Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Is 'the decisive moment' passé?

Henri Cartier-Bresson
behind Saint Lazare station, 1932
 by Dana Iordan       

A man in a mid-air leap over a puddle: I can still recall my burst of excitement when first seeing this picture. It was a Tv interview with a Cartier-Bresson (jotted down the author's name). Couldn't pinpoint what triggered my instant, vivid response; didn't give it much thought. After all, I wasn't into photography.

Meanwhile, I've started taking pictures. Along the way, other kinds of photography – more contemporary, let's say – have taken their turn in getting my juices flowing, and framing pictures for me whenever I looked at the world. But there are peaks and valleys, and for a while now, things have slowed down for me in the department of enthusiasm. A search for 'something' is going on, again. I've eventually decided to not get in its way, and withdraw into the generic direction of some basics.

So at some point I've set my camera to black and white: it should simplify things, for one. (If it subtracts from pictures, color can be put back into them – one of the advantages of 'RAW' files.) There's also a shift in perception, looking through the viewfinder in color, then checking the b&w result on the camera's screen. Color distractions are gone, and the picture's formal properties become more apparent. Even more so on the computer screen: structures, their weaknesses, opportunities that were within reach, but now are lost, come through like bones in an X-ray. (Cartier-Bresson used to look at contact sheets upside-down).

Going back to the famous picture behind the Gare Saint Lazare: I feel no surge of enthusiasm for it now (perhaps it is already 'known'), but still, the picture holds. What makes it? It may be the contrast between the boldness of the leap, and its already visible futility: we can predict that the man is going to land into the water, though the photographer freezes him just before that happens. But it couldn't be only that. 

There's a whole system of visual forces and contrasts that pumps energy into the picture, and contains it at the same time: the visual alliteration of the man's leap (upside-down in his own reflection, while the poster ballerina leaps into the opposing direction, and finally reverberations in the shapes of the roofs around), the contrast between this man's energetic movement and tonal appearance and the other one's gray stillness, etc. 

In “The Photographer's Eye”, John Szarkowski talks about 'the decisive moment' (a syntagm that an anarchist Cartier-Bresson did not approve of as a label) as being “decisive not because of the exterior event (the bat meeting the ball) but because in that moment the flux of changing forms and patterns was sensed to have achieved balance and clarity and order – because the image became, for an instant, a picture. 

I have felt this 'falling into place' of things, when one can almost hear a voice saying “Yes, this is IT” or “press the shutter NOW”. But many more times I've missed it, and even more times settled for empty, serial mechanical exercises. I can only hope that preparation, practice, and cultivating a space for yet unknown possibilities can set someone on a collision path with the 'moment' more often – no matter what kind of photography they're into.

Cartier-Bresson said he didn't take photographs: photographs took him.
This is one of the first pictures that
'took me'.

Where the author is not specified, photos © Dana Iordan.

Monday, 13 February 2012

'new photographic clichés'

We are inevitably influenced by the imagery that surrounds us; sometimes unknowingly so. And inevitably, we become part of a visual culture in smaller or larger contexts that often bites its own tail. Very few people manage to produce truly original work. More than some of us like to admit, we tend instead to reproduce visual and cultural stereotypes. 
21st January 2012 © Lise Utne
Harvey Benge's blog entry 'New Photographic Clichés' recently alerted me to 25 such categories identified by Mark Page over a series of blog posts.

In his (now discontinued) blog Manchester Photography, Page produces a humorous list of topics many of us will recognise -- perhaps with a hint of embarrassment -- as our own:

1: The dodgy painting
2: Mounds and heaps
3: Backs of heads, either human, fish or fowl
4: The "found" photograph
5: People with shit over their heads
6: Murals in the landscape
7: Teeny tiny shrunken cities
8: Falling, floating, jumping folk
9: Half in half out, folk wading
10: Calling exhibitions and books things like (re)this or (something)similar where half the (fucking)title is (in)brackets
11: Diptychy triptychy random white borders
12: Crappy photos of "What I eat"
13: Typologies of murder weapons (either real or potential)
14: Topiary
15: Charging a $35 submission fee for exhibition/competition entry
16: Photos imitating old paintings
17: Where the magic happens, studios and darkrooms
18: Girls & beds, messed & distressed
19. Semi-naked attractive American white kids hanging out of trees
20. Crap collage
21. Detroit? Oh come on, give me a fucking break
22. People staring through sweaty bus/train windows
23. Something old something new, take an old picture and mix it together with a new one
24. Pissed Russians
25. Anything shot with that Apple 'Hipstamatic' app bollocks

After Page had posted his first 12 points, Harvey Benge commented (on 7 October 2009): 

'[...]  I just had to repost this as not only is it funny, but it's true. [...] I'd add, over photoshopped pictures of young kids often in funny clothes, people made to do things in the landscape they would never do in real life and large format landscape pictures we have all seen a million times before.'

Funny, yes, and enough to make one blush: Personally, I am aware of being guilty according to charges numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 11, and 12. Ouch!

