Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Musing on a da Vinci – several in fact

Leonardo da Vinci, Painter at the Court of Milan – an exhibition at the National Gallery, which was billed as a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It was indeed so, with most of his surviving paintings together in one place for, probably, the first time and, probably, the last.  So, by definition, by reputation, by the word of the press, this was always going to be a significant event.  People are going to say ...

“I remember when I stood in front of the ...”

Actually, I do remember when I stood in front of a da Vinci painting (no, no that one in the Louvre!), in the Pinacotecca Ambrosiana in Milan, in 2006; me, Jayne, the painting, and no one else in the room.  I wasn’t aware then that there were so few surviving da Vincis, and I hadn’t known this particular painting either, but it still had an impact on me (both of us, actually).  Stunning detail; an arresting look in the subject’s eyes, not looking at us but out of the frame to our right; vibrant colour, especially in his hair; a slight sense of inconsistency across the surface of the painting, I recall.  We could examine it in that level of detail because we stood right in front of it, could have touched it if we’d chosen (dared).  There was a definite sense of personality, the subject as a real, living, breathing, speaking, thinking natural human being.

We stood in front of it again, last Thursday evening and, amazingly, with no one else in the room, close enough to touch it had we dared! The painting is ‘Portrait of a Young Man – (The Musician)’, and it was now hanging on a wall at the National Gallery, on loan from Milan.  We also stood in front of several others – the ‘Madonna Litta’, the two ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, and so on.  But it was the renewal of acquaintance with ‘The Musician’, and the thoughts which followed, that had the most impact.

It is an object, in the end.  I saw it in Milan; I saw it in London; and it has been transported from one place to the other, so that I can stand before it again.  But it is a unique physical object, empowered by what I and others make of it.  Leonardo stood and looked at it with his own eyes, more than 500 years ago.  He didn’t look and say ‘it’s finished’, because it isn’t – hence the slight sense of inconsistency across its surface.  I’m pretty sure he didn’t look at it and say ‘that’ll do’ either!!!  But he did look at it with his own eyes – and now I’m looking at it with mine.  It won’t look exactly the same but it won’t look dramatically different.  He applied his brush to this surface at which I am looking.  And, in the few moments we beheld it in Milan, and the few moments we beheld it in London, Leonardo’s efforts were made for no others than Jayne and me.  In that moment, there was no other interpretation, no other reading of this object, than those brought on by our eyes, our minds, our experiences.  What’s more, whilst we were certainly the direct recipients of da Vinci’s purpose and his labours, he had no control, however skilled and learned, on our interpretation and reading.

But it remains a unique object that will return to its wall in Milan, spatially close to where it was created, back from perhaps the longest journey it has ever made.  It is much reproduced but remains utterly unique.  Compare that to the digital portraits I will make for Assignment Five!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Assignment Five – an example

Writing up my thoughts on the Taylor Wessing exhibition & then reading comments from Clive & Dave made me think that it was time to ‘mock-up’ something from the one portrait session that I have managed to organise, more than a month ago now.

I came away a bit frustrated with myself because I didn’t manage to get things just right, from the technical point of view.  I’m not going to dwell on the specifics too much here, however, I was shooting in a brightly lit motor garage but also felt I needed to use some flash and a wide aperture to avoid a slow shutter (and the noise that results if I start cranking up the ISO setting on the D80).  I did have an assistant, as Clive suggests, and he was holding a large white reflector behind me to bounce the flash rather than have it direct onto the subject. The result isn’t a disaster by any means, but there is some very nasty shadow across the subject’s midriff (from light that did go direct) and the foreground is less in focus than I had intended.  It’s usable but not up to the standard I would have liked.

However, I have added some text, which is what I have in mind for the final submission, and produced this version.  I’ll need to give careful thought to font size & type in the final versions, and also think carefully about just how much text to include.  I feel that it’s important to support the image with enough narrative to encourage the viewer to read it ‘correctly’ but I don’t want the text to take over.  That’s one of the reasons I’ve produced this version now.  I want to test the water, see what it looks/feels like, before doing the rest of the sessions.  My initial reaction is that this amount of text could be a little too much, but I now have something to work with, at least.

(Incidentally, I’ve since experimented with firing the flash through a diffusing layer rather than bouncing it – more ‘soft box’ than ‘umbrella’ – and I think I can get better results that way, if I need to use flash again.  Too late for this session though, unfortunately.)

Monday, 23 January 2012

Assignment Five related – Reflections on Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize Exhibition

Last Thursday, I was able to see the Exhibition of the 60 selected images in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, at the National Portrait Gallery - Link to Taylor Wessing Prize.  (Other exhibitions seen last week, as well, and further reflections will follow.)  I saw the same exhibition two years ago and observed that it seemed to be populated, mainly, with Djikstra-esque images of young, sickly-looking East European women – a bit unfair, but with a degree of truth!  There was more variety this time, I would say, and I enjoyed it more.  It was also certainly useful in the context of my Assignment Five brief to produce a series of portraits.

The presentation of the prints is worth mentioning.  It was simple, ‘unobtrusive’ and quite ‘traditional’.  Off-white mounts and slim, dark wood frames worked well and tied everything together successfully in an exhibition with 60 different artists.

The outstanding print, for me, was ‘Malega, Surma Boy, Ethiopia, April 2011’ from ‘Faces of Africa’ series by Mario Marino.  I later discovered that it is the front cover of the catalogue, too; though not a prize winner.  There is a beautiful honesty and dignity about the portrait – and indeed, the others in his series, now that I’ve had chance to look further -  And I particularly like the superb use of tones and textures – brown skin and a brown wall behind – sounds unexciting but looked really, really, good.

The winner has already had plenty of publicity – like last year, a red-haired girl with an animal, but guinea pig rather than horse!  It didn’t especially stand out, for me, but to be fair, it does make great use of the hair colours and there is a tiny ‘punctum’ (!) scratch on her right hand.  Of course, as acknowledged by the Director of the National Portrait Gallery in his Foreword to the exhibition catalogue: “The question of what makes a great photographic portrait is generally considered to be a subjective matter.”  I wouldn’t argue with that.

Overall, though, what do I take from this exhibition, particularly in light of my Assignment Five work?

·         Actually, some encouragement, first of all; I’m capable, I think, of making a decent shot at the portraits I have in mind for the assignment and the sort of subject matter and style that I’m planning could sit perfectly well within this group.  It’s just up to me to execute them to a decent standard.

·         Well over 50% of the 60 exhibited (from 6000+ entrants) are shot with the subject facing the camera and looking into the lens – many in a very simple, standing, frontal pose.  That collaborative, aware, posed-but-not-staged look is what I feel most keen on and most comfortable with for the assignment work.  So, I think I’ll stop worrying about trying to do anything too clever or more emotionally-charged/staged and just get on with it.

·         Many of the subjects are standing holding something – a concept that links directly to my own proposed approach.  Indeed, the winner is a portrait of someone standing, facing the camera, looking into the lens, holding something of significance!

So – glad I found the time to do this and it has encouraged me to follow the direction that seemed right in the first place.  Just need to get some sessions organised!  I’ve spoken to quite a few potential subjects now, but it all needs organising.