Wrote up tutorial notes for assignment 1 (after prompting) and got them to tutor.
in other news…
Finished reading for Exercise 1. Need to establish which two pictures I’ll analyse.
Found scattered parts of nodal-point rig and established settings for taking panoramas using the 85mm nikor on my d610.
Attended the Keeping Up Momentum ‘Cahoot’ session with Diane Ali on Saturday morning. Finally got round to automating Life During Wartime from Context and Narrative as calling card for the group work. Fun to collaborate with others but need to get better at stopping these becoming a momentum-sapping excuse for further procrastination!
Walked down High Road Leyton for exercise 2.2. Edited resulting photographs and wrote first part of post.
Got Formative feedback for A1 – more favourable than I thought it would be.
Richard Misrach’s on Landscape and Meaning arrives from Amazon. Looks interesting.
you get ROAD movies but practice STREET photography – what’s the difference?
You get a lot of results if you do a search on the phrase road street difference. Put simply:
road= a route or way on land between two places that has been paved to allow travel by transport.
street= a paved public road that only appears in a city or town, not in rural areas
– from Woodward English Vocabulary
But of course, it isn’t that simple. The above works generally for cities in the USA (where you have the added convention of having avenues running perpendicular to streets in a grid system) but isn’t standardised across towns and cities in the UK. I live in Devonshire Road, it has buildings on both sides, is in a city and doesn’t really go anywhere (although it’s not a cul de sac); in other words it’s really a street, whereas Boundary Road (which it is perpendicular to) marks the (old) boundary between Leyton and Walthamstow, which now runs along the middle of the Lea Bridge Road, as it takes you all the way from Epping Forest (in the east) to the bridges over the Lea navigation (in the west) and over it to end at the Clapton roundabout. There is a Roman road called Watling Street that runs from the south coast, through the outpost of London, and on towards the wilds of Wales, but Watling Street is a name given to it later. No one knows what the Romans called it, but presumably it was a Via – or way.
For this part of the module, I’ll use the simple definition that a road leads somewhere (and can of course be a metaphor such as the road to ruin) while a street is (part of) a destination, like Oxford Street in London, or ‘the street’ which runs through the centre of Kirkwall comprising Bridge Street, Albert Street, Broad Street and Victoria Street. Here the street seems to denote the commercial centre of an urban area, and possibly therefore can be seen as an example of metonymy, where a part comes to represent the whole, like the American idea of Main Street standing as a token for all of small-town America…
journey (noun) = an act of travelling from one place to another
Again this can be literal – the journey to work, or the journey to Southend on a train or in the car – but like road, journey also is used as a metaphor: this module is part of my learning journey , after all. The key thing is that a journey is an ongoing process – it focuses on the getting there (the road) rather than the there itself (a street perhaps) – and so journey is also used as a verb.
journey (verb) = to travel somewhere
– both Journey definitions, from Google Dictionary
I am comfortable with what I am doing both with a camera and with what I do when I get home with the files I have made. I have made definite choices about which camera and which lenses to use to make the images in the first place, and have done my utmost to slow down and adopt a more contemplative approach to image making than I have followed for the non-technical assignments for earlier courses, whether my heavy tripod was involved or not. I think this comes across in the pictures which are (mainly) geometrically composed upon a single, flat plane.
The pictures were taken at times when the light was falling on them helpfully, either to bring out textural detail, or to reduce contrast between the pictured elevation of a building and the sky visible above it, or sometimes both. Exposures have been long, maximising depth of field. Generally I waited for a cloudy day, to soften the winter light further, although possibly this has led to a muddying of the colour in some of the images.
I have some way to go with doing my own printing (and with the final processing needed to allow images to make the transition from screen to print) but this is not truly relevant to the work presented here, online. However, I intend to address this – whether to produce some sort of filmed presentation or actual prints, to be posted in a clamshell box – for assessment in a year’s time.
Quality of outcome
I took my time finding viewpoints in my part of London, where I could frame subjects I had tucked away over the last year or so, waiting to photograph them. I was pleased to be able to time this part of the module to fit the time of year when Berndt and Hilla Becher took most of their pictures – when the trees were leafless and the Northern European skies were covered with flat cloud. without necessarily making landscapes from them. Many of the basic ‘viewpoint’ images were then reframed to further emphasise their composition and to move them on from being simple ‘views’. I have played around with how they are presented and in the end have settled on showing the London series as single images, as large as I can get them within a wordpress page.
The patterning and repetition in the picture of the clock tower (fig.1) is fascinating; I could stare at the image for ages. I can see echoes of other artists’ work in the Thomas Struth-like street’s end vanishing point of fearsome symmetries (fig.4) and perhaps something of a Turner sea storm in the swirl of leaves and branches around the city cow (fig.3); the bands of colour – orange, green and grey – in the out-of-bounds outdoor gym (fig.5) hints at abstract expressionist colour-field pictures; there is something going on – Edward Hopper? – with the similarity of the sodium lighting and the sunset in fig.6. They are obviously pictures that have been made; they are there to be looked at, and I hope people will.
The Orkney pictures on the other hand are very much ‘holiday pictures’ taken while pausing during days out or when I stumbled upon something. They are immediate, of an instant, where the other pictures are deliberate and considered. By combining them into a slideshow (to be taken as one image), any nostalgic or emotional reaction to the actual pictures is deflected onto their presentation; They become distanced. I may even have accessed some form of Brechtian alienation in their performance…
Demonstration of creativity
The Orkney pictures create a sense of space for me, with their big skies and distant horizons; those taken in London – even though I have backed off as far as I can from the subject – are much more enclosed – claustrophobic even – with no clear view through to the distance. The horizon is blocked by buildings or walls or – in the one picture that promises an escape from the urban – the swirl of leaves and branches that enclose the Lea valley cow. The use of (bespoke) animation and sound effects to evoke a mechanical slide show creates a sense of contrast between the Orkney pictures (set in the past, looked at later) with those taken in London, as well as showing a different use for pictures of place. There is a ‘past tense’ sense to them when compared with the ‘now’ of being confined to one small corner of a bigger city.
