Exercise: Correction

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I have a Canon 5D full frame that I bought in 2007 and still use, but it  doesn’t have a dust cleaner built in and it seems to suck in dust with every stretch of a zoom lens, so its … Continue reading

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Photo references: steps & stairs

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Yinka Shonibare MBE @ the Yorkshire Sculpture Park

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Yinka is an incredibly versatile artist. He produces textiles, sculptures, photographic tableau, film, music and performance.  Born in London, raised in Nigeria, then returned and awarded an MBE. His work expresses the irrelevance of racism by removing heads or substituting … Continue reading

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Juergen Teller at a Guardian Masterclass at the RGS

I was aware of Teller’s reputation although advance research only uncovered a few reviews in high-art language, so I attended with an open mind. The interviewer was Sean O’Hagan, an old acquaintance of Teller’s, and I think that familiarity prompted Sean to be a little more critical than he was with Steve McCurry a few months earlier. (I chatted with Sean afterwards in the bar about his different approaches and he was regretful at how that interview had turned out.)
Over the allotted 90 minutes Teller’s story came out, and jumping to my conclusion now I’m putting him in the same buckets as both Martin Parr and John Stezaker, although for different reasons. With Martin Parr because he takes very banal shots (of celebrities), and with John Stezaker because he makes a living by producing photos, of a sort, which are more at home in an art context. Just as Stezaker apparently doesn’t take photos, Teller apparently doesn’t know anything about photographic technique, or least he doesn’t display any such tendency, and why should he? He’s made his reputation through producing horrible, discoloured, mostly banal images using an old 35mm film camera. Parr produces somewhat similarly banal images but Parr was a trail-blazer and has a photographic degree whereas Teller did only two years at a school in Germany before running away from national service and being allowed to live here as a non-English speaking, low rent benefit-scrounger. When he went back for a exhibition his mother asked him to consider her feelings when her neighbours saw the sort of open-legged subjects he was so proud of, but of course he ignored her, Juergen is more important than some old German woman who happened to have given birth to him.  I wonder if he asked her to sit naked with her legs open too? And if not, why not, isn’t this art that over-rides all decency? 
His method appears to be along the lines of “I’m a famous artist, so I want to feel your breasts and genitals and rub myself against you”, or at least that’s what he admits to, only the girly-women know what he actually says.
He went to Memphis to meet William Egglestone, and they sat for an hour without saying anything, and then he asked if he could take a photo, and got the resulting snapshot. egglestoneApparently they went on a road trip around Bavaria with cameras but didn’t speak or even take any photos. So what was the point?   Before seeing Teller I brought my own understanding of Egglestone as a significant figure in the photographic canon. Here is the great man having a smoke and a paper cup full of burbon with his famous Contax by his side, on cold stone steps in the Memphis heat near to where Elvis prowled.  Now thanks to Teller I mostly see an old weirdo snapped by a younger pervert, perhaps I should be grateful.
For reasons that escape me he found himself lionised by some parts of the fashion industry and with that came access to celebrities who are prepared to open their legs for him whilst he shows them his penis. I think “decadent” could have been invented just for him, for what is he really if not a piece of selfish egotistical German scum?
But why not? He’s got rich and famous through his indolence, selfishness and lack of any moral compass. The art world love him, and one young photographer at the RGS desperately wanted to emulate the richness of his colour palette and the blurriness of his focus, but didn’t seem to believe me when I suggested that all she needed was an old camera and a few rolls of out of date film.  This girl had completed a photography BA and taught photography for a year afterwards but was here because Teller was her hero, and she wanted to learn his technique. She had a Canon 5D MkIII and a 50mm 1.4 lens, and yet she wanted to produce photos of Teller’s quality which she thought aspirational. With hindsight I should have offered a straight swap of my old Zenit E for her MkIII, but I did tell her about using old Canon FD lenses that might give a similarly faux-crappy image. (Actually there’s probably no “faux”, his images are just crappy.)
Teller was promoting his books, images from which were flashed onto the screen above his head throughout the evening, and frankly they were ridiculous. Should we thank him for repeated photos of his penis, or for Vivianne Westwood’s 68 year-old wide-open genitals, or for numerous deadly dull images, particularly those shot for advertising campaigns? What does it say about celebrity when they pander to this pervert’s demands to fondle them, and note that there are very very few images of male celebrities in here. Perhaps there’s hope for some them ‘though – Kate Moss allegedly called Teller and invited him to the south of France to capture her early pregnancy, and it appears that it didn’t go well for Juergen, because whilst displaying a full length shot of Moss lying on a lilo topless but with legs apart and a pregnant stomach, all he could say was that there had been a tragic misunderstanding. My guess is that he asked if he could touch her unborn child with his penis and Kate responded as most females would do. Pity she didn’t have any men around who could have relayed the message a little more forcefully, but just like Martin Parr and perverts everywhere they prey on the weak and keep the penis zipped up around men.
Teller also made a big statement that his work was all meticulously prepared in advance, but this conflicted with his stories where with Charlotte Rampling for example, he didn’t know what to do beyond groping her.
There’s a large degree of lionsing Teller in the art world, and it is becoming quite tedious. Compare his work with any other fashion photographer, David LaChappell for example, and Teller doesn’t stand up. Even Rankin or Bailey, both of whom I have fairly critical views on, can truthfully be described as “photographers”. Juergen Teller is a photographer only  in the sense that he takes photos, and this reminded me of a book I bought last year from the Works for £2.50 – “fotolog.book, a global snapshot for the digital age”, a collection of over 1,000 photos from the fotoblog website – http://www.fotolog.com/  where ordinary people upload their ordinary photos. This is where Teller belongs, but we’re all guilty to some degree by taking him seriously. Let’s not. Let’s just ignore him for the naughty child that he is, and not flatter him by loving the “bad boy” of the fashion world.
I’m quite happy to analyse any photograph in a semiotics context by overlaying the items in the image with my own understanding and experiences, and I can easily apply this to Teller’s work, and what I now bring now is the understanding of an industry that is all about using image and fantasy to generate fame and money and even respectability. Sleight of hand, gullibility, smoke and mirrors, snake oil, yes, it’s all there and Teller fits right in.
I don’t regret my investment in the evening because I enjoyed the whole thing, but with my eyes open. I recognise these events as important in my growing understanding of the art world in general, and fashion photography in particular.   But I do regret that I have given Teller any money or perceived respectability.
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Truth in photography- not possible

