Gerry Badger: The Genius of Photography – Book

It has taken me a while to work my way through this book (which oddly is listed in the course reference material as both “Essential Reading” and “Recommended”!) taking it in in just small chunks, more by accident than design.  In retrospect I feel that this was perhaps the better way to approach it, giving it time and space to sink in.  I was initially expecting a conventional, chronological history, but it is more interesting and richer than that, concentrating more on a thematic and conceptual approach.  From the viewpoint of questions of aesthetics I think that Shore’s book is much more helpful, but this book has much more to say about the social issues, and social impacts of various approaches to photography.

The subtitle of the book is “How photography has changed our lives” but it strikes me that this is a bit of hyperbole tacked on by a copy editor.  It is not a phrase that Badger uses, nor is this an issue he investigates in any depth.  Yes, he does look at photography’s social impact but that is not the same as showing that life would in some way have been different but for photography.  In any event it strikes me that it is not photography as such that has had an impact as the basic nature of photography has not changed in essence since Niépce and Daguerre started capturing light in the early 1800.  What has changed is the technology and with it the ubiquity of cameras in various forms, of photographs, and indeed of “photographers”  SO, I would argue that it is technology that has changed our lives, not photography, which is merely (!) one of any number of manifestations of that technology.

What I get though from this book, above all else, is a greater sense of the different types and approaches to art that photography is capable of providing than the other books that I have read recently about photography as contemporary art, even though they all cover very similar ground.

Badger, G, (2007).  The Genius of Photography:  How photography has changed our lives.  London:  Quadrille Publishing Limited.

Shore, S, (2007).  The Nature of Photographs.  London:  Phaidon.

Exercise 4.5

As a starting point, here is a screen grab of a Bing Images search (I prefer to use Bing rather than Google) against the word “eggs”.  This block of images is simply the first screen that displayed.  Clearly what they all have in common is that they are pretty straightforward pictures of eggs with little if anything in the way of props or anything else to suggest context or anything other than ‘eggness’.  Most of them play a little with ideas of colour variations and a few emphasis the idea of ‘egg’ by showing yolk in broken shells, but oddly enough no white!  None of them seek to put the eggs in any sort of context.  All fairly straightforward, if not actually dull.

As I said in the previous post, my initial thought was to picture the absence of eggs, and say something about them through their non-appearance.  Inevitably, as I embarked on the shoot my ideas have moved on and developed so I am now going to explore a number of different approaches.

For the sake of completeness I took a number of shots in which eggs do appear but, unlike the examples above, putting them into context, picturing them in places where you might expect to see an egg:  the hens’ nest box, in the fridge, in an egg box, in an egg cup.  All were shot with the camera on a tripod, using a 18 – 135 mm zoom, ISO 100.  The third picture, inside the fridge, was shot using flash bounced off the kitchen ceiling.  All the others just used ambient light.

f/5, 1/8s, 50mm                                                     f/5.6, 0.4s, 50mm

f/4.5, 1/60s, 42mm                                              f/5, 1/400s, 50mm

The next set follow my original idea of portraying absence.

f/5, 1/20s, 50mm                                                   f/5, 1/133, 50mm

f/4.5, 1/60s, 42mm                                               f/5, 1,1250s, 50mm

I quite like this set but I am not sure it really does manage to saw what I want about “eggness”.  I do at least like the fact it is more oblique than the first set, which although the contexts are more interesting, is still a bit literal.  This set needs a bit more thought when addressing what it is about.

Here is another approach that I tried, which sits somewhere between the two sets above.  For this I wanted a ghostlike appearance for the eggs and used the cameras multiple expose setting, layering the second shot without the egg over the first with.

f/5, 1/20s, 50mm                                                 f/5, 1/10s, 50mm

f/4.5, 1/60s, 42mm                                               f/5, 1/640s, 50mm

This is in some ways quite literal in that the eggs are visible.  Context is also clear.  However I do feel that the images do have a degree of subtlety, and the eggs are more “incidental”, part of the scene but not so obviously the primary subject.  The first two in this set needed a number of attempts to get right and in the end I had to tape the egg cup and the egg box in place to stop them moving when the eggs were removed.  For them to work the props need to remain in exactly the same place from shot to shot to avoid them becoming unintentionally blurred.

Having done all this I had a further idea of taking a single shot of an empty egg-shell in the  , partly just because I happened to have a shell handy having made scrambled eggs that morning, and partly to give a different view of “eggness”.

f/5, 1/13s, 50mm

Having done so it occurred to me that I could combine a number of these photos to give yet another view, this time based on narrative, a journey of the egg from nest box to empty shell.  (I did think about taking the sequence back a stage further and including a picture of one of the hens but they are both moulting at the moment and are looking far from their best!)

What I take away from this exercise is that you can get so much more about a subject by viewing it in context and as part of a narrative.  I think these photos say a lot more about eggs that the stock images at the beginning of this post.  I do not think they are saying anything at all original about eggs or that they bring any fresh perspective – from Haas’s point of view this would be another failure.  I do think though that they go some way towards David Bailey’s thoughts.  The eggs are ordinary and their settings are similarly so, obvious and even banal.  However I feel this exercise, and the need it imposes of looking more closely and attentively at the subject, helps to bring into focus the ordinariness of the subject and make that ordinariness interesting.

Exercise 4.5 – Initial thoughts

Before finding a subject for this exercise I have had a look at what Bill Brandt has said about ‘camera vision’.  Not for the first time (oh, no, not again!) I am at a bit of a loss to understand fully what he was saying, or at least what its significance is.  Is this, as I have concluded with HCB and the decisive moment, a bit of ex post facto rationalisation, an attempt to explain or convey the idea that Brandt did not necessarily set out to capture exactly what appears in the final image?

