Monday, 29 November 2010

Project 7: Focal length and character

Essentially quite a technical project, the purpose here is to explore the effect of focal length in portrait photography.  Realising that some of the outcomes, at wide angles, would be to distort the features, and recognising that maintaining the same pose whilst I moved the camera, changed lenses etc was going to be tedious for the sitter, I decided to handle this project as a self-portrait.  I have three lenses, two of which are zooms, so there was plenty of potential for experimentation.  I used an 18-20mm wide angle lens at 12, 16 and 20mm; a 50mm prime lens; and an 18-200mm zoom at 18, 24, 35, 50, 80 and 105mm (after which I would have been struggling to get enough distance from camera to subject and it would have been an unlikely focal length for portraiture since I am not using a full-frame DSLR and the 105mm is already at c150mm in 35mm equivalent terms.
The ten results are below.
12mm Wide 

16mm Wide

18mm Zoom

20mm Wide

24mm Zoom

35mm Zoom

50mm Zoom

50mm Prime

80mm Zoom

105mm Zoom

The series successfully illustrates the level of distortion to facial features, especially the nose, at the wider focal lengths.  Even at the 24mm (36mm equivalent), there is an unnatural look to the face (honestly!).  Of course, it is not uncommon to see portraits in the magazines using quite wide angles e.g. one thinks of Rankin’s portraits of the Queen, and one of Tony Blair, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday Times magazine.  Question – why? Could be just a ‘fun’ approach; the Queen looks happy enough and there is some jollity about her picture.  But then again, the Tony Blair one, in black and white, high contrast, promotes a sense of menace, perhaps – or is more ‘poking fun’ than ‘having fun’.  From 35mm (52mm equivalent) onwards, the images have a more natural look to them, though it might be said that the 105mm version begins to look a little ‘flat’.  Another important point to make about the very wide angle lens – at 12mm the lens was almost in my face.
My conclusion from this project, which concurs with the comments in the notes, is that 50mm-80mm (75mm-120mm equivalent) range seems most effective for portraiture.  I am especially keen on the results from my small 50mm F1.8 prime lens, and it has been my lens of choice for a number of the projects already.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Project 6: The best of a sequence

The requirement here is to shoot a portrait session in which the setting and framing are consistent and the only variables are therefore the subject’s expression, gesture and pose.  Having shot the session, the idea is to make a judgement, prior to any actual review of the images, as to which is/are likely to come out best; and then to go through a process of elimination/selection from 20+ images down to the best single shot.
I wrote in a notebook immediately afterwards that it was ‘hard to judge which will be best’, but that it would probably be ‘those done early on, with a gentle smile’, but also that ‘there were a few quick snatch shots that might surprise’.  Interestingly, as will emerge below, I have ended up selecting the very first image that I took as the best, but it emerged from a shortlist of six in which most of the others have a casual, natural, ‘snatched shot’ look about them.