I’m not convinced that there is any “truth” in photographic representation, in no matter what concept. The fundamental problem is that neither film nor digital sensors can capture the full range of colours and tones, and then the media used to display the image are even less able to mimic real life, excluding subjects and objects where the light is a third party, such as in images of television screens. Light which is generated by a manufactured light source cannot be seen until it is reflected off something else. The light from a tungsten light bulb for example is not seen directly, because it must pass through its glass container.

Moving from there to Michael Freeman’s discussion on what is and isn’t acceptable given my position that there is no truth, then what is acceptable cannot really be generalised but must fall into the same box as the “what is art” debate.

If we’re considering if an image is a photograph or illustration I believe that the question is as relevant as how many angels can stand on the head of a pin. If one enters a photographic competition then relief may be at hand because the organisers will state in the rules what is and isn’t acceptable. John Stezaker is not a photographer but wins prizes for using other people’s discarded photos, and that seems acceptable, to the competition sponsors at least.

In 2010 an image of a wolf jumping over a gate won first prize in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, before the judges were informed that the wolf was actually a tame actor wolf who had been hired out for the shot and the entry was disqualified. When I first saw the photo I was impressed although I wondered if it was a wolf or a dog, given its Cruft’s-like leap. I know a fox can leap over a six foot high fence (I’ve seen it) but given the option wouldn’t any wild creature walk through the bars of the gate rather than exert itself? For me this was a very nice photo, but the photographer apparently lied to win money and his photographic career was apparently hit quite badly. I put that down to his stupidity rather than dishonesty, but it is a good example of how photos are expected to be “truthful”.



Truth is therefore a matter of degree, and I’d prefer to question if a photo is “compliant” with its purpose than “truthful”, which as I’ve said it can never be. “Acceptable” demands the question “to whom?”. The wolf is acceptable to me as an interesting photo, and likewise  the issue of “gardening” in other wildlife competitions, where having the temerity (or good sense)  to move aside some obstructive grass or untidy twigs usually results in disqualification. Fair enough, their prizes so their rules.

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Revisions to assignment 3 based on tutor feedback

With thanks also to members of the OCA Thames Valley group who gave me a few ideas on how to update the set.

Stairways and steps have featured in photographs over the years from Alfred Stieglitz; Euegene Atget; André Kertész; Brassaï; Cartier-Bresson; DeCarava; and Stephen Shore to name just a few. Some have a deliberate psychological intent while others are found within a scene but still retain that dark mental component. There are transitions from one site, or from one state to another. Dreaming of stairs brings an interpretation of one’s mental state, where ascending indicates progression or development of self while descending illustrates a drop into the unknown. I sometimes dream of climbing dark unsafe staircases to an attic where horrors await, and others where the staircase, ascending or descending, becomes treacherously steep or rickety. These are less to do with nightmares than with understanding your own situation as perceived by your sub-conscious, but nevertheless the stairs are a critical element that indicates transition, or progress, or development. However just by typing up this assignment I’m reminded of how scared I was as a young child having to go upstairs to bed alone, and how my father tried to “cure” this (unsuccessfully) by forcing me to go up alone in the dark. That wasn’t a fear of the house of course, rather a fear of the unknown, or the future, but still only brought on by the dreaded transit of the staircase.

