The introductory notes to Section Three of the course say, quite rightly, that ‘Non-architectural photography of buildings and man-made spaces ... is not considered a genre ...’. So, I have been doing some research – looking at examples.
I started out in the obvious place – magazines related to the ‘Home’, where there would be plenty of images of domestic spaces. It didn’t take long to reach one (hardly surprising) conclusion. Photographs of interiors that have been taken for use in advertisements are totally product-focused. Since their whole purpose is to highlight and sell the kitchen, floor, furniture, or whatever, that is to be expected. Almost without fail, the outcome is a stark, impersonal, de-humanised image of an artificial-looking space. I found one exception – an advert for an iron bed-frame, where there was a crumpled spread on the bed, with two dogs lying on it, and a canvas bag casually pushed underneath. This one actually did look as though the human race exists, but many didn’t! Images designed to illustrate articles were, on the whole ‘better’ at including a sense of humanity. They included the normal clutter of human life – tidied, perhaps, but present – usually shot in natural light. The framing is interesting when photographing a domestic interior (as opposed to a studio set). It becomes necessary to work around the ‘architecture’ of the space, whereas an advertising shot will frequently create that architecture to suit the image the client wants. The result is that many shots can seem harshly and arbitrarily cropped, when viewed in their own right rather than as part of the article (with text around them, and supported by other images of the same space). Looking at shots of a real kitchen, for example, the frame cuts through a table, a cupboard, a work-surface, a towel, and so on. There is a door, half open, leading outside. It works OK, partly because it includes lots of elements of the room within a small area, but also precisely because the cropping suggests a continuation beyond the frame. We get a sense of the space that we can’t see. A lesson here for some of the advertising photographers, perhaps – just create partial-reality, but photograph it as though there is much more that we can’t see!!
Then I thought I would move on to some of the photographic books and browse through, looking primarily for pictures of man-made spaces. I have been surprised by how many I’ve found – and by the opportunity to make some interesting comparisons between some well-known names, for example. What about Joel Meyerowitz, Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, to kick things off? I’ve written up some notes for myself elsewhere on some of the individual images, which I won’t write-up in full here, because creating links to the images would be very time-consuming but the comments won’t be much use without the images. So, I’ll keep it general.
Looking at Meyerowitz’s ‘Cape Light’ first of all; the very first ‘Plate’ (‘Hartwig House, Truro’) is an interior shot, looking through a series of open doors but, interestingly, with the frame cropped so that we sense another room to the right and other space around us. And there are other examples – not least, the series of ‘Porch’ images in this book. In these, he photographs a man-made external space, the Porch, by looking through it and outwards, in different lights and under different conditions. There is Plate 31, ‘Trompe L’Oeil Interior’, which is actually an image of a big open space inside a church. As the title suggests, it features a trick of light and reflection, but the space itself is almost ‘hinted at’, as there are the tips of pews in the foreground/bottom of frame, and just a hint of ceiling at the top – otherwise, it’s just empty space. There are more examples in his ‘Tuscany’ book – Plate 16 ‘Inside the Old Guard House’, which is being used to butcher wild boar, no question about ‘function’ in this case. As usual with Meyerowitz, it is the sensitive and creative use of light that comes through, but also that framing, designed to create interest and to give a sense of what is happening around, and usually with a ‘human’ touch.
In Stephen Shore’s case, I’ve been looking through ‘Uncommon Places’, where there are, of course, countless images of hotel rooms. I suppose there is almost a typographical thing going on – collecting these images as he does his ‘road trip’. Shore’s pictures have a much more ‘deadpan’ feel, which matches the impersonal, dehumanised spaces of the hotel rooms very well. Again we see the ‘selective framing’ that is unavoidable when photographing a room; and sometimes almost down to what becomes more like a still life – as in Room 28, Holiday Inn, Medicine Hat – you can almost smell that room, just from the colour and texture in the table lamp that features as the major subject. Shore also ‘collects’ images of houses in ‘Uncommon Places’ – but very definitely not from an architectural point of view. Colour features highly – Terrace Bay, Ontario, with its half finished blue wooden walls and bright red door; or Kimballs Lane, Moody, Maine, with red, grey, blue, yellow, green, purple, plus bags of personality and a quirky white poodle lurking behind a fence. Then in complete contrast, there is Wilde Street and Colonization Avenue, Dryden, with a totally faceless concrete dwelling, photographed in the shade on a sunny day to enhance its facelessness, sitting at an anonymous road junction, and framed by two ubiquitous telegraph poles and a random network of wires and cables. OK, I’ve gone on a bit about Shore – essentially, by collecting and juxtaposing, he is creating interest and character, making anonymous places and spaces into works of art. They don’t have the humanity that I always feel is present in Meyerowitz; they are soulless places a lot of the time, but they are lifted out of anonymity by what he does with them.
Then I looked at Eggleston’s ‘Guide’, where there are also images of rooms, spaces and buildings. As usual with Eggleston, these are rather less ‘comfortable’ images than, say, Meyerowitz – a darker side to them. Page 20 Tallahatchie County is a well-known photograph – the living room with an unmade jigsaw on the coffee table. Soft natural light; half-cropping of items around edge of frame; a ‘softer’ finish, less sharpness and less clarity compared with the Shore & JM (hand-held 35mm, I assume, and wider angle) – but, it’s the knee jutting crudely into the bottom of the frame, and the random scattering of the jigsaw pieces that make this feel unsettled, as though something has been interrupted – and the door is closed, unlike virtually every such interior with JM. And there are others – the famous green-tiled shower room – a harsh, flash-lit image, overpoweringly utilitarian, not a place for refreshment and relaxation. The same could be said for Shore’s hotel rooms (and bath/shower rooms) but Eggleston just goes a stage further – not deadpan but brash.
That has been an interesting exercise – and it has taken in some other contemporary work along the way e.g. Jeff Wall & Thomas Struth – because although it is certainly true to say that ‘man-made space’ doesn’t figure as a recognised genre, it is very clear that it is a concept that has attracted the attention of many well-known and respected photographers. Photographic artists seek to bring the viewer’s attention to aspects of life, often mundane aspects, and since we all spend so much of our time in man-made spaces, and since those spaces differ in the way that they can impact on or reflect the mood and behaviour of human beings, it isn’t surprising that those photographers have taken the time to portray how these spaces look and feel. My turn next – and I think I’ll play it safe with one of our own domestic spaces at home to begin with.