Ignoring a few shots where my subject, Isobel again, was caught blinking (or seeming to fall asleep with sheer tiredness and boredom – we had to shoot this around 09.30pm on a workday), I had 36 potential portraits from which to begin the selection process.  They appear below.
Most are taken with the camera on a tripod and with me positioned left or right of it, using a cable shutter release.  The lighting is from an off-camera flash, which is facing away from the subject, and being ‘bounced’ off a white ‘Portaflash’ reflector/diffuser positioned above and behind the camera, directed down towards the subject.  Working indoors in the evening (because I am doing these projects in late November), I had to use some form of artificial light, but wanted to avoid the usual harshness of flash.  Bouncing from the ceiling would have been one option, but the ceiling is low, meaning that the flash still casts sharp shadows behind the subject, which I wanted avoid.  Having previously experimented with various options, I’m pleased with the softness of the light on her face, and also feel that the slight soft shadow on the wall behind her face works effectively in providing at least a little bit of contrast with her pale skin.
I did my selections in Lightroom, using the ‘star’ system.  A couple of quick passes  eliminated those that were unacceptable on the basis of expression, reducing the number to 22.  Two more passes, homing in on those that appealed most in presenting Isobel in as natural a manner as I could, with obvious ‘engagement’ in her eyes/face and signs that might encourage ‘engagement’ from the viewer, resulted in the following shortlist of six.  Comparing this with the initial contact sheets above soon indicates that four are, indeed, from the first batch of images; and it is also clear that 2 or 3 show an expression that has arisen spontaneously from conversation and eye contact/interaction with me.  As in the earlier project with Tim, I am coming to the conclusion that, certainly at this stage in my learning process, I get the best results when I engage my subject in conversation/banter, whilst carefully looking for expressions that give the best opportunity for a good portrait.  Or perhaps I am learning (particularly in the context of this project) that the portraits I most like to make are those where the subject looks most relaxed, natural and engaged.
That said, I have also been looking at portraits made by other photographers, of course, and have already made reference elsewhere to the full-face, soft-lit, somewhat deadpan contemporary portrait style.  As the original contact sheets show, I was trying to get to something in that style, though the shortlist of six doesn’t reflect it.  However, my selection of the best from the whole sequence does take me back towards that direction.  It is the first of the six, and as mentioned above, the first shot that I took in the whole sequence! I have come up with this one for the following reasons.
·         The simple framing and composition is exactly what I wanted to achieve in this sequence.
·         Isobel’s expression engages the camera and the viewer, and there is a sense of warmth in her eyes and smile.
·         Yet at the same time, there is just enough ambiguity to generate further interest if the viewer looks at it closely.
Thank you for your help, Isobel, especially at the end of a long day, I’m pleased with the eventual outcome.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

