other Düsseldorf graduates) in my own work.  I feel their influence all the time, but not in the subject matter I am drawn to, rather in the approach and framing strategies.

The Innenhof series was an outgrowth of this influence, a deliberate strategy to avoid creating large scale impressions of the city that I could not personally buy into.  What I was hoping was that I could channel Gursky’s compositional strategies into something that would be resolutely my own.

I used his early work as an inspiration, I looked at work he produced as a student and considered that against myself as a student.  One problem with Galassi’s volume is that it is considers a relatively small time span in his work, another publication “Gursky Works 80-08”, also includes earlier work he produced as a student, especially the photographs of the Pförtner, desk attendants, at German companies and photographs of his neighbourhood in Düsseldorf.  I think these can be found on the web.  In a sense I saw the Innenhof series as a parallel to the discipline the Bechers imposed on the young Gursky of photographing similar subjects again and again together with the exploration of my locale.

I also note in later work he uses a lot of floor to celing compositional strategies particularly hotel interiors.  However, as you rightly point out he is much further away from his subject and has generated a strong degree of abstraction in the images.

I knew this was a risk and if you consider it to have failed, then I am OK with that, after all my goal as a student is to learn and mistakes often provide better lessons than continued success. 

My challenge right now with reworking would then be one of timing and subject development.  I would need to withdraw from the November assessment as I will not have enough time to develop a new concept, shoot, finalize and review before the end of September when I would need to get my work into the mail.  I would have to step back and truly consider how to develop a new concept that would align better to Gursky’s more recent work.  I did have a few ideas, working more in the commercial districts of the city studying the energy of the city. This will take several months, my basic problem right now being an average 60 hour work week.

I would prefer not to do this, of course, however, I do need to pass Landscape and want a good mark if possible.  I am struggling at the moment with Social Documentary, I am finding it hard to connect with the course and find the assignments a little uninspiring.  Thus, I want a good result from  Landscape to act as a springboard into Level 3.

So now I face a conundrum, risk the work and the examiners wrath or redo the whole assignment and go for a March submission of the course.  This is not so bad, I enjoy the work, so more of it is not necessarily a bad thing, however, I do feel that the Innenhof series is good work that aligns well with my other subject matter during the past year of Landscape.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

P42: man-made landscape

The last project in Landscape, is essentially the subject for almost every photograph I have taken or posted during this course.  At times I have railed against the obsession of the material with the traditional pastoral British landscape, but I have to admit that the course has provided me with the freedom to pretty much do as I please, provided I remain respectful of the fact that I need to develop skills and awareness of landscape style subject matter.

My personal subject has been urban landscape and in particular the city of Munich, my home for the last 18 years.  As I write this I have already commenced on my second course, Social Documentary, once again with Munich as my subject, but this time an emphasis on the people rather than the topography.  As I progress it is this unifying theme of my home city that drives my photography.  It is there, near by, ever changing and yet constant.  The more I look the more there is to see.

Thus this project is  an apt way to close my course work.  As every photo I have taken thus far is of a man made space, rather than go out and find 3 man made landscapes, here are 3 photographs of man-made landscapes taken during the course that mean a lot to me

This is the winter image from my portfolio, showing the area in the Englischer Garten in which I photographed Assignment 3, a study of a small area of parkland as Summer turned to Autumn and then Winter.  I visited again and again, developing an afinity with a space that I never thought I could have.  It helped me to understand that good photography is not a lucky or even a brilliant press of a shutter, it is hard graft and the progressive development of an idea.

Not used in an assignment, this shot was part of the development work for Assignment 1.  It represents a geometrical view of the world, at this stage an exercise in perspective.  Whilst taking these photographs I made the decision to stick within the city for the course;  at the time I was still considering working on the edge of the city, looking at how we sprawl out into the countryside.

A development image for Assignment 2, still thinking in colour, but with an almost B&W feel to it.  This image is very representative of the aesthetic I was developing towards and that which I adopted for Assignment 5.  It is very planar, carefully constructed and crossing the line from Landscape into Social Documentary.