I hope the links between each of the pairs of pictures and the titles which echo the voice-over’s commentary show my ability to make visual associations and to draw on other cultural clues – in some cases here, references to English-Language Romantic poetry, in others – to create a more complex overall sense of meaning to the series while tying it back to early nineteenth century ideas of both the beautiful and the sublime.
I have almost completed a log entry for each of the exercises – only one still to go, on conventions in landscape art, but I want to talk about it first at the tutorial. What is there is clear and – I hope – well written. It certainly should be, given how long it has taken me to get to the point of saying ‘enough’ and hitting Publish! . Of course, it all could be shorter (I’ve still not managed to get the hang of confining myself to 500 words or ‘brief notes’ – the writing around one of the exercises is too long to be submitted as the Assignment 4 critical review without pruning) and I must get better at writing stuff down, quickly and turning it into – if necessary, less polished – posts. So, I need to maintain the quality of thought that goes into the posts, while keeping an eye on both the word count and the amount of time it takes me to put words down in the first place.
I also have a list of ‘further reading’ things that I need to turn into brief, contextualising posts, before the thoughts get lost…
It is too early to be talking about outcomes resulting from the whole course with any sense of confidence in their being achieved, but a start is being made. I have been thinking about the many ways to portray places and the uses that different groups of people make of pictures of our environment. I have started to ponder why it is that we make the images we do and what they then may mean in different contexts. I have also made progress in making connections with a number of different groups of fellow-students and have opened myself up a bit more to peer review of my work as I go along.
There is much still to do, but I have made a start. I hope it is not a false one.
‘accept advice’ – card drawn at random from Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s pack of Oblique Strategies
The fifth learning outcome for LPE asks us to ‘exercise your communication skills confidently and interact effectively within a learning group‘. During my last course, I regularly attended the course group hangouts (building up relationships with various fellow students that will outlast our common work on DIaC) and also made use of the OCA Forum’s Critique section to put up early stages assignment work to see of what other people made of my ideas before they were too difficult to change; increasingly, I augmented this by attending the Forum Live sessions, hosted by Clive White. While it was still active, I participated in the Photography Reading Group and found it a great way to get some discussion going around context. I also make a point of going out and looking at other students’ (and ex-students’) logs; I try to make useful comments, and have received very handy feedback on my progress, in return.
I have continued this approach of active engagement with other students, during my work on this module.
For assignment one, I had got so far as working out what form my submission would take, and had done the coding necessary to make a slideshow to display one set of archival photographs taken in Orkney (conventional beauty/the sublime) which would then be set alongside ‘equivalent’ pictures, taken in Walthamstow (testing the conventions), before I offered the raw concept and my first go at how I would present them up to my course mates. The next couple of paragraphs were written up immediately after.
‘Wednesday, 17th February: tried out the slideshow and a selection of Orkney images at this month’s Landscape hangout. Response to both was good. People liked the slideshow, for its slide-iness – the effects (fan and slide-changer mechanism) got some nicely nostalgia-tinged(?) recognition, and opened up further some earlier lines of discussion around options for online display of images.
‘The idea of pairing of pictures was thought to work well (and the concept between past and present, rural and urban was generally viewed as being a successful way into the assignment at the present time). Singled out was the group of cows in Orkney paired with the single cow in the undergrowth on Walthamstow marshes. This is good. I just need to finalise my edit and get the various assignment posts together. A week or so, I think…’
The week became a fortnight, during which I refined my ideas and did some more work on both the selection of pictures and their presentation. I wrote my first WIP post and linked to it from a Critique Category forum post. I also sent the link directly to the people I from my group at the two Keeping Up Momentum sessions that straddled my finishing DIaC and starting LPE. After producing a collaborative, animated exhibition piece (I should really do a post about the experience, but until I do, Paola, another of my group, posted it on the WeAreOCA blog, if you have a few minutes) we carried on meeting as we got on well and found that – coming from different course pathways – gave a wider range of thoughts about one another’s work.
I didn’t get much back from the discussion thread on the forum (although I did get a catalyst for my idea of the sublime being comparable to a radioactive isotope decaying into successively less toxic forms of its element over time) but the comments on WordPress and the emails back from my keeping-up-momentum group were positive about the direction the work was taking, helping me come to some final conclusions about which photographs to include in the final pairings and – where there were multiple possibles among the Walthamstow pictures – which one to use.
Two suggestions definitely changed the final edit – I had been inching towards using the foggy carpark picture as a pair for the ring of Brodgar but the shrouded park gym was easily the majority choice (partly because of something I had not noticed – there were as many uprights in the apparatus as there were stones in the Brodgar picture) and there was something about the strength of the pub window picture that outweighed its being the only portrait format picture.
That should probably have been that, but prompted on the OCA forum by the organiser, I added the assignment to the agenda for the first of the two, March Focus Lives on zoom. I moved much closer towards completing the assignment – reediting the slideshow to reflect the changes to the two sets of pictures, redoing the voiceover and then playing with the timing to make the whole thing tighter – finalising the processing of the Walthamstow pictures and making a start at the contextualising words. I published a ‘nearly there’ version of the assignment post and prepared for a final feedback session.
I’ve had a very positive reaction to every version of the slideshow I’ve put online. The clanking projector gate f/x and the rattle of the cooling fan appears to be instantly recognisable, evoking memories of slideshows past in anyone who experienced them as part of growing up; placing the Orkney images in this context – along with my voiceover – was seen as undercutting the tendency of some of the pictures to represent a hackneyed sublime. All this is good.