(PS: Words typed in blue contain links to the mentioned content: please click to open in a new window.)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Barbro Östlihn's urban geometry

Maria Magdalena - painting by Barbro Östlihn 1966
by Ann Kroon

One of the first ever paintings  I wanted to buy at an auction here in Stockholm was one of Barbro Östlihn’s geometrical wonders. The painting was of course far too expensive for my student pockets and I forgot about it, with time not even remembering the painter’s name. Years later, however, I found a note where I had scribbled down her name and so I was able to find out more through an exhibition catalogue made by Norrköping’s museum. Again, I was totally awestruck and this time what hit me the most was how Östlihn in her paintings reworked and redesigned urban geometrical patterns that she found and captured with her camera on her Manhattan strolls in the early 1960s.

Photos by Barbro Östlihn,
(reproduced in  Öhrner 2010, see below)
Living in New York City with her husband on a working stipend from Sweden and walking around middle and lower Manhattan – they had their artist's loft on Front Street, close to Wall Street – what developed into her specialty was photographing the huge urban renewal taking place, capturing the last remains of a built environment almost already gone, seemingly drawn to the unintentional patterns emerging from the actual physical breakdown involved. Academically trained, mastering perfectly the necessary techniques, she then transformed her photographs of various emerging urban patterns (from manholes, walls, steam pipes, signs, street views) through  sketches onto large scale paintings.

costa rica 
When I started to use a digital camera in 2009 while living in Central America, I soon noticed that I was passionately drawn to the patterns of concrete blocks, walls, windows, gates and fences. On a visit back home to Stockholm, I took out the book about Östlihn and boom! I understood the great inspiration she had been to me. 

backside abf  
I often think about her when I am out walking the city and capturing whatever my eyes fancy, uncomfortably often trying to wean off feelings of “this is nothing to shoot”. Through Östlihn I have permission to see the beauty and urgency in these urban patterns, through her work, and not least through her creative work process, it is like she gives me the go-ahead, urging me “please see this as important, if it is important to you, it is important”. She makes me feel like I am not alone in entering into conversations with these urban material stills. She gives me an alternative to the fancy high style architectural shots that I secretly always found boring, and instead she points me to the inherently lost beauty of the unintentional geometrical stunners, the abjected and abandoned, here today, perhaps gone tomorrow.

demolition dollhouse 
demolition dollhouse (detail) 

All photos  © Ann Kroon when not stated otherwise


Swedish art historian Annika Öhrner has made two fantastic books about Barbro Östlihn. They are written in Swedish with English summaries and both books contain many reproductions of Östlihn’s work and photography.

Barbro Östlihn, Liv och konst (Life and art), Norrköpings konstmuseum, 2003.
Barbro Östlihn & New York. Makadam, 2010.

Monday, 30 January 2012

inspired by... diane arbus

30th January 2012 (b/w photo taken in the mid 2000s) © Lise Utne
(by Lise Utne)

"The two Emmas" (left) is representative of a photographic style I pursued for a while. Black and white film was freely available for what seemed a reasonable price, or at least worth the sacrifice: I still have a couple of 20-packs in the fridge. I paid to have the films developed, because it was more practical and slightly more reliable than doing it myself. I've only printed copies of a few (in my makeshift darkroom, enlarger on top of the tumble drier). There is a large stack of negatives on my bookshelf that I would love to see if I can make something of. I need a scanner. Preferably a good one.

But my point here is the photographic style. To a great extent, I've been influenced by "the usual suspects". Living in the US for a year around the turn of the millennium, with time on my hand in a college town with a well-stocked public library and several second-hand bookstores within reach, I took a deep dive into a world of top-class photography. Diane Arbus's books were among my favourites.

The received opinion seems to be that Arbus photographed "freaks", and she herself suggested that people who might be described that way were somehow nobler than the rest. I never consider anyone I photograph a "freak". On the contrary, I consider all people equals. I like to think that I approach my photographic subjects with an attitude of deep respect and a feeling of mystery. To a certain extent, I think Arbus did the same, except from a different angle -- it seems that she wanted to show us that we are all "freaks", especially those of us who consider ourselves normal:

Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph
"Everybody has a thing where they need to look one way but they come out looking another way and that's what people observe. You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw. It's just extraordinary that we should have been given these peculiarities. And, not content with what we are given, we create a whole other set. Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there's a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can't help people knowing about you. And that has to do with what I've always called the gap between intention and effect. I mean if you scrutinize reality closely enough, if in some way you really, really get to it, it becomes fantastic. You know it really is totally fantastic that we look like this and you sometimes see that very clearly in a photograph. Something is ironic in the world and it has to do with the fact that what you intend never comes out like you intend it. // What I'm trying to describe is that it's impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else's. And that's what all this is a little bit about. That somebody else's tragedy is not the same as your own." (Diane Arbus: An Aperture Monograph. Edited and designed by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel. New York: Aperture, 1972. Pp. 1-2.)