When we die, we may assume that we ascend a staircase to heaven, as illustrated in several Hollywood movies, such as “A Matter of Life and Death”, from where Led Zeppelin coined their “Stairway to Heaven” song and imagery. Generally speaking the ascent is understood to be a “good” thing whereas the descent is more fearful, but there are elements of the unknown in both scenarios, particularly where we cannot see what lies at the bottom or at the top.

Steps may also indicate status, where the lowly sit at the bottom whilst the entitled perch on top. The exceptionally lowly may not even have steps but squat on the ground while angels float above us, also free of steps but obviously superior.

The most striking photographic stairway images were shot in monochrome which removes colour and colour relationships as a distraction leaving texture, shapes, contrast and key to set the mood. I have chosen to examine stairways in monochrome, and have used a grainy effect both to enhance the textural quality and reference so-called “real” photography. My first set of images review a descent from what one may initially think of as “heaven”, down to what may be “hell” for some of us fortunate ones.

Stairway to Capitalism

Stairway to Capitalism

St Paul’s cathedral’s approach is an impressive array of steps that nowadays function as a stage for tourists, demonstrations, and a few religious events. For a newcomer the mystery is what is happening behind the locked doors at the top, but I can reveal that their soul can only be helped in a very small chapel to the left of the entrance, and damned if they can explore the rest of the cathedral for less than £15. Unfortunately there is no obvious external signage to indicate the toll and the cathedral appears to be a respectable house of God, but the money-changers are inside. I understand that they have expenses but that charge is a purely business transaction and not a spiritual tithe. In the recent anti-capitalist protests they sided very clearly with the capitalists of Paternoster Square, and their continued evasion behind the English establishment headed by Prince Charles puts them beyond contempt.  These steps are no stairway to heaven, they are an ascent to mendacity. God is not here, only the Devil’s cashiers.


Warning steps

This southern approach to St Paul’s could be understood as subtly indicating that all is not as you expected. The scene almost appears to be two scenes badly stitched together, perhaps as homage to any number of paintings of heaven and hell over the years, which remain a popular subject. The illusion seems apt in this context, given my stated views of St Paul’s current standing.

A symptom of the problem

A symptom of the problem

Further descent shows a flight of steps routinely used by capitalists to exercise their bodies whilst their souls continue to atrophy. From this angle we cannot see the destination, only that the pathway is lined with shiny modern fittings built on filthy stones under a bridge that proudly displays its means of construction and support, as is the capitalist tendency. The bridge originally opened and then quickly closed when it was found to vibrate uncontrollably, threatening to hurl its customers over the side. Perhaps capitalism is also now vibrating out of control and revealing its potential to reward its founders whilst destroying its victims.

The final step

The final step

The last step on the descent from St Paul’s is at the river as may be expected. Here I found a young man cradling a bottle of cheap spirits, lost in thought as he gazed into the depths of the river, or perhaps into his soul. On one side of me were a group of elderly drinkers with whom I assume this man associated.  They were not gin ‘n’ tonic drinkers today, but cheap beer and spirits drinkers, the losers in the capitalist society. For this man the final step  may well have been to hell, but perhaps oblivion in the Thames is preferable to his current earthly hell.

The horizon and base are left tilted to introduce a sense of disorientation such as may be felt by the subject.

The next few images are intended to look at other unconnected stairways for their photographic interest.

Things can only get better

Things can only get better

We stand at the bottom of a fetid alleyway where a dominant drainpipe leaks fluids into the ground and other unidentified pungent fluids discourage delay in moving on. The ascent is unknown, but on higher ground than the current aspect and therefore desirable. The white-painted wall above suggests a better place.

Descent to familiarity

Descent to familiarity

This descent also suggests a better place, depending on your outlook. There is life down there at least, and perhaps a warmly inviting Costas coffee shop (not Starbucks). The path back to civilisation is edged with speading foliage that drops its waste products on our path, but in the depths of winter a little neglect is both acceptable and not unattractive.

Steps to enlightenment

Steps to enlightenment

At the top of these steps is a castle that contained a working church, gone now but in its day a symbol of protection. Castles were usually built on higher ground, the more easy to defend against intruders. To the intruder the ascent was potentially deadly but for the refugee it would have been a welcome haven.

Privileged descent

Privileged descent

This descent is problematic to a citizen of the 21st century given the unfamiliarity of cobbles, wooden-beamed structures, narrow passage and unknown destination. There are no signs to prohibit passage, no gates, but the passage appears to be within someone’s private ownership and permission to transit is not clear.  The beams belong to a private house, not a hotel or pub, and cobbles are not usual. Should I risk the trespass?