Things became less clear when displaying the pictures as diptychs (from the earlier, wip post) got an equally positive response. By doing that, I think it becomes about the pairings (and not a little like an extended version of the first assignment for The Art of Photography) rather than beauty and/or the sublime. After playing with the manner of juxtaposition (fig.3, above) I decided to stick with showing the London pictures separately from their Orcadian equivalents. Viewed online, as these pictures will be, I think they look better and have more impact as full-width images that fill as much of a screen as possible. The contrast between the large scale photographs taken as landscapes and the ‘holiday snap’ slides is more apparent too.
There is, of course, always the possibility of reviving the diptych idea when it comes to compiling series of images for assessment (and when the individual assignment brief becomes less important than the learning outcomes). We shall see.
There was also a suggestion that the two sets of images could be combined into a single, much more complex, animation. A brilliant idea, but my heart sank. I can imagine this working well and coming even closer to my memory of Roger Mayne’s 1964 multi-channel Venice Biennale slide show installation (with music). However I can also imagine just how much work it would be to program. Again, possibly, something to play with later…
I think discussing work, like this, while it is still unfinished, is really useful, but that it requires an openness on the artist’s part to what is being said. There is a constant need to suppress one’s desire simply to be told that what they are doing is great. Similarly, when looking at the work of others, it’s important to come up with reasons for the judgements you are Suggestions should help what is there to develop further, rather than being a statement of how you would have have done a similar thing totally differently. Generosity, from both sides, is all.
OCA (2021) Course guide for the assessment of photography units. (Version: March 2021 event) Barnsley: Open College of the Arts
Read Simon Morley’s essay ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’ Next, choose any body of work that you feel explores the sublime. It may be a photographic project, a work of literature, cinema, or any other medium; write at least 300 words describing how you believe the work you’ve selected relates to the sublime. Use Morley’s text to support your argument.
– (LPE Coursebook: 51)
I was fourteen, maybe fifteen, when I first heard the last track on the Beatles’ 1966 album, Revolver; the recording was already more than ten years old, but it sounded like nothing I had ever heard before. Indeed, when I listened to it again before I starting to write this, it still impresses me as being a strange and ungraspable ball of sound, rather than another song by what was, at the time they recorded it, the most popular pop group in the world.
The song is called Tomorrow Never Knows, and if you don’t know it, take a break from reading this and listen to it now:
It is easy to find ideas in Morley’s article that are directly related to what is going on when you listen to it. Firstly, if the song is ‘about’ anything, it is about the experience of transcendence.
…radical philosophers in France […] hoped, by seeking to understand aspects of human experience that seemed to lie beyond the controlling structures imposed by the status quo, to keep open a pathway leading to some kind of possibility of emancipation.’
If the 19th century viewer was invited to share the place of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer, staring into the fog swirling around the lesser mountain peaks arrayed below below him, then the listener to Tomorrow Never Knows is positioned within John Lennon’s head as he recites (psychedelic ‘guru’ Timothy Leary’s paraphrase of) words from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, urging us to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream… We are offered the possibility of becoming one with the universe, and the recording seems to mimic that experience through the way it sounds.
The song was assembled in a studio: the drums are compressed; guitars are recorded backwards; Lennon’s voice is put through a spinning Leslie speaker; snippets of sound are looped and faded in and out around the central rhythmic thrust of the recording. It is a work of construction; an aural installation, rather than a piece of music. It occupies the space identified by Morley as one of the two contexts for the contemporary sublime – technology.
‘a desire to define a moment when: special and psychological codes and structures no longer bind us; we reach a sort of borderline where rational thought comes to an end; we suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbingly other’
Morley suggests that ‘the most sublime artworks these days tend to be installations‘ and gives examples of disorientating installations in an Art context. Like the more recent dance music it prefigures, Tomorrow Never Knows provides something for listeners to lose themselves in, an opportunity to become one with some bigger… thing. Of course, it also is an invitation to go ahead, take the pill, Alice – go on, you know you want to; what have you got to lose? It is not dying; it is being… Tomorrow Never Knows is almost a dare.
Where the song does not follow Morley’s template for the sublime, is in the way that it retains (for me at least) the power to challenge and to disturb; the essay makes the point that ‘what once may have seemed sublime quickly becomes its opposite – the beautiful’ but Tomorrow Never Knows – a song containing only one droning chord for its whole 2’59” duration remains resistant to this half-life decay of the sublime into more base material.
I cannot imagine many couples would choose it to be ‘our tune’ (or to be the first dance at their wedding reception, for that matter, although starting your married life by dancing wildly to a piece of music called Tomorrow Never Knows, would be a brilliantly sublime act!) – 55 years after it was recorded, it still strikes a strange and discordant note
boys, cliffs, storms and a new translation of Beowulf
Is it reasonable to suggest that the sublime remains a gendered concept? Are we becoming more open to questioning previously held assumptions (unconscious) about whose view we are being asked to take?
– LPE Coursebook – p.48
We are asked to post our answers to this question to an ongoing thread on the OCA forum. So, on 11th March, I posted this:
What could be a more masculine reaction to the sublime than to have yourself tied to the mast of a ship in a storm so you could do a painting of it? Apart perhaps from saying you had been tied to the mast of a ship like Turner may have? Or of going so close to the edge of a decent-sized cliff that your girlfriend screams, or your mum tells you to, ‘Come away from the edge – NOW!’?
Stuff that attempts some sort of mastery (used advisedly) over both one’s fear and of the parts of (external) nature which cause it…
I had more difficulty coming up with an idea of the what a feminine sublime would be like until a couple of days ago I heard an interview with Maria Davina Headley talking about her new translation of Beowulf on Radio 4’s Today (9th March, at 08.22 – 2 hours 22 mins in, if you go onto Sounds and do listen again in the next few weeks) .