More Avedon, some Kander, and the Process of Portraiture

A number of thoughts, discussions, questions etc have been drawing closer together in the last couple of weeks and I am going to try to document some of that here, if only as a record that I can come back to, but maybe to actually make some progress in the quest for a ‘portrait making’ process.
Avedon came up in discussions on the OCA website, in connection with the recent decision by PM David Cameron to dispense with his retained photographer; the connection being Avedon’s ‘The Family’ portraits of powerful US citizens, including politicians, in 1976 for Rolling Stone magazine -  As well as leading me to explore this website in more detail and find Avedon’s own words on his ‘process’, of which more below, this also reminded me of another piece of work that I had seen much more recently, Nadav Kander’s ‘Obama’s People’ - - in which, prior to the actual election in 2008, Kander was commissioned by the NY Times Magazine to make portraits of Barak Obama’s team.  These two pieces of work bear comparison, potentially on all sorts of different levels and themes, but I’m not going to attempt all of that here.  What does interest me, in particular, is the process of making the portraits, and since there is commentary from Kander at the site linked above and an interview with him in Hotshoe magazine (June-July 2009 edition) on exactly this subject, there is a chance to make at least some comparison with his words and those of Avedon.
First Avedon and some extracts from various articles and interviews that appear on the Richard Avedon Foundation website (I have not, at this stage, had the time or the opportunity to research further than that – but there is plenty to go at there anyway).  I can’t think of a better way to approach this than a series of bullet points summarising and paraphrasing interesting aspects that emerge from what he has to say (about portraits in general, not specifically about ‘The Family’).
·         The background is usually a sheet of white paper, approximately 9 feet by 7 feet.  The source of light is to be ‘invisible’, in order to neutralise its role in the appearance of the portrait.
·         He would stand next to the camera (not behind it), several inches from the lens, and about four feet from the subject (I am assuming the use of a large view camera, and might even have read that somewhere).
·         From that position, he would ‘imagine’ the pictures he was taking and not look through the lens (though one assumes he had looked through to set up in the first place).
·         He describes the first part of the ‘sitting’ as a learning process for both parties.
§  For him, partly camera placement, framing, lens height, but also observing movements, reactions, expressions – so as to ‘heighten what the subject does naturally’ when it comes to making the portraits;
§  For the subject, becoming familiar with the fact that he/she cannot shift around, but also learning to relate to the photographer, accepting a degree of discipline and concentration.
·         The exchange with the subject, he says, involves manipulations and submissions.  One depends on another person in order to make the portrait, someone willing to take part, but with different ambitions. However, he says, ‘the control is with me’.
·         The process has a rhythm to it, punctuated by the click of the shutter.  Sometimes he would speak and sometimes not (and occasionally react too strongly and destroy the tension that is a photograph).
·         He was using disciplines, strategies and ‘silent theater’ to achieve an illusion – that everything in the photo simply happened; the person was always there, never told to stand there, never asked to hide his hands, ‘not even in the presence of a photographer’.
·         He said that ‘a portrait is not a likeness’ and also that he was not interested in the ‘secret of a person’.  But he does seem to have been interested if the subject had qualities that they were trying not to show to him – and it was the fact of their unwillingness that became the portrait.
·         He talks of a ‘kind of embarrassing intensity’ in these ‘peculiar intimacies and needs’ – the need of the subject to give something to the camera and to him plus his own need to take that in order to express himself.
·         ‘Portraiture is a performance, and like any performance, in the balance of its effects it is good or bad, not natural or unnatural’.
·         In the introduction to ‘The Family’ on the website, it says that ‘Avedon avoided expressing his personal opinions of his subjects by allowing them to choose their own pose and clothing, so that his biases would not skew the resulting photographs.  (Perhaps, it occurs to me, he knew that some of the subjects would feed those biases and opinions through their own choices anyway!)
There is lots more on the site, including some specific discussion of the Henry Kissinger portrait that includes reference to Roland Barthes, but this will suffice to describe his approach to making portraits.
So, what does Kander have to say about his approach with ‘Obama’s People’?  Following a similar approach, I am drawing out and summarising some key points from the online source above and the Hotshoe article.
·         He worked with a white background and aimed to shoot all the portraits ‘basically the same’. Keen that the results should not ‘date’ he avoided any specific type of lighting, just using two big softboxes to achieve simplicity and subtlety.
·         Working, as he would be, with a group of ‘no bullshit’, ‘intelligent’, ‘new contemporary’ people, it had to be done in colour.
·         He shot with a (relatively small) hand-held, digital camera, tethered to a computer – though he makes it clear that he doesn’t like to see what he is shooting at the time, other than looking through the viewfinder as he does it, of course.