Another mystery

Another mystery

Another over-grown path with no signage prohibiting entry and no indication of the destination.  W Eugene Smith is one of the many photographers who influence me, particularly his use of chiaroscuro, as demonstrated by many painters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Rubens. I used a flash to light the foreground but with the zoom manually set to the 105mm setting, even with the camera set to 12mm (18mm equivalent), so as to illuminate the centre of the path and lead the eye down to the tangle, gloom, and precipitous drop beyond. It’s the antithesis of Smith’s “Walk to Paradise Garden” in that Smith’s image promises hope and enlightenment whereas mine suggests uncertainty and peril. One could reflect that Smith’s image was produced after the second world war, and the national mood was positive, hopeful, promising, whereas mine is set as Britain is heading for a triple dip recession with the government promoting class warfare, fear, elitism, impoverishment, malice and depression.

Known unkowns

Known unknowns

After many years of exploration of London I am familiar with these steps but the first few times I was deterred by the steepness of the descent coupled with the poor lighting and perceived slipperyness.  These are in fact a purely functional route off a bridge to a useful street below, but there is no sign or indication that this is the case.  The steps existed in Dickens’ times and a plaque at the bottom indicates that he also saw the threatening aspect and used them as the setting for the murder of Nancy in “Oliver Twist”, but the plaque is actually mistaken, Nancy being murdered elsewhere. Still, the steps do seem to be a good place for such violence, being secluded from passing traffic.

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Exercise: Colours into tones 2

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I couldn’t understand how to emphasis depth in a landscape and I didn’t find the example in the course book any help, so I cheated and used blur in the BW conversion. ..A few months later and the haze puzzle … Continue reading

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Exercise: Colours into tones 1

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On my first attempt I thought I was dealing with red and green, but during processing it was the yellow slider that made most difference to both the leaf and the raspberries.   I tried again with yellows and blues, … Continue reading

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Man Ray portraits at the National Portrait Gallery

Man Ray studioAs advertised, over one hundred and fifty portraits, hung in groups according to the periods when Ray was in New York, Paris, Hollywood, and back again to Paris. In each section is a poster giving an overview of the work but it really helps to know the Man Ray story in advance to put some context to the work.

Ray’s background was an important driver of his movements, coming as did from a relatively poor immigrant family from Russia. His family were in the textiles business and this shows up in some of his earlier non-photographic work. He won a scholarship to study architecture but instead chose to be an artist, and was supported by both his family who allowed him to set up a studio at home, and also through his own commercial art work for several Manhattan companies. He was a fan of the Modernists and was friendly with Alfred Stieglitz through his visits to the 291 gallery where Stieglitz exhibited European avant-garde artists. He befriended artists such as Marcel DuChamp and through them was introduced to Dadaism, and moved from conventional painting and drawing to  Dada concepts such as “readymades”, one example of which was an iron with tacks attached to the bottom.

When he moved to Paris in 1021 Duchamp introduced him to the art and cultural community there, and as we know, all the world passes through Paris so he met a great many famous people. His portrait photography largely came about because he was paid to take photos of these people, and it this is, along with many of his friends and lovers posed nude, that is on show at the NPG.

There are a few of his solarised images on display, plus la Violon d’Ingres which perhaps stretches the “portrait” genre, although it does show the back of one his naked girlfriends.

Of the total collection on show I didn’t feel that many captured any insights or revealed anything more about the sitter than was formally on display, naked or clothed. The solarised images are the result of initial mistakes in the darkroom, but Ray kept taking them even when he experimented with colour in California. He also experimented with colour in Paris through a three- carbon paper combination print process that was similar to a hand coloured print.

Overall it’s an interesting exhibition, to which was added another level when I went upstairs in the Gallery and discovered a room full of painted portraits that contained a large full-length James Joyce. Whereas Ray’s photo of Joyce was a simple record the painting drew out all manner of impressions, as did a significant number of the paintings on display, and that had my thinking about why a photograph, which is a fairly exact image of person, doesn’t contain the depth of character that can be expressed by a good painter.

I think that Keith Greenough may have had a similar epiphany based on the work he showed at the first OCA Thames Valley meeting, where a self portrait in particular attempted to merge thirty different self-portrait into one. I think Keith has succeeded in drawing more out of a portrait and his work would stand up against the portrait painters.

But to return to Man Ray, while I was glad to have been able to visit the show even with the hordes of other visitors jostling for space, I didn’t buy the exhibition catalogue but instead bought a Taschen book which is a review of all of his work and much better value.

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Thames Valley Group meeting notes, 23rd February 2013

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Dave Bartlett TAoP lines, patterns, diagonals, etc at A3.  B&W DPP ass 1 – trains at Didcot Eddy Lerpiniere P&P portraits white balance problems type of paper – semi-gloss will give a better colour / dynamic range. John Umney no people, … Continue reading

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