In the poem, Beowulf kills the monster, Grendell and is then in turn killed by Grendell’s mother. She has been described by earlier (male) translators as an ogress, a hungry fiend, an ugly troll-lady, a swamp-thing from hell; Headley translates her ‘as a very capable, single mother […] looking for a fair revenge. She gets the blood price; she kills one person. So she does basically the thing you’re allowed to do in feudal law’
She goes on: ‘I was thinking about the pain that is a consistant thread through human history, the pain that is of various kinds of unexpected events that suddenly take your society down’ (which is what happens when Beowulf, a king, is killed by Grendell’s mother, but in the interview is also compared to the arrival in town of a great plague, or indeed pandemic).
The key bit is at Beowulf’s funeral: ‘Suddenly a woman speaks without permission and she basically screams – she screams a lament for all the things she knows are coming: in my translation she says, “reaping, raping, feasts of blood – more of the same”
‘Because she has always lived in a culture that doesn’t necessarily let her have the floor but she has a story and a story of living in a culture in which the unifying theme is that we war, we war we war and that is how we get our status. The people who are not the warriors are often being used as objects … so the grief at the end is not only “have I already lived this?” – more is coming and its going to be even worse…’
So: is that possibly it – the feminine sublime – giving voice and life to people and things which are often being used as objects and how they are required to live with stuff that the objectifiers try, but fail to control?
I think I have a problem with the sublime, so – finding a catalyst for this exercise and fearing it might slip away – I wrote this in a blurt, two days after listening to Headley being interviewed on Today (and re-listening on BBCSounds to fillet it for quotes) posting it almost immediately. I then went back through the disappointingly sparse response from others and settled on the post preceding mine. A phrase in it stood out for me:
So, bearing in mind Joy’s linking the patriarchally dominated nature of society in 19th century Europe, and the way that society focussed on the more individual and transcendental aspects of the sublime, would it be fair to say that all the other, previously marginalised takes the sublime, are now surfacing as hyphenated forms of it and that, therefore, the feminine sublime is one way of viewing these things from a different perspective to (or indeed viewing things which did not seem particularly relevant or worthy of notice by) the dominant, masculine form two hundred years ago? And that this could be seen as being analogous to the way European colonists (and Western American settlers) ignored/missed completely the fact that there were already people there, who thought of the land and their place within it, in a completely different, yet from their point of view, more valid, way?
And hopefully others will respond – to me, to Joy – in turn…
(One last, brief thought on this topic, before I hit the publish button: I do wonder whether my inability to envisage doing the sort of intensely personal, revealing and introspective work made by female photographers – Elina Brotherus’ Annunciation/Carpe Fucking Diem is a good example of this, particularly the subjective landscapes that bookend the central fertility treatment section – is connected to my standing on the other side of this particular gendered divide. I’ll put this up on the forum too…)
Brotherus, E. (2015) Carpe Fucking Diem Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag
Read Rosalind Krauss’s essay, Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View; summarise Krauss’s key points in your learning log and add any comments or reflections.
– LSE Coursebook, p.31
When Krauss’s essay was published in 1982, various art institutions (particularly in the USA, and especially at New York’s Museum of Modern Art) were engaged in constructing a history of the early years of photography in a way that incorporated it into more general trends in Western Art. ‘Central to this account is that type of photography, most of it topographical in character, originally undertaken for the purposes of exploration, expedition and survey‘. The early photographs’ suitability for display on the wall of a gallery ‘matted, framed, labeled‘ as if they were part of the same movement as developments in 19th century painting. This activity can be seen to legitimise photography as an artistic endeavour rather than as… something else.
Krauss’ essay can be read as a questioning of this location of early photography of place within a fine-art frame of reference. It uses two instances of curation by MoMA staff – Peter Galassi’s introduction to the 1981 exhibition Before photography and the series of four exhibitions of photographs by Eugéne Atget, organised by John Szarkowski in the early 1980s- as starting points for its argument.
i – The photograph is strange with huge amounts of the rocks’ surface detail being recorded while they float, suspended against a luminous ground. It could be described and displayed (at MoMA) as a work of (landscape) art, although that was not why it was taken.
ii – The lithograph is banal, commonplace. The detail missing from the photograph’s location (due to limitations of the Collodion process?) have been filled back in, allowing the print to fulfil its role within the discourse of empirical science. Its purpose is to illustrate.
Krauss then describes the way the 19th century ‘aesthetic discourse […] organised itself increasingly around what could be called the space of exhibition’ (Krauss; p.312) ie criticism used admission to (and display upon the wall of) the gallery as the way to define whether something was ‘Art’ or not.
The forms adopted by post 1860 landscape painting illustrate this idea clearly: the illusion of depth created by traditional (synthetic) uses of perspective was replaced by a diagonal ordering of the picture’s surface (making it as much a representation of the gallery wall, and therefore a work of art, as it is a representation of a space characterised by use of analytic perspective); landscapes (like Monet’s haystacks) started to be made in series, to be hung together, again on a gallery wall.
This – seen as one of the defining characteristics of Modernist art – leads pictures to be judged on their formal qualities, rather than their subject matter. Early landscape photographs – such as O’Sullivan’s – seem, from the perspective of the late twentieth century, to meet the criteria that would allow them to occupy this aesthetic space.
However, the question remains of whether O’Sullivan (and the other nineteenth century photographers who have been embraced as making fine art images, contemporary to the rise of modernism) should be classed as working within the artistic realm. Krauss thought not.
O’Sullivan described what he was doing as making views (or ‘viewing’); he was employed by the US government to take topographic studies to illustrate one of the post-Civil War surveys of the Western US.