·         The process of making this series of images is described as ‘athletic’, in that they did 52 people, in five locations, on two visits to the USA – shooting 13 in one day at one point.  Many of them were not used to having portraits made of them.
·         Whilst he says that his usual approach to portraits is to ‘have a real opinion pre-session’, he clearly didn’t have that luxury here.  He needed to watch them carefully as they came into the room, interacted, waited, looking for what he calls the ‘economy of gesture’ so that he could respond to it.  The tiniest of gestures would stand out against the white background.
·         Each person was asked to bring something with them, something that ‘seemed to define them’.
·         The framing was ‘instinctual’ – responding to those who seemed better standing or sitting, full frame or cropped tight – and he saw it as one way of achieving some variety within the sequence.  (Interestingly, he makes a comparison with Avedon’s set – commenting that there was little variety of dress in the modern group compared to ‘The Family’).
·         He talks about ‘a kind of one-on-one’ in which he wants to have the subject respond not just to his words but to his ‘willingness to make a good photograph’, and the talks about this being ‘very unspoken’.
·         He says that humans have a part of them that they put forward when being photographed, sometimes the person they want to be, and sometimes the person that they think you want them to be – but that this happens less with more experience and confidence.
·         There is much reference to the informality of the process and the people – ‘possibly the people of our generation’ were ‘standing so casually’.
·         He sees it as very important to make ‘accurate’ portraits and not direct too much; with this group of human beings, shooting them ‘as they are’.
·         ‘These people were the authors of their own pictures’ and ‘I just composed, photographed and edited.’
·         The use of digital with tethered computer meant that those working with Kander, and many of the subjects, were able to view the outcome immediately, and there was some element of input from the latter.  The major part of the editing was done ‘on the fly’.
·         He added the shadow digitally afterwards – his only piece of ‘post-processing’.  Recognising that one would not normally expect to see a shadow with this type of lighting, he says that it ‘sends a message that something is a little odd’, describing it as his ‘little bit of mustard in the pudding’.
Most of Kander’s commentary that I have looked at is about this particular piece of work, and most is taken from interviews, rather than being the considered presentation of an artist’s work on his posthumous website, but there seems to be some useful scope for comparison between these two.  Some of my own thoughts and comments follow.
·         Both work with plain white backgrounds and both use deliberately simple, subtle, unobtrusive lighting.  The black and white versus colour choice reflects contemporary convention as much as anything, though the Avedon pictures do display high contrast and tonal range compared with Kander’s.
·         Both use careful observation early in the process, looking for small signs that can be used effectively in the portrait session.
·         Both identify a softer, unspoken, emotional tension in the relationship between photographer and subject; and both, in their different ways, see it as a collaborative process – Kander much more so, of course, especially with the opportunity for the subject to contribute to the editing process.
·         I feel that both are concerned with accuracy, albeit expressed in their different ways.  Kander expressly sets out to achieve an accurate portrait, whereas Avedon famously said ‘All photographs are accurate.  None is the truth.’
·         The physical processes are quite different, with Avedon standing beside his large camera, closely observing gestures and looks, punctuating the process with the click of his shutter (and change of plate, one assumes), speaking from time to time.  Kander, partly because of the circumstances, is engaged in an ‘athletic’ activity, camera in front of his face much of the time, one assumes, able to move his position if he wishes.  That certainly throws up the question of some very different techniques for establishing the relationship.
·         Perhaps not unconnected to the previous comment, comparing the outcomes, almost all of Avedon’s subjects stare directly into the lens, whereas most of Kander’s look out of frame, which does produce a more detached result as per my own comments in some of my Projects.
·         One photographer looks to be ‘in control’ whereas the other sees his subjects as ‘authors of their own portraits’ and doesn’t want to ‘over direct’.
·         Kander is photographing a coherent, focused team of people, working together towards a goal, wherein he was partly looking for ways to bring out differences without going too ‘Hollywoody’ (his word).  Avedon’s ‘Family’ is actually a disparate, sometimes competing group of powerful people, and he has used the simplicity and standardisation of the framing to make comparisons and differences more apparent.
There is awful lot more that could be drawn out of this but I think I have probably taken it as far as is sensible at this stage.  Just looking closely into the processes of two different individuals, one very much of this time and the other more of a revered master, is in itself a highly useful exercise.  There is much to bear in mind in approaching my own humble portrait making in the coming months.  Actually, it also relates back very well to something I wrote at the very beginning of this blog – that it was an interest in this process of making portraits that partly drew me into People and Place.  The interest is growing as the course progresses.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Photographer’s Gaze

