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.