His photographs were not intended for the gallery, and most were not seen by the general public during his lifetime; if they did get wider circulation they were reworked as lithographs (like the Pyramid Lake image).
Alongside the calotype photographs, O’Sullivan was making stereo (3-D) pictures of the same scenes. If academy painting was becoming about flatness, and suiting the gallery wall, stereo photography was its antithesis – images that were all about depth, designed (and often composed) to be seen with a ‘viewer.’
These images did gain a wider circulation. There was a middle class craze for stereoscopic pictures, with individuals’ collections often being organised systematically into categories and stored in purpose-built cabinets.
Krauss also makes the point that at the time O’Sullivan was active, the practice of photography located authorship (and more importantly, copyright) of the images with the publisher, who often kept a number of operators on the books to go out with a camera and make the – mostly stereoscopic images. O’Sullivan – who was employed by the survey the pictures discussed were the result of – started his photographic career during the American Civil War, working for William Brady. This does not fit with the post-Romantic idea of what an artist is and how he (and it almost always is a he) should behave. Krauss lists the telltale signs of The Artist:
Vocation – implies ‘an apprenticeship […] a learning of the tradition of one’s craft, the gaining of an individuated view of that tradition that includes both success and failure.’ (Krauss: 315) Being an artist is much more than just a job.
Career – A period of time (Krauss suggests many years), spent answering the artist’s calling. This causes problems when you consider the brevity of many of the early photographers’ – Roger Fenton, Gustave LeGray, Henri LeSeque are Krauss’ examples – engagement with the medium.
Oeuvre – assumes that the body of work created over the course of a career, answering a vocation, ‘is the result of sustained intention […] organically related to the effort of its maker’ and that that body is coherent overall.
The essay moves from O’Sullivan to examine the case for making a proto-modernist artist out of the later (early twentieth Century) case of Eugéne Atget, a photographer central to John Szarkowski’s long-term project to legitimise and raise the status of photography at MoMA in New York. Atget presents the opposite problem to early photographers whose engagement with the medium was too brief to be a career and whose output falls well short of what Krauss feels is necessary to constitute an oeuvre: at over 8,000 pictures, Atget’s output is too great (as well as too diverse in quality and subject matter) and his motivations too difficult to pin down, to justify his assimilation into the artistic photographic canon by Szarkowski and his assistants.
At the heart of this is the way that everyone – the surrealists, Walter Benjamin, the German ‘New Realists’ of the nineteen thirties – seems to come up with a different thing to recognise and celebrate in Atget’s archive. No one – not even the Szarkowski – can reconcile them all to produce a unitary, proto-modernist photographic artist. Indeed, Szarkowski struggles to apply what Krauss describes as ‘the normal categories of description of aesthetic production‘ and instead ends with an idea that (in Szarkowski’s words) is ‘foreign to our understanding of artistic ambition‘ – work ‘in the service of something larger than self-expression‘.
Szarkowski wondered if that might be the – rather nebulous – ‘spirit of his [Atget’s] own culture‘; Krauss counters with the idea – already present in Szarkowski’s assistant, Maria Morris Hambourg’s doctoral dissertation on Atget’s system for numbering his photographs – of Atget working as subject to 19th century classification and catalogue systems, very much like the photographers working for the surveys of the American west (whose stereoscopic ‘views’ were of course sorted into categories and stored in cabinets) or other European photographers cataloging antiquities and architecture in France and the middle east. Atget was not so much creating a personal body of work as following the imperatives of the categorising impulse to attempt to describe, well, everything, that was such a major preoccupation of Europe and the US during the nineteenth century. Atget was being directed by the needs of science, not art; his pictures had utility and value as records, but were not primarily intended to exhibit aesthetic qualities of their own.
The essay closes with a terse restatement of how Krauss viewed what MoMA was doing at the start of the eighties: ‘an attempt to dismantle […] the set of practices, institutions and relationships to which nineteenth-century photography originally belonged – and to reassemble it within the categories previously constituted by art and its history‘
Krauss was writing before the early-eighties MoMA cycle of four Atget Exhibitions (1981-85) was even half finished; Before Photography (Galassi’s exhibition whose catalogue essay is central to the first half of Krauss’s argument) took place at MoMA in 1981. The essay deals with contemporary thinking around photography’s relationship to art history and criticism. Why are we still reading it, and caring about the ideas contained in it, nearly forty years later?
Firstly, the people involved played important roles in the development of the way photography was viewed in the USA (and by extension in Europe) over the last half of the twentieth century. John Szarkowsky was MoMA’s director of photography from 1962 til 1991; Peter Galassi and Maria Morris Hambourg were his assistant curators at the time Krauss wrote her essay; Galassi was Szarkowski’s successor at MoMA while Hambourg moved to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (in New York) after the four Atget shows and set up its Department of Photography in 1992, heading it until 2004. Rosalind Krauss is an art historian and theorist, who has been active in American Academia since the early 1960s; she is credited with helping introduce European/French theories about art into US critical discourse.
The ideas put forward by Krauss and the people whom she takes issue with in this essay have done much to shape our idea(s) of what ‘photography’ was, is and can be. It is still easy to follow the path through 20th Century photography and photographers, signposted by the series of photographic exhibitions that took place at MoMA over the second half of the 20th century. Postmodernism may have come and gone in this time, but the arguments present in this essay are still being made, with different people using them to come to different conclusions.
Krauss’ essay is collected in the The contest of meaning (1992). In his introduction to the volume (Bolton: x) Richard Bolton writes: ‘The accepted version of photographic practice, forged for posterity in the 1950s and 1960s is a limited construction based in the formalist values of late modernism. Historians and curators during that time worked quite deliberately to narrow photography.’ Photography’s Discursive Spaces is an early attempt to open photography up again, and to consider purposes for it beyond art for art’s sake.