I think my recent photography is strongly trending towards being a series of Documentary studies, not Social Documentary as such, but linked studies of locations.  I also feel that I am now evolving an own style or "voice", still imature, but beginning to grow.  The last photo in this brief commentary is a good example of that style.

Assignment 5: Submission

Finally I have completed the edit and submitted the photographs to my tutor.  I have used the images from the preceding post, so will only document here my submission notes.

At first glance this assignment should be pretty straightforward; produce 12 photographs in the style of an established photographer about whom I have already performed detailed researched.  However, applying the word “style” to the complete oeuvre of an established photographer is not a simple task. Over a career exceeding 30 years Andreas Gursky’s style has evolved, he has experimented with techniques, explored concepts, and occasionally changed direction.  His current style, that for which he is understandably famous, is one of complex multi-layered composite images, containing dramatic contrast in both shadow and colour.  This is quite different to the work he did shortly after graduating from the Düsseldorf art academy, the Pfötner and studies of suburban 1980’s Germany.  Even considering his more recent work; without knowing that the photograph was a Gursky, would one naturally associate “Rhein II” with “Bergwerk Ost”, a highly stylistic flat landscape with a deep shadowy image of miners clothing?.  Both images share many attributes in their size, construction, and reference to modernist abstract art, but at the same time offer a very different visual experience.
Prior to even synthesizing a definition of Gursky’s style, a more basic question must be answered; what does it mean to produce work in the style of?  Where is my style in this equation?  To what degree should I balance my own aesthetic to that of my chosen “style guru”?  At a very early stage in the development of this assignment I realized that I could not and should not attempt to imitate the work of Gursky. So what was I to do, I was becoming concerned that I had bitten off far more than I could chew in my selection of Gursky for my essay. 
My eventual answer lay in consideration of my own style rather than that of Gursky.  I took a step back and looked at my recent work and how this has evolved during the past 2 years.  I realized that a number of key elements from the manner in which Gursky constructed his images were beginning to unconsciously appear in my own photography. 
Taking these elements and combining them with what I have learned from my conscious exploration of Gursky’s work, I have identified the following aspects of his style or approach that I want to bring to my own work:
·         Ensuring that the subject fills the frame, even completely spanning the image space
·         Making the frame a strong element in the definition of the photograph
·         Imposing a very clearly defined rectilinear geometry to the photograph
·         Creating a very distinct image plane that will contain the subject matter
·         Controlling colour in a very precise and strongly delineated manner
The realization was not to imitate Gursky’s style, but to channel elements of his image construction into my own work.  My task was to produce a set of photographs that were distinctly my own work, but at the same time infused with learning from my study of Andreas Gursky.
Having decided on a philosophical approach to this assignment, subject matter became the next question.  I needed to continue my study of the city landscape, but this time get closer.  So far I have dealt with monuments, places of worship, and park land, in essence formal public spaces shared by the citizens of the city.  Now I needed to do something more intimate.  My first thought was to study heavily used spaces, environments in which I could even imitate Gursky’s multi-layered composite image building.  Initial experiments with this technique were disappointing and not really me, so something new was needed.

