Robert Frank: The Americans – Book

I have been pondering how best to write about the books that I read, or in this case just look at as apart from the introduction by Kerouac (in which frankly I think he overdoes the On-The-Road-Kerouacness) there is nothing to read but for the captions.  There is no point just describing them or attempting some sort of review.  I think what I really want is some sort of personal reaction and response.

How do you respond to a book like this?  I was sort of expecting something similar to Walker Evans but structured round a road trip.  It is a road trip but not presented in a chronological, or geographically logical way.  It is really all over the place but that is part of its appeal.  Evans’s approach to picturing America was quite staid and conservative, or at least calm considered.  Frank though demonstrates and captures something of the bewildering diversity of America, and the Americans, their ‘tribal’ loyalties but also what separates them as much as what binds them together into a nation.

His is not a very optimistic view of the world.  The pictures are often grainy, not completely in focus on occasions, quite raw.  I find that immensely appealing.  These pictures seem to me to have more to say about the idea of “images a la sauvette” even than HCB’s own work, partly because Frank does not seem to have been one for ex post facto rationalisation.  He seems much less concerned with ideas of geometry, the golden section, and even classical approaches to composition.  His goal was the striking image, and that is what he gets.

I suppose one thing that particularly appeals to me is a certain sense of risk – not in a personal or physical sense but the risk that the image might fail.  Being somewhat risk averse myself, and still needing to experiment more and push at my limits when taking pictures, there is a vicarious pleasure to be derived from looking at the work of such a master.

Frank, R (2016).  The Americans.  Göttingen: Steidl

Martin Parr: The Non-Conformists – Book

This was Martin Parr’s first book, dating back to 1975 when he had just finished at art school.  Subsequently Parr has become well known for his use of saturated colour and a probing (intrusive?), satirical, and sometimes arguably unsympathetic, if not downright cruel, approach to his subjects.  This book, in stark contrast, is shot entirely in black and white and is much more respectful of and sympathetic to his subjects, the members of various non-conformist chapel congregations in and around Hebden Bridge.

Even then this was a group of communities that was already in decline.  The congregations were ageing, young people were moving away from this largely rural area.  Rather than pointing at, and sometimes poking fun at, his subjects, in this book Parr was effectively acting as an anthropologist.  Over a period of years up until about a decade ago I travelled fairly regularly to an area on the edge of the Pennines near Huddersfield.  I recall that on the way there was an old Methodist chapel perched on unexposed hillside.  For the first few years it still functioned as a chapel.  Then it fell into disuse and latterly was converted into a private home, no doubt for people not native to that particular valley.  Parr had captured a world that had almost already disappeared before I became acquainted with he area.

Poignancy and empathy apart this book has been useful to consider while working on Assignment 3 and the idea of the decisive moment – Parr has clearly observed closely and then seized the opportunity to capture the shot he wanted.  Compared with some of his later work most of these images appear to be much more carefully, and obviously, composed in a still fairly formal, and occasionally one might say almost contrived way.  I also have to say I like the fact that they are in black and white!  I have talked about the cliche of black and white in this sort of photography in the context of the assignment but it is a powerful and even seductive one.  I do feel that there are things that can be ‘said’ in monochrome that cannot be captured in quite the same way in colour.  Indeed the appeal is so strong that I have been tempted to go back to using film cameras again as a side project, using monochrome film (ok, not all romanticism and idealism, it is also partly because these fils are easier to develop and print at home than colour ones!), even taking the big leap of buying an old Leica M3, which is what I understand Parr used at the time of this book.

One last point that this book has got me to think about.  Are there national styles of photography?    It strikes me that the work of American photographers such as Walker Evans, Robert Frank, and William Stein are quite different from what HCB was doing.  Parr and, before him, Tony Ray-Jones (despite his time in America) seem to be doing something as different again.  National styles or just different preferences and practices of diverse individuals?  Warrants further thought.

Parr, M (2013).  The Non-Conformists.  New York:  Aperture.

Exercise 4.3 Initial images

This would have been a much easier exercise to accomplish had I addressed it earlier in the year!  As I have chosen, at least initially, to shoot outdoors, I face the practical problem of having to stay up quite late (at least for me!) for it to become dark enough for artificial light to do its work.  At my elevated Northumbrian latitude, around the time of the summer solstice, it does not get properly dark here until very late, and is already light again by 4 a.m..