There are many things that don’t stand up in Krauss’ essay – Atget definitely has a place within the exhibition space, and pretty much anyone with a digital camera will have an oversized (curate’s?) oeuvre, bigger than the one he built and they will have made it over a much shorter timescale – but I am generally in sympathy with her argument. I may not be able to put my thumb on exactly why I keep pressing the shutter button of my camera, but there is definitely more going on than an impulse towards self-expression.
There is a mass of history and politics contained within the ideas discussed in Krauss’ essay. Late-Modernist art theory was not very good at either history or politics, trying instead to keep things specific to the medium in question.
An example: if Landscapes are about the artist making the picture, then Views are about the thing viewed; this thing can be viewed as ‘a singularity’, evidence – if you are so minded – of a creative force outside the photographer’s own. There are hints in Krauss’s essay that this can be linked to 19th century (Christian) religious thought, with implications for us today.
The form of Christianity (Puritanism) practised by the first, English settlers in North America (and which set the tone for a lot of what followed) maintained that God had given Adam stewardship over all other forms of life on Earth. More crudely, nature is there to be exploited by man as he (pronoun and tense used consciously) sees fit. In these terms, the nineteenth century surveys of the American West were largely about establishing what natural resources were there so they could be thoroughly exploited later. Which of course ties in neatly with the ‘E’ part of LPE…
I think this distinction between landscape and view, between the importance of the photographer and that of the subject, may become an important part of my work for this course.
There is a lot of further reading and research that can be done on the back of this essay. I have already tracked down Galassi’s introduction to the catalogue for Before Photography and written a post about his distinction between synthetic and analytic perspective. I know I should reread (re-reread) the chunks of Bates’ Photography – The Key Concepts dealing with Art Photography and with landscape. I must find my copy of Papageorge’s Core Curriculum and see what I think of his essay on Atget, a few years after I first read it. Likewise, it would be an idea to have another read of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay on the canonisation of Atget by MoMA. In her wikipedia entry, Krauss is linked to Michael Fried; I should have a good look at his Why photography matters as art as never before. And so on. This could all form the basis for my critical essay for assignment 4.
I have been interested in the more ‘meta-‘ aspects of photography ever since I started playing with keywords to make my photographs more findable on Flickr in 2005; making a catalogue/archive and using it to prompt meaning and narrative played a large part of my work for Digital Image and Culture; I have a copy of Volume Three of the The Work of Atget, which includes Maria Morris Hambourg’s essay The Structure of the Work, which Krauss uses in the essay as a ‘key’ to what Atget’s work actually is doing. While I’m at it, I should do some research around the photographs taken by Atget that are held by the V&A in London; the V&A – with its roots in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and concentration on craft and design has – I think – a different position on photography to one taken by the Arts establishment. Wikipedia coordinates is an annual trawl for photographs of listed buildings (Wiki loves Monuments) which publishes a map of the locations of every eligible subject in the uk. There are quite a few of them within a one mile radius of where I live. This could form the kernel of my self-directed project for assignment 5. Let’s see…
Bolton, R. [ed] (1992) The contest of meaning. Critical histories of photography. Cambridge MA: MIT Press
prompted by a reading of Peter Galassi’s introduction to the MoMA exhibition, Before Photography
Much of the argument of Barbara Krauss’ essay (examined in my response to exercise 2) was written as a counter argument to Peter Galassi’s introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition Before Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art(9th May – 5th July 1981). Krauss refers to Galassi’s use of the terms Synthetic and Analytical to describe different applications of the perspective system in painting. I wondered what the differences were and found the full catalogue available to download from the MoMA website.
The introduction is mainly concerned with the development of landscape painting as a genre (as such, I’ll make use of it for exercise 3) and only really touches upon photographic works towards the end. However, the difference between the two uses of perspective seems both interesting and practically applicable:
Synthetic – The original application uses perspective as an organising system for images. Here, the aim is to create the impression of three dimensions from two, by placing different parts of the image in relation to a visible (or implied) vanishing point. It works from individual parts to produce a whole. Galassi’s exemplar for this is the fifteenth century Italian, Paolo Uccello and his painting The hunt in the forest (c.1465-70).
The viewer looks into the image from the picture pane. The effect is that of being in possession of a godlike overview: you see the picture in an idealised state, with everything portrayed capable of being viewed in relation to everything else.
Analytic – works from the whole to an aspect (or point of view on a scene). As an example, Galassi (1981, p.17) uses the Impressionist painter Eduard Degas’Jockeys before the race(1879) where the artist and the viewer are placed clearly within the scene depicted, looking at it, with the vanishing point obliquely positioned and out of sight; the view is personal and subjective. In the process of discovering this point of view, the subject has been analysed visually. The effect is thoroughly modern.
Galassi goes on to explain that the camera is only capable of producing Analytic pictures: it is limited by its single lens, to a single viewpoint from which the three-dimensional real world collapses into two dimensions, arranged upon a plane. It does not produce images where everything is set out clearly in the visible portion of a space arranged according towards a clear vanishing point.
(This fits with Stephen Shore’s description (in his 1998 book, The nature of photographs) of the pleasures of finding a point where the lines of the subject are seen to converge in your viewfinder in a way that suddenly collapses the world into two dimensions. Click! Job done.)
In Krauss’s essay, she argues with the way this plane extends to become one with the gallery wall on which it is displayed. Indeed, it is this flatness that bestows the status of art upon modernist painting, as well as the early photographs which in Krauss’ view are misidentified by Galassi as forming part of this conscious evolution of how to use the viewpoint.
This is fine up to a point (and anyone who has tried to take a photograph in a busy street, with no one person obscuring another will appreciate this) but ignores totally photographers’ efforts to escape the tyranny of monocular perspective and the limitations placed on the camera’s viewpoint.