3rd February 2012 (b/w shot: mid 2000s) © Lise Utne 
I admire Arbus's photographic style. Sometimes, using certain angles and light conditions and surroundings, portraits can result that are quite striking. Portraits that suggest quite insistingly by showing what people look like that people are more than surface. Portraits that are the antithesis of the slick "look" we are constantly bombarded with, seemingly trying to convince us that we should all strive to look the same and have the same ideals and priorities. So I admire Arbus both for her photographic style and for the fact that she chose to photograph people from different walks of life. People with different appearances and lifestyles.

I still think Diane Arbus was on to something.

(Blog post last revised 3rd February 2012.)

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Loads of crap (or how Martin Parr pressed my Flash button)

Up until a year ago I haven't heard much of Martin Parr. Sure, his name popped out here-there, but so have other names: too many for me to follow at the time. I took some photography courses, and then I found out more about him: that his photos are basically crap, that the new Magnum is crap (Cartier-Bresson never liked his pictures), and that generally the use of direct flash is crap. So much crap slaying suddenly got my juices flowing and -- since I'm a Libran -- decided to get on the crap's side, just to counter-balance what was going on.

Supporting memories came in to cement my snap decision: the wonderful use of flash by photographers I've met on the internet (flickr, back then also jpg), the "Martin Parr WE ♥ U" flickr group that I've seen some of Simon Kossoff's pictures posted to. I mean, if Simon Kossoff ♥ Martin Parr, then the crap lies somewhere else. Etc.
So, for my next homework, decided to make use of the 'flash' button on my camera, and serve the teacher with the end results. Here are two pictures made back then.
Two very different pictures, in the end. One passed as 'good', the other was 'crap'. You figure which, what. In any case, that proved that crap lies not in every flash. (And equally -- that Martin Parr lies not in every flash, either.)

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

'we all need that echo of familiarity to help us have the confidence to make a body of work' (martin parr)

'We want to emulate the impact that these images had on us, and this can be as restricting as it can be liberating', concludes Martin Parr in his blog entry 'Photographic Clichés' posted in April 2011. He claims in effect that practitioners of serious photography (my term, not his) are not necessarily as original in their choices of subject matter as they would like to think:

'The Fine Art and Documentary photographers take great pride in thinking themselves superior to the other main genres of photography, such as the family snap shooter or the amateur photographer, as personified by camera club imagery. However, after 30 / 40 years of viewing our work, I have come to the conclusion that we too are fairly predictable in what we photograph.'

Parr lists 13 'basic genres':

1. The above ground landscape with people (which he traces back to Gursky)
2. The bent lamppost (traced back to Stephen Shore 'and others')
3. The diary (traced back to Nan Goldin, predated by Larry Clark and Ed van der Elsken)
4. The nostalgic gaze (buildings, establishments and institutions on the eve of their closure)
5. The quirky and visually strong setting ('In terms of documentary we are much more likely to see a project done on a circus than say, a petrol station.')
6. The Street (including, in the UK, the beach, but decreasingly so: see Parr's blog post for elaboration)
7. The black and white grainy photo (traced back to Daido Moriyama, who 'combined the imagery of Andy Warhol and William Klein')
8. The New Rich (Tina Barney, rich Yale kids photographing their families; 'nearly always shot in large format, and often involve taking clothes off too')
9. I am a poet (traced back to Bill Eggleston and Rinko Kawauchi)
10. The modern typology (the Bechers, the Dusseldorf school)
11. The Staged photo (Gregory Crewdson)
12. The Formal portrait (Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Ruff)
13. The long landscape

'I could go on [...] I think the point I am making is that we need to consider our subject matter more carefully. When I am looking through student folios I often say these things, and usually people look at me as if to say "how dare you question what I am shooting." [...]'

And here's another chance to read Martin Parr's original blog entry.

Monday, 23 January 2012

inspired by... martin parr

5th July 2006 © Lise Utne
I took a series of photos of this scene. Racing through my head were all the Martin Parr photographs I'd ever seen.

Martin Parr may disagree strongly that there's anything about this photograph that has anything at all in common with his approach to photography. The colours are duller, and no flash was fired -- for a start.

Nevertheless, there he was in my head: Martin Parr. Hovering over this scene, remote-controlling my trigger finger. 

A complicating factor is that I asked my (then ten-and-a-half-year-old) son to take some of the photos. Maybe he took this one? I can't say for sure that he didn't. And I have no idea whether he had seen any of Martin Parr's works at the time. 

But Martin Parr was definitely there. At least as an inspiring factor in seeing the value of this scenario, and thus in my decision to shoot it.

inspired by... online photo forum contacts

5th December 2011 © Lise Utne
The detached viewpoint, the subject matter, and above all the use of light and colour are most definitely inspired by an approach I've observed in other photographers' work.

Some of my photo contacts at jpgmag.com and flickr.com spring immediately to mind. (None mentioned, none forgotten.)

The works of such photo contacts have been (and continue to be) an important source of inspiration.