The following are the first few images that I feel have worked.  Each was taken in my garden in an attempt to capture something of the light cast by lights within the house and on the outside of the garage.  All were taken using a tripod, because of the long exposures, using a 50mm lens.  For sharpness, and as long exposures were going to be used anyway, I left ISO at 100.  None of the images have been processed in any way.

f/10, 30s

This is a view from the lawn into the kitchen through the garden room (with curtains half drawn).  White balance for this was set to fluorescent which seems to give the most natural effect for the halogen and LED lights in the room.  The light in the middle of the open curtain section is clearly over-exposed and is harsher than it would be in reality, no doubt a function of the long exposure. Nevertheless the over all effect , perhaps as a result of the colours of the wood in the kitchen (American walnut and birch) is quite warm, notwithstanding that the walls and ceiling are white.  I think it is quite a welcoming light.

f/4.5, 30s

This was a chance encounter and not what I was seeking but I have included it because of the quality of the light.  This is a common frog that has taken up residence in a small orchard to the from too the house, and I just by chance happened to notice sitting on the wall by the drive as I moved the camera.  Very obligingly it remained motionless for the duration of the exposure!  Ideally I would have used a zoom lens to focus more on the frog itself but only had the one lens to hand at the time and in any event the real subject here is the light rather than the frog.  The frog merely provided a different way of capturing some of that light.  It is illuminated by a fluorescent light on the outside of the garage (which also illuminated the shots that follow).  What strikes me about the light here is that is quite strong, casting sharp shadows, but is again quite warm.  It also brings out the colours, particularly of the grass, much more strongly, and richly, than I might otherwise have expected,

f/9, 30s

This view is lit by the same light as above but no doubt because of the distance from the subject the light is a lot less strong.  It does though still make the stonework and the leaves of the apple tree almost glow.  I was also struck by the difference in the tone and warmth of the interior lights that can be see in the background, despite the fact both are from similar energy saving fluorescent bulbs and swing through curtains of the same material (though of slightly different shades0.  Possibly it is a result to the remnants of the natural light reflecting on the upper window, giving it a much cooler cast.

f/9, 30s

This last one (for now) was the first one I took and is looking back into the drive from the road.  I was careful to ensure the light source was just out of frame to avoid overwhelming the shot and overexposing the left hand side.  I might reshoot this as I am not sure about having the car in view but it does help to emphasise the strength of the light and the sharp shadows it cast.  It does also help to highlight the cool tone of the ambient light, post sunset, as reflected on the surface of the car. What this also says to me though is that whilst the light is quite strong in the sense it is sharp, it is not so strong in so far as how far it projects.  Beyond the front of the car it is already starting to lose intensity.  This shot also emphasis in a way the other two above do not how directed and channelled the light is by the physical structure of the garden here.

This is the only one of this set that has more than one significant light source.  Getting the white balance though was not difficult.  Fluorescent gives the most natural hue to the stone work, even if perhaps overemphasising the green of the grass, without unduly distorting the natural blue of the sky.  I have played around with other setting to see if there is a more natural colour for the latter but there seems not to be, that does not also make the light from the garage appear unnatural.


Assignment three – The Decisive Moment – Feedback and further reflection

Having completed this assignment I have now had feedback from my tutor.  One of the suggestions she has made is that I should look again at the original colour versions of the final set of images that I have chosen to analyse in a little more detail why I feel they work better in black and white.  Here they are again, in their original unedited and uncropped versions:

I do not think there is anything wrong (subject to a bit of editing and cropping) with any of these pictures as stand alone images in their original form.  One problem that I do see though from the point of view of them as a set is that I simply do not feel they hang together as well in cloud.  There is no colour or range of colours that is common to them all that is sufficiently strong or noticeable to act as a link.  Paradoxically I think the problem is that there are some common colours, in particular a sort of pale sandstone colour, but that it is in fact to subtle to act as a unifying element.

One of the things that does hold them together as a group, which I think is brought out better in black and white, is the framing of the subjects in each shot, the geometry, and contrast and silhouettes.  They all lose their impact in these unedited versions.  The colours are, as I wrote in the original post, more of a distraction than a help.  To take just a couple of examples.  In the first image above the really important thing for me is the contrast between the underside of the arch and the white car and pale pavement.  The green of the tree and the reddish brown of the market square clock puncture that middle section and detract from the contrast.  The same sort of issue applies to the fourth one.  The most important element is the figures and their reflection on the wet steps.  The colour, particularly the green on the far bank of the river, draws the eye away from that central scene.

What about an alternative set where colour is one of the important and cohering elements?  I think I can put forward a set that works to an extent at this level, though I still do not feel it works as well as the final set in black and white.  A couple of the images I have chosen for this alternative set I have already commented on in previous posts and I still think these work from a geometrical/compositional point of view.  Some of them I am not so sure about, apart from the impact in them of elements of colour.  They do at least though all share a similar sense of framing and in all of them the sudden stabs of colour, predominantly red, blue and orange (each scene has at least two of these three, though the sixth one is pushing this a bit!).

Ultimately though I just do not think they enough of a sense of coherence to be an effective set.  I therefore remain comfortable with the idea that the final set in black and white is probably the strongest that I could put together from all of the pictures I took for this assignment.