In the section of the chapter, Problems of Depiction (Hockney, pp.96-109) dealing with a ‘moving viewpoint’, Having made the point that the human eye is only motionless when we stare or are dead, David Hockney addresses one of his recurring themes: perspective and its inadequate capture of the experience of looking in two dimensions:
‘In the Renaissance, the invention of a new way of depicting space, using the vanishing point, seemed to make the depiction more real… Then a point was reached, perhaps in the nineteenth century, when the Renaissance depiction of space was seen as not at all real. Perceptive people began to realise that space could be rendered in a different way.’
– Hockney, p.98
Hockney takes things further than Degas’ jockeys – which form the end point in Galassi’s journey from the Renaissance to Impressionism – into Cezanne’s post-impressionist landscapes and what we still think of as Modern Art: the analytical (characterised by a fragmentary appearance of multiple viewpoints and overlapping planes – [Tate, 1]) and later synthetic (flattening out the image and sweeping away the last traces of allusion to three-dimensional space – [Tate 2]) Cubism of Braque and Picasso.
Around the same time as he started thinking about Cubism (the early 1980s) Hockney started working with – at first – polaroid – and then – 35mm cameras to make collaged pictures from printed fragments of his subject, culminating in his enormous – and rather wonderful – picture of a road vanishing into the Californian desert: Peachblossom Highway (11th-18th April, 1986). He describes his working method:
‘Multiple viewpoints create a far bigger space than can be achieved by one… I moved about the landscape, slowly constructing it from different viewpoints. The stop sign was taken head on, indeed from a ladder, the words “stop ahead” on the ground were seen from above (using a tall ladder), and everything was brought together […] to create a feeling of wideness and depth, but at the same time everything was also brought up to the picture plane.’
– ibid, p.108
I find this creation of landscape pictures from many individual images really interesting. It is something I want to experiment with more, probably in the later stages of this course. Of course, I am not going to limit myself to collaged prints, either…
Galassi, P. (1981) Before photography – painting and the invention of photography. New York: The Museum of Modern Art
Hockney, D. (2004) Hockney’s pictures. London: Thames and Hudson
Shore, S. (1998) The nature of photographs. London: Phaidon Press
‘Demonstrate your awareness of the principles of the Zone System and your ability to take accurate light readings by producing three photographs taken in relatively high dynamic range, i.e. contrasting light conditions. Make sure that your exposure choice renders as much detail as possible in the brightest and darkest areas of the photograph.’
– LPE Coursebook, p.53
‘The zone system makes use of the basic parameters of exposure and development of the negative to achieve optimum negative quality in reference to the desired results in the print or transparency’
– Ansel Adams, quoted in Schaefer, 1998: p.23
fig.1 was taken on a medium format film camera (with movements – hence the slight Atget-esque vignetting at the top corners) on one of the mornings a month or so ago when snow fell and lay in London. I was looking west at the time and the light was flat and lacking in contrast. The lightest bit of the framed view was the snow on the roof of the apse, with the overcast sky not far behind. I used a digital camera in spot-metering mode to work out the exposure.
fig.2 and fig.3 are two shot taken with meter’s suggested aperture (shutter speed is constant, the same fraction of a second as the iso setting). Both are probably around a stop underexposed (ie fig.2 would be better opened up to f4, and the fig.3 a bit above f8) but this still leaves a range of a little over 2 stops between them, This is plenty of headroom to allow the face of the church to be placed in the middle of the range of zones, set out by Ansel Adams. Indeed, the sky is not blown in fig.2; indeed, it is possible to adjust the raw output of fig.3 in Lightroom, so that the church ceases to be simply a silhouette:
I don’t like the result much (and viewed large there are inky black panes of glass in the windows, that no amount of work will lift into being even the darkest grey) but it gives some idea of how much latitude you can have when working digitally. However, I wanted to make a picture on relatively slow (125 asa) black and white film. I did some calculations based on the two pictures I’d taken coming up with something like this, in my head:
Here fig.3 has been lifted a stop (f8), fig.2 left as it was (f5.6) apart from the rectangle at the bottom of the apse, which includes the mid-grey of the bus stop, which has been lifted to the equivalent of f4. The sky to the left of the church is fine. This section became the basis for the exposure of fig.1. One thing remained to be done, but it would need to happen later when I was back home. In colour, there is a fair amount of definition between (say) the yellowish stone of the church and the grey of the bus stop; once the image is desaturated, the distinctions between the stone and the painted metal and the spaces between the bricks are much less distinct. This could be solved by increasing the overall contrast of the image, but this would happen later, rather than in the camera.
If I had been dealing with a single image, I could have increased the contrast by increasing the time the sheet film spent in the developing solution; here though there were another 11 images on a single roll, all of which would have benefited with different treatments. I also could have printed the image on a paper graded for higher contrast, but – while I have the wherewithal to develop negatives, I don’t have a printing darkroom. Instead, when scanning the negative, I adjusted the output settings to include as many differentiations between black (0) and white (255) as possible (roughly equivalent to push processing) and then increased the contrast further in Lightroom (printing on more contrasty paper). The red rectangle in fig.6 encloses an area without the Lightroom adjustment; the surrounding, f4-equivalent rectangle shows the effect of increasing the contrast.
fig.1 – shows the cumulative effect of all this thinking: a 1/125th” exposure at f4 (or rather, to increase the depth of field and the sharpness of the stonework a 1/8″ exposure at f16) on Ilford FP4+ film. It works quite well I think, but it would be better if I could have reduced the need for moving the lens to get this very tall building into a single shot by either moving backwards (prevented by a wall, and anyway the intruding branches of the trees on this side of the road would have got even more in the way) or by using a wider lens…
‘The zone system was a solution for inadequacies in the basic [ie analogue, black and white – SC note] photographic process – inadequacies that I believe are being tackled digitally in quite different ways.This is not what you will read by zone system enthusiasts, but that’s because of the mistaken belief that you can go on adapting old techniques to new circumstances.’