Following on from the last comment under Project 5, I have just finished a first read through of ‘Train Your Gaze’ by Roswell Angier.

A useful read that warrants further study, the book is subtitled ‘A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography’, which sums it up succinctly.  It is not (and I never expected it to be) a manual on how to take portraits; and it is quite a wide-ranging, free-ranging book, which will require more careful reading and analysis in order to fully appreciate its messages.  But it is certainly authoritative, contemporary (though wide-ranging enough to look across the scope of photographic history), provoking and challenging, with ‘assignments’ that, if one had the time and inclination, would definitely open up new possibilities.  It also, to my mind, communicates at a ‘personal’, practical level, though willingly embracing more complex theoretical concepts.  It irritated me from time to time – seemingly dismissive of Gregory Crewdson, for example, and elsewhere, putting a different (and potentially contradictory) interpretation on the detail of Jeff Wall’s ‘Mimic’ compared to Michael Fried and even the artist himself.  But those are minor, irritating (to me, that is) details.  I have already got plenty from the book and will get more with further attention.
The main reason for mentioning it here is to pick up on some early definitions or points made about the concept of ‘the gaze’ in a photographic context.  The ‘characteristic’ that defines the presence of the photographer’s gaze is ‘... the felt activity of someone looking, the photographer in person, embedded in the photograph’ (page 1).  And, a little later, when discussing Richard Avedon’s approach to making portrait images, Angier says:
‘The photographer’s eye here does not seek merely to represent.  It looks to persuade.’ (Page 5)
It is the very clear statement of the proactive role of the photographer that I find interesting.  Even this early in the course, photographing family and friends, I am conscious of the need to develop this ‘looking’ and to learn how to ‘embed’ it into my portrait images.  I have spent twenty years in recruitment, and long since developed a technique of interviewing that, I think, successfully ‘persuaded’ my interviewees to demonstrate to me their capabilities and their shortcomings.  I can see some parallels – though I don’t yet have the equivalent technique for portrait-making.  Angier describes Avedon’s ‘rumoured’ approach, in which he did not speak to the subject throughout the whole session, but I don’t think that is for me!  However, I can see how, with practice, one can develop a process that is flexible enough to work with different people in different circumstances, just as with interviewing.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Project 05: Eye-contact and expresssion

This project requires the photographer to shoot a portrait session, with face prominent, in which the subject is directed to at times look towards the camera and at others to ‘look away’.  I spent around 30-40 minutes, with Tim as my subject, and took around 50 different images in that period, from which I have selected 10 to illustrate the outcomes.
These first three images all have Tim looking directly towards the camera, the first with the body more or less square on to the camera, and the others with the body turned slightly left and right.
It is obvious, in all three, that the subject is aware of being photographed and that he is therefore ‘posed’ to some degree, though all three appear reasonably ‘relaxed’ and ‘natural’.  The viewer is immediately aware of the eye-contact, which engages his/her attention, though there might be very slight differences of expression that could lead to slightly different interpretations of the subject’s mood, intention, or whatever.
In the next batch, I have asked Tim to look away from the camera, whilst essentially maintaining a ‘neutral’ expression.  It seems harder for the viewer to understand these images.  They are posed and they look posed, but without the direct eye-contact, it is difficult to tell how engaged the subject is with the process, and for the viewer to engage with the subject.  They seem much less ‘personal’.  We feel much more comfortable judging facial expression when we have eye-contact with the subject.  At the specific level, the second image (top right) feels the most natural to me, and I think it is because Tim is leaning slightly into the direction that he is looking, with his head turned that way.

I know Tim well, and we engaged in plenty of conversation during the session – sometimes as I gave ‘stage direction’ and sometime just general ‘chat’.  I wanted to capture some less posed images and, using the cable release, pressed the shutter several times when Tim was not concentrating on ‘the pose’ (something he was perfectly aware of, of course).  We also, at one point, sought to simulate the ‘interview’ situation, looking to get a more absorbed version of the look away from camera.  Some of the results follow.
The first is directly comparable to the first of the previous four, with Tim sitting in more or less the same position.  The difference is that we have engaged in ‘banter’ that has brought a natural smile to Tim’s face.  Although he is looking away from the camera and the viewer does not have eye-contact, it feels much easier to engage with him as a subject in this image.
The second of this batch, below, is the one simulating an interview.  The subject’s face is turned more away from camera in this than in any of the others, but he looks absorbed because he is actually looking at me sitting out of frame to the left.  He doesn’t have eye contact with the camera, but he does have eye contact with me, resulting in a much more natural and less posed image than ‘gazing into the distance’.

