Monday, 28 February 2011

"Change Agents"

Part 2 of my lecture notes from Jeff Curto's History of Photography, podcast Spring 2011

Change agents can sometimes be people or it can sometimes be technology. 

In the 1920s, Andre Kertesz was using a new camera and lens, the Ermanox f/1.8. This allowed photographers to capture moments of real life as it happened. The wide aperture allowed for faster shutter speeds as well as shooting in dull light.

The idea of using a roll of 35mm film in a camera came from a perforated film used in a minigraph camera. A man called Oscar Barnack halved the size of the film, designed a camera at the company where he worked, Leitz Camera, to accommodate it and called it a Leica.

Then we get to Henri Cartier-Bresson and the Decisive Moment. 

The Lumiere Brothers came up with Autochrome at the turn of the century, the start of colour photography. In 1934, we see George Eastman making another appearance as a 'change agent' with his Kodachrome. This used subtractive colour using Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. Edward Steichen used Kodachrome in the 1930s. A great example of early colour fashion photography by Horst P Horst:

Back to photography with a social conscious now and the Farm Security Administration (FSA) with Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstien. These photographs had a social impact, told a story and were works of art. 

Since the 1950s, 'change agents' have produced advances in technology, faster speeds, greater automation, digital photography and, more recently, video. 

Today, there really is no argument about whether or not photography is seen as a tool of commerce or art. It is both. A more current debate is regarding its commercial survival in the current free for all regarding the sale and use of images.

The next entry will look at fine examples of photographers who mixed ideas, styles, formats and technology.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

19th century 'photoshop' and what IS photography? Part 1

Just spent another enjoyable couple of hours listening to Jeff Curto's History of Photography podcast. This one was the second part of a two-part survey, a fast trip through the history of photography, attempting to get a handle on who did what, when they did it and how it happened. It starts in around 1880 and finishes up in the 1990s.
There were some iconic images which made it a very pleasant way to spend the late afternoon. Here is part 1 of my lecture notes so to speak:

Problems around 1880:

  • speed
  • size of prints
  • proper use?
  • colour (lack of)
  • spectral sensitivity
The biggest issue then was: what is photography?; what was it for?; Was it an art form?; should it try to look like a painting? Gustave Le Gray made a multiple print in 1865 to try to make his picture look more like a painting. Oscar Gustave Rejlander in 1837 made, what reminded me of images by David LaChapelle, pictures that looked like allegorical paintings, such as The Two Ways of Life, by using many negatives printed onto a large sheet of photographic paper. 
Another example of what could seen as 19th century 'photoshop' or manipulations - Henry Peach Robinson

Realism began replacing contrived shots with people like Peter Henry Emerson working in the 1880s.

Pictoralism remained though. An example of alterations to the chemicals used in the image process by Robert Demachy (1888) to simulate paint or scratches on the negative by Frank Eugene to give the impression of drawing.

Iconoclast Alfred Stieglitz (working 1880-1940) championed photography as an art form. His masterpiece 'Steerage' 1902.

The class then heard about the group called photo-secession. Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier and Imogen Cunningham were sited as examples.
Gertrude Kasebier's portrait of Evelyn Nesbit:

Imogen Cunningham's 'arms'

The next part will have links for and examples of photographers with a social conscience, Group f/64, Bauhaus, Dada and Surrealism and 'change agents' that moved photography in different directions from its centre. 

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Photography - some History

This morning I've been catching up with Jeff Curto's excellent History of Photography podcasts.
This is what I picked up from it and maybe it would get you interested enough to go and listen to his podcasts.
(These notes I took whilst listening to his Class 2 Spring 11 podcast)

Artists grappled with how to convey perspective, motion and distance and space. An Arabian scholar was the first to record how a pin-hole image appeared around 900AD!
'Camera obscura' means 'room dark' ( from the Italian)
Artists like Van Eyck and Vermeer used the camera obscura to paint highly accurate and realistic images - including aspects of lenses, i.e. blur and depth of field. So they start to paint out of focus stuff. Interestingly, at the same time Asian art remains flat and lacking in realism because they were more interested in telling the story than getting perspective etc correct.