– Freeman: 118
The inadequacies of traditional black and white film are products of the chemical process itself: the chemical emulsion responds to a narrower set of light conditions than the human eye (ie its dynamic range is narrower) and, because the energy contained by light is what causes the basic chemical reaction central to traditional photography, it reacts very poorly indeed to being underexposed. Underexposure leads to flat, black areas that lack detail in chemical photographs; at the other end of the exposure scale, film does better, recording detail even when it is quite badly overexposed. Underexposure is therefore the cardinal sin of film photography.
With digital, this situation is reversed: digital sensors record things that we cannot see in darkness (and .raw files store the information so we can access it); but unlike analogue technologies, overloaded sensors do not produce distortion (in audio terms, think of Keith Richards’ fuzzed guitar riff for Satisfaction), instead they clip and what should be a curved wave gets squared off at the high points. This is not pleasant either visually or aurally. So, the cardinal sin in digital photography is to overexpose your image and blow the highlights; it may be possible to get detail in shadows, care must still be taken not to create white holes in the brighter areas of the image. Software makes this easier, with sliders for raising the black point and lightening the shadow areas pretty much standard. As was shown in fig.4, a lot can be done with even the most unpromising material.
Because of this, I generally have my digital cameras set to underexpose by 1/3 of a stop and – if the scene is particularly contrasty – to include more of the brightest area of the image in the area of the frame where the desired exposure is being measured. In fig.7, I tilted the camera up to read more of the sky and then raised the shadows out of blackness in Lightroom. A corresponding reduction to the highlights brought back a lot of variation in the clouds, as well as some of the sunset orange. The spire is of course, St Saviours’ again; you can make out the three vertical windows quite clearly, despite the church being fully silhouetted by the setting sun.
fig.7 is all about contrast; fig.8 has a much more even need to show detail. Again, I included more of the sky in the metering spot than is there in the final framed image, and then worked the software to get detail on the walls of the flooded underpass. The sky is not quite pure white. The picture is about as extreme in contrast terms as I like to go and the rainbow painted on the concrete is beginning to get a bit too pronounced. I’ve reduced both the vividness of the colour and its saturation, and I could do more, but then the natural greens of the foliage would start to look too anaemic.
Having reached this point, I could either start working with masks in Photoshop proper or I could have shot a number of shots, with different exposures and process the image(s) as HDR (blending different areas so the whole image – in theory at least – more accurately represents the range of tones viewed by the human eye. However, I’m not a great fan of HDR as it all tends to go a bit painterly even when done quite subtly. Generally, if a scene is lit by too contrasty a light, I’ll come back on a day when it is all a bit more subdued (which is generally easy beneath Northern Europe’s flat winter cloud) or at a time of day when the light is coming from the opposite direction to my viewpoint – looking West in the morning, or East in the afternoon…
Freeman, M. (2011) The Photographer’s exposure field guide. Lewes: Ilex Press Ltd.
Shaefer, J.P. (1998) The Ansel Adams guide, book 2: basic techniques of photography. Boston: Little Brown and Company
Produce a series of 8 photographs that convey your own interpretation of beauty and/or the sublime within the context of landscape. You may choose to support, question or subvert accepted definitions of these terms. Your images don’t necessarily have to be made in the same place or type of location; however, they should complement one another and attempt to function as a cohesive series.
– LPE Coursebook, p.57
Beauty is a concept encoded in the way a picture is put together and presented to the viewer. A moment can be extended to hold something timeless, possibly even to contain an element of truth (that’s what Keats thought, anyway). The sublime is quicker, hotter somehow, bypassing the head to communicate with our darker emotions. Beauty is stable, existing outside of time and history; the Sublime is evanescent, speaking to our fears even as we struggle to work out exactly what it is that confronts us. Beauty endures, but the Sublime dissipates, like the weakening potency of a radioactive element whose half-life has passed.
The Orkney pictures were selected (from almost as many pictures as the number that – in Krauss’s view – disqualified Atget’s from forming an oeuvre) either because they rhymed with things I could photograph in London – the Old Man of Hoy and the 50s clock tower, the Rackwick cliffs and the sheer walls of a block of nearly-completed flats – or because, while ‘typical’ of rural beauty, they were generic enough for their equivalent to be found in the city – sunsets, or symmetry arranged around a vanishing point.
The process of picture-taking was leisurely and considered. Four of the city pictures were taken with my camera on a tripod and three using an old, fully manual Nikkor shift lens to correct perspectives in camera. I took my time working out exposures (not quite using the zone system, but certainly aiming to get a raw file containing a wide range of tonal information).
I was able to wait for people to clear the scene before – now! – triggering the camera with an IR remote. The remaining three pictures were taken with a smaller digital camera, and are closer to capturing something more transient – the reflections in the window of a pub on the High Street; a cow, grazing among scrubby trees by the side of the River Lea – but are still a long way from being spontaneous. they were of locations I had identified earlier, to be returned to when the conditions and time of day were right. If the tripod pictures could be seen as being equivalent to easel paintings, these are closer to watercolour sketches – quick, transient, catching a moment, but not made in one.
The rhyming of the paired pictures works to make links. Looking at them, you can see something of what I think (and you can see that I have a decided fondness for triangles) but you can’t tell much about how I feel about the places pictured. It’s all a bit cerebral, somehow. The pictures that directly involve features of lockdown – the shrouded exercise equipment; the dark emptiness glimpsed inside a pub – invoke something of the sublime, and they all repay a good, long look. But are any of them actually beautiful? I don’t know.
(An earlier version of this post (with different, though similar text) was made available for critiquing at the beginning of March.)