Finally, the image below is probably the least ‘posed’ of all.  Again, we are sharing a joke, and I can tell from Tim’s body position that it is one the earlier shots, when he was sitting more or less directly facing the camera and we were shooting images of him look directly at it.  I am standing slightly left of camera and he has looked at me whilst laughing.  Once again, a viewer is likely to find it easier to engage with this image than with, say, the first of the previous batch of four, even though the subject is looking in more or less the same direction, from more or less the same position.
The project builds well on the previous ones, particularly with regard to communication between photographer and subject.  There is much more to directing a successful portrait than asking the subject to look one way or another!
Thanks, Tim, it was a very useful session.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Project 4: An active portrait

The brief for this project is to capture a subject absorbed in some activity (not necessarily an activity involving a lot of movement – the emphasis is on absorption).  The objective is to concentrate on ‘the person and the facial expression’.  Jayne is my subject again, and I have photographed her working on a quilted table-runner – a sewing project, in other words.
One of the challenges was to actually manage to photograph the face at all.  A number of factors came into play here – some of the activity takes place in a corner of a small room where it is not easy to set up a camera angle on the face, as illustrated below.

This image works well as a portrait – the lighting, the colours, the hand position, the compositional line between gaze and activity.  There is probably just enough of the face visible to demonstrate a level of concentration and absorption, but the full facial expression has to be left to the imagination.  The hair falling over the face is obviously another contributory factor, but so is the need to look downwards when concentrating in this way – something that would be common to many such portraits.
Whilst working at the sewing machine, Jayne occasionally looked away to examine the work, and I tried to use that opportunity to get more of her face in frame.
Once again, the image works well, with lighting, composition, and body position all adding to a successful illustration of her absorption in the task, but the full facial expression is still missing.
Moving away from the sewing machine to work at a table gave more opportunity to vary the camera angles.

Shooting with the camera hand-held and lower produced the image above.  Lighting is from afternoon sunlight through the window, which has certainly contributed to making this an attractive portrait, but the composition also works well – the circle of hands/arms/head/hair, the colour of the pin cushion in the foreground, the highlighting of the two key points of interest i.e. face and activity, the reflections in the table top.  But the full facial expression is still missing.
Finally, by moving to another angle and waiting until Jayne need to look in my direction, I got the following image.
As an attractive, well-composed portrait, it probably works less well that the others, but it does successfully capture her facial expression, fully-absorbed in the activity.
Thanks again for your patience, Jayne.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Project 03: Experimenting with light

This is, potentially, a very open-ended project; there being so many variations on experimentation with light, both natural and photographic.  The brief seems to steer us towards the use of natural light, and that is, largely, the approach that I have taken.  Artificial light is present in only two of the images presented below, and only at a very minimal level in one of those.  That said, I have often used flash, both on and off camera, in the past to photograph people, still life compositions etc.
The first two portraits are taken indoors, in natural light that is coming from behind the camera, but from French windows that mean it is broadly spread.  It was a dull, cloudy day, so the light is quite ‘white’, being reflected from light clouds, and is well-diffused.  I also chose to use black velvet for the background.  The subject normally wears glasses and I initially took photographs without them, in order to simplify the framing and composition as much as possible, but she also asked me to take some with the glasses on, so I have included both examples here.

This is probably as simple a lighting situation as one could get, and the outcome is a very ‘neutral’ effect – quite a ‘flat’ image, little sense of form because there isn’t a great deal of light and shade.  Some might say that there is too much of the ‘passport’ photo about these, but of course this neutrality is actually very much in line with many contemporary portraitists e.g. Rineke Dijkstra, where there is an attempt strip away the dramatic lighting and concentrate on recording what was there.

The next two are similar, being taken indoors in natural, diffused soft light, but this time there is more direction to the light – from the left side of the frame.  The side lighting creates more contrast of light and shade, highlighting more of the texture and form in the subject e.g. in the hair and the contours of the face.  The portraits probably have more ‘interest’, a little more sense of ‘drama’ – albeit the lighting here is still relatively soft.  Introducing strong photographic lighting in a similarly directional fashion would have an even more dramatic effect.