Of course the camera photographs what it “sees”, it cannot do otherwise.  I would quibble though that the camera does not in fact see anything.  What it does is record the light coming to it through its lens, inevitably mediated or distorted by that lens, from the object or scene in front of it.  It is a passive process.  The active process rests with he photographer who sees something and makes the conscious decision to point the camera towards it.  To that extent the photographer is necessarily photographing what he or she sees.  The difference is though that the camera, not least because of the mediation of the lens (Brandt seems to have made much use of wide angle lenses that distort the image), records the scene in a way that is different from the way the human eye does.  Is this not just a way of saying that what comes out in the final image is inevitably not exactly the same as what we see, or the same way that we see it, and that how the final image appears is to an extent a matter of chance?

The comments of the other photographers mentioned I found much more interesting though I think they are making two different, though related, things that the course material does not really bring out.  Haas and Burgin (I shall pass over the butchering the English latter by the latter, an abysmal misuse of the language!) seem to be saying the same thing, that it is difficult, if not impossible, to see anything completely afresh and in a new light.  The way we look at anything is inevitably influenced and conditioned by what we have seen before.  As in any form of art that I can think of, there is very little new work that is truly new and innovative, that has not been in some way influenced or affected by what has gone before.

Bailey seems to be talking more about observation, rather than seeing something in a new light, seeing the ‘ordinary’ that would otherwise be overlooked.  This seems to me to be more about the quality of our looking and in some ways harks back to what HCB said about looking.

So what am I going to do for this exercise?  Photograph something ordinary, something easily accessible – but not an apple!  As I type this I look out of the study window to watch my hens scratching around in the veg garden and there is my subject – not a chicken (They do not stand still for long enough to make good subjects!) but an egg.  However, it does not strike me that an egg alone is a particularly interesting or illuminating subject.  I did play around with some pictures of eggs a while ago on a previous course and generated some visual interest by creating some paradoxical juxtapositions, such as by making a ‘nest’ out of screws and setting eggs within it.  What I am thinking of this time though is something more oblique.  For some reason what has come to mind is a review I once read of  a then new motorcycle, the BMW K100RT, back in the early 1980s, which was striking, and indeed memorable, for the fact that the bike itself was never mentioned.  Instead of talking about the bike itself the reviewer gave a much more interesting and informative impression of the sensation and experience of riding this bike.  It was certainly memorable!  (I did own a K series bike for some time but, despite the review, never really got on with it or enjoyed it as much as the older boxer twin that I also had.)  So, although I have not yet fully worked out exactly how to do this, I am going to try to take pictures ‘about’ eggs, that do not actually feature them, that suggest ‘egg’ by its absence – an egg shaped hole in the world.  I cannot think of anything more ‘incidental’ than that!

Part four – Creativity – Mount Fuji

The introduction to this section struck a chord with me as for some time I have had a problem with certain aspects of the idea of landscape photography.  I had noticed that a lot of images of the same sort of subjects come up time and again and few if any seem to have anything fresh to say about the subject.  I have already mentioned elsewhere that I see this as a problem with a lot of the views, nighttime ones in particular, of the River Tyne and its bridges.  It is a popular subject for local photographers but I find it inescapable that they all end up looking alike and become indistinguishable from each other.  Another example, not so far from where I live, is the tree at Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall; possibly the country’s most photographed individual tree!  The very best work says something about the place itself or the photographer’s reaction or relationship to it.  Much does not.

Fuji San (as the Japanese more respectfully address their most famous mountain – Mr Fuji) has clearly suffered in this way.  The sort of images that come up on Google are all pretty generic and are so obvious that they take away any real sense of the true nature and importance of this mountain.  Were it not for the occasional intrusion into the frame of, for example, cherry blossom (another Japanese picturesque cliché that says nothing about the significance its transience has to the Japanese people) it could just as easily be a picture of any conical, snow topped mountain. If you did not know that Kilimanjaro has a flatter top would you be any the wiser and able to tell them apart?  OK, maybe I am pushing the point a little far but I think the basic premise is right.

I was therefore interested in John Davies’s work, which I had not come across before.  Coincidentally I recently bought a copy of Nineteen Fuji Views by Lucy May Schofield, the current (summer 2017) artist in residence with VARC at Highgreen in Northumberland, whom I have assisted on a couple of school printmaking workshops.   Lucy’s approach was similar to Davies’s though from a more rural perspective  from the area around Fujikawaguchi in Yamanashi Prefecture.  Her express influences were Ed Ruscha and Tom Sowden (another name new to me who, I now see, has much in common with Ruscha).  I do not know if she was also influenced by Davies – I will ask her the next time I see her!  I never did get to see Fuji San during my own brief visit to Japan but I did travel a lot through similar rural and semi-rural areas so the views she chose (Fuji apart!) had a resonance for me.

I was similarly unaware of Chris Steele Perkins’s Fuji work.  I am more used to thinking of him in Magnum black and white reportage made.  These are a bolder set in terms of use of colour and composition and what I think they do is actually make Fuji San anything but “incidental”.  These pictures say a lot to me about how important Fuji San is to Japanese culture.  Yes, superficially at least, it is just a big mountain that is always there in the background and overlooks a large area of land.  It does not strike me though that the Japanese people just take the presence of the mountain for granted.  Rather than ‘just’ being there, it is a constant presence, a root, a pivot around which everyday life revolves.

Go back almost two hundred years and Japan’s greatest artist, Hokusai Katsushika did the same sort of thing with his Fugaku Sanjurokkei, Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji.  Only a few of the prints are direct views of Fuji San alone.  In most he is in the background or, as in the case of “Shojin tozen”, Climbing on Fuji, is the background.