Niepce is seen as the person who produced the first photograph in 1827 using his bitumen coated metal plate process.
Daguerre worked with Niepce to come up with the process eventually to be called 'daguerreotype' which produced very sharp, very detailed, one of a kind plate images. Costly but became very popular as people wanted a portrait of themselves and family. So photography began in January 1839. One of the best and a famous daguerreotype is of abolitionist Frederick Douglass:

 Meanwhile in England Henry Fox-Talbot came up with his 'Calotype' process which involved light sensitive paper to make the negative placed on light sensitive paper to produce the positive image. This meant you could reproduce many prints but the image was fuzzy.

The 'wet plate collodian' process, invented by another Brit called Frederick Scott Archer, made sharper images that could be reproduced. However, you had to quickly expose and develop your plate so the photographer had to basically have a darkroom with him. Wet plate collodian images were printed on Albumen paper and the size of your print was the size of you plate. So if you wanted a large print, you had to have a large plate format camera. Landscape and travel photography becomes popular and most pictures from the period 1851-1880 would have been produced using this process. Carlton Watkins image of Yosemite (about 60years before Adams)
War photography also emerges, but the need for all the chemicals and speed for the developing meant the images are of AFTER the battles which makes them interesting narratives. Roger Fenton:

This inability to capture the excitement of battle caused some photographers to manipulate and set up scenes. Alexander Gardner's now infamous 'dead body moving' to create better images for example.

Sir John Herschel coined the phrases 'negative' 'positive' and 'photography'. He also came up with the chemical we call fixer.

Other people and topics touched on: Eadweard Muybridge; stereoscopic photography; cartes de visite; dry glass plates; George Eastman.

The wonderful Julia Margaret Camera was also discussed but she deserves a blog all of her own! An image of hers for now:

Well, there it is. Just some lecture notes really, so try Jeff's podcasts - they are very informative.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Diane Arbus

Today I went to the Diane Arbus exhibition at Aberdeen Art Gallery. This is the third time I've been to an exhibition of hers; the first was in Barcelona, the second in Edinburgh.

Her images, yet again, demanded my attention; they get my full attention. I'm drawn into them and quite stunned by them. They open up an America different from that normally portrayed. Many of her subjects were on the fringe of society. But she also captured familiar things and made them look strange e.g. the shot with the large Christmas tree in the corner. Some of the more exotic characters have very familiar items beside them; box of tissues, toilet paper, talc; etc. Some of the pictures are almost shocking in their purity and honesty but others have too much of their self hidden by masks or clothes or props. Her photos of nudists, drag queens, midgets, giants, suburban couples can be quite haunting.

Perhaps most haunting of all are her images from the institute of the mentally retarded (as it was called then.) As Nan Golden said about the shots of inmates taken outside, 

...often in masks and costumes for Halloween, or on picnics, or just frolicking on the grounds. Among these are some of Arbus, most beautiful and unforgettable photographs of all. The vision of a mentally disabled patient dressed as a ghost with a skeleton mask, or of a couple in a dunce, hat and clown suit holding hands on a wide lawn under a dark somber sky, looks like Grimm's fairy tales. The people become characters in a medievel theater or a Pirandello play. Somehow these pictures describe the experience of being institutionalized, not from a documentary viewpont but from the magical and symbolic realm where reality sometimes arrives. They bring round other poets of darkness like Goya, or Pasolini, or George Grosz.
...after the amazing photographs of a bizarre parade of patients in nightgowns and bonnets and fake mustaches leading one another across a dark field like the blind leading the blind, one still feels it's fair to assume that after this Arbus felt there was nowhere left to go. ( Quoted from here.)

Apart from being enthralled by the subject matter, I found myself trying to analyse her style some more. I wondered why she stood where she did to take a shot; why she included so much of the surroundings; why she came in so close; did she care that she was shooting this portrait in the mid-day sun?; did she not see that tree in the background sticking out of the boy's head?; why did she not care about cutting off their feet? I couldn't come to an 'Arbus approach' to a shoot. You had to have the empathy and internal pain of Arbus to shoot like, and think like her. She must have felt like an outsider, a freak, perhaps even mentally retarded herself at times, to see the world as she did. 

I wasn't disappointed by a third visit to a Diane Arbus exhibition. I could, and do, stare at her work for ages. They are narratives of, not only the subject matter, but of Arbus herself. Since her suicide in 1971, we seem to be searching in the photos for clues about her mental state, just like people do when a friend commits suicide. They go back over thing said, actions, hints, any clues at all that could have foreseen and perhaps, prevented the tragic event.

As I always do when I go to Aberdeen Art Gallery, I end my visit by looking at the four Francesca Woodman photographs they have. Another tragedy, another set of mesmerising photographs.