Once again, there is an image with glasses and one without.  Interesting – the portraits without are simpler to make.  For example, the one above right originally had a distortion of the edge of the face where it appears through the spectacle lens on the left of the frame, which I have corrected in Photoshop.  Now, some people who wear spectacles all the time are probably not going to want to have their portrait taken without them because they might feel it is ‘not them’, but others may welcome their removal.  They certainly make the process more complicated.
Now to another image taken in soft diffused lighting on a dull day; this time out of doors.
There are similarities with the first two images above but, being outside, the light is brighter and coming from above (reflected light from a covering of white/grey cloud), so there is less light getting into the eyes and there is a small amount of shadow below the cheekbones.  Getting light into the eyes is certainly one of the challenges in this type of situation, and I have actually used a very small amount of (on camera) flash to help the situation, which has also caught a small amount of highlighting in the eyes.
The next image makes rather more use of ‘fill flash’.  The sun was bright late on an autumn morning, but I wanted to try a portrait against this well lit ‘golden’ background, with the subject actually in deep shade, under a tree.  The advantage of shooting in the shade is that she is not affected by the brightness of the sun, but matching exposure in the shade with this bright background would have been very difficult, so I have used a considerable amount of flash to illuminate the face, enabling a relatively fast shutter speed of 1/125th second, which retains some detail in the bright background.  The effect is perhaps unusual, but I think it works well, and it would have been impossible to achieve without the use of the artificial light.
We did have several attempts to take portraits in bright sunlight, but it was very hard for my subject to either look towards the sun so that we could get some light into the eyes, or for me to expose in such a way as to get detail into the eyes.
This is as close as we got, and the difference is that it was taken late in the afternoon, when the sun was lower and less strong.  She is still having to struggle to keep her eyes open in the bright light, but there is enough detail to make the portrait work and, combined with the wind ruffling her hair (on the beach) it does give the portrait a very natural and informal look.  It is also shot from above in order to again maximise the opportunity to get light into the eyes.
Many thanks to Jayne for her patience, especially when we were trying to work in bright light.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Brighton Photo Biennial

Last weekend, I visited Bexhill & Brighton to take in a number of the exhibitions at the Brighton Photo Biennial Festival.  Stating the obvious, it was a great pleasure to spend two days viewing the work of, in total, within the time I could manage, around 23 photographers - mainly contemporary, but also some 'heros' from the past e.g. Walker Evans in 'Myth, Manners and Memory' at the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill.

This exhibition features work from six American photographers, focusing on images of the American South, including work from William Eggleston, Alec Soth, William Christenberry, Susan Lipper and Carrie Mae Weems, as well as Evans.  The visit was especially good because on Saturday afternoon there was the opportunity to walk around in a small group led by the two curators who had put the exhibition together - Celia Davies from Photoworks and Jane Won from the De La Warr Pavilion.  In the context of 'People & Place', there were several interesting aspects:
  • large prints of portraits by Eggleston that I had certainly never come across before - some uncompromisingly vivid images (very Eggleston) of 'characters' from the South;
  • 'staged' portraits by Susan Lipper, made with the local inhabitants of a small town in the Appalachian Mountains, that were intriguingly ambiguous  - hard to tell whether they were presenting caractures of themselves, representational images of what life was like in that isolated community, or just p***-taking;
  • sometime disturbing images from Alec Soth's Southern roadtrips;
  • dreamlike self-portraits by Carri Mae Weems, in which she placed herself (and by association the viewer) into Southern locations that evoke the South's sometimes questionable past - almost always back to the camera, facing into the image, as if standing in for the viewer;
  • and two classic Walker Evans portraits of Southern sharecroppers - Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs.
There was lots or portraiture else where in the Brighton event and its Fringe e.g. Molly Landreth's images of the gay & lesbian community in 'Queer Brighton' and Oumar Ly's black & white 'studio' portraiture from a village in Senegal in the 1960s and 70s.  But I was particularly struck by Suzanne Opton's work on soldiers and veterans from recent US wars.

Her images of 'vets' draped in blankets were especially good, for me.  They seemed to lie somewhere between/amongst classic paintings of warriors, photographs of refugees, religious images.  Once again, it made me think about the 'process' of making someone's portrait - the communication between the photographer and the subject & just how crucial that is.  I wanted to be a 'fly on the wall' when she was working with these guys and to understand just what she said to them to bring out the expressions and impressions that they created together.