An accident led to subject selection.  Our cat, Doro, managed to get herself lost; 3 days before our annual vacation to Borneo.  We searched high and low, executed a poster campaign, even delayed departure by 3 days, but no sign.  With very heavy hearts we eventually accepted the inevitable and drove to Frankfurt to stay a night before catching the 12 hour flight to Malaysia.  That morning 3 hours before the flight departed she sauntered back into our house, very hungry, but otherwise fine.  The SMS from our cat sitting next door neighbour led to a very happy and ultimately boozy journey.
Looking for a tiny ginger cat led me into an ever expanding circle of exploration and a very detailed awareness of the local landscape.  We live in the city grid in an area dominated by apartment blocks.  Outwardly these apartment blocks look bland and faceless but within each there is an interior space of great variety and contrast.  In German these spaces are called “Innenhof”, inner courtyards.  Ideal places for a small cat to hide in; they are very private spaces normally only experienced by people who live locally.  They provide space for parking, playgrounds for the kids, areas to relax in the sun, somewhere to hang the washing, and in the summer a safe spot to light the barbeque.
On returning from vacation I set out to create a photographic study of the Innenhof’s in my immediate neighbourhood.  This required a considerable amount of exploration and also discretion, these are shared but at the same time private spaces.  I resolved to pretend to be looking for a new apartment if challenged, using my camera to record the area for later reflection when choosing my new home.  I did not set any limit on distance; however, I was able to complete the study to my satisfaction traveling no further than a quarter mile from where I live.  The number of possible spaces to explore essentially grew with the square of my distance from home.  In all I probably explored around 40-50 different Innenhof.
The spaces I discovered varied dramatically, each reflecting the lives and wealth of the people living in the surrounding buildings.  Some spaces were virtually derelict, others pristinely groomed.  On the whole they reflected the orderliness that Germans are justifiably stereotyped with.  What also became clear was that these were transient places, I found many under redevelopment, and during shooting one local space was completely demolished, my photo now becoming a record of a lost landscape.

The greatest challenge with this assignment was my need to respect the privacy of the residents of the places I was photographing.  The subject matter, buildings and gardens, would have ideally suited my Canon DSLR coupled with a wide angle tilt-shift lens, all mounted on a sturdy tripod.  This would also have attracted immediate attention and most likely led to some uncomfortable discussions about what I was doing and why.  Germany is truly a difficult place in which to work on public photography projects.   I opted, instead, to use a small handheld fixed lens compact camera, a Fujifilm X100, a very nice Christmas present from my wife.  The fixed 35mm viewpoint of the lens worked very well for this subject.  It enabled me to create the frame edge to frame edge aesthetic I wanted and the high ISO abilities of the sensor meant I could work handheld in poor light.
Technically I had to contend with two principal problems, light and architecture.  Inside the courtyards I was working at the foot of 5 or 6 story buildings, on sunny days the contrast between sunlit areas and shadows completely obscured the detail of what I was trying to capture.  Subsequently I could only shoot when the sky was overcast, limiting the number of days on which I could work.  Fortunately, my choice of a local subject meant that I could rapidly react to good light and run out with my camera. 
The second problem, architecture, required care both when taking the images and in post processing.  If I had been able to use my DSLR I could have emulated Gursky’s very precise large format camera framing approach, ensuring that verticals remained vertical and parallel lines did not converge unless I wanted them to.  With a handheld camera I did not have this precision, but still had to be very conscious of my position relative to the building and of not tilting the camera up or down.  An Innenhof is dominated by straight lines, any perspective error would be immediately visible in the final print.  The hardest problem was ensuring that I maintained the image sensor plane exactly parallel to the wall of the building facing the camera.  At time of shooting converging vertical lines are quite easy to see, horizontal ones are a much greater challenge.  With care I was able to limit the amount of work needed in post processing and keep any perspective adjustments within limits consistent with not badly degrading image quality.

As I write this I am currently in the bay area, South of San Francisco, on an extended business trip.  I have a camera with me, but so far have struggled to take any photographs.  All around me is the sprawling US suburban landscape, so redolent of Stephen Shore, Lee Friedlander, or Robert Adams.  This is something I have dreamed of photographing many times, walking in the photographic footsteps of people I greatly admire.  The problem is that I have no connection to it; I have no relationship with what I am seeing.  The landscape appears as a random kaleidoscope of picture potential, but with no connections.
I realize is that my photographs are not individual standalone expressions of art; they are always part of extended studies.  I can no longer simply take a photograph or even admire a single photograph; I want to see a book, a series, a set of images that exist with context and narrative.  Frequently I reject a photo, individually more pleasing/impressive/structured/meaningful (pick an adjective) than the others in my submissions, because it is not part of the story or does not align graphically with the others in the set.  During my studies for this course I have developed a strong sense of the relationships that exists within series’ of photographs. 
This is the single most important thing I have learned so far and I believe it has taken me to a new place in the creation and contemplation of photographs.