Category: Research & Reflection

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.

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.

Assignment three – The Decisive Moment – Choice of prints for the final set

As this is a print assignment a number of questions arise and need to be considered about the production of those prints: who is to produce them,on what type of paper, with what sort of finish, with or without a border, and so on?

With regard to the first question, whilst I have a decent all round printer, it is not a dedicated photo printer.  Although from previous experience the results are not bad I feel I would be better served by having the prints made commercially.  I have had a few prints made professionally in the past and the results have been noticeably better, not to mention consistent, than anything I can produce at home.  There is also the practical issue that my printer uses up ink like there is no tomorrow – which itself means that home produced prints are a false economy – and I do not presently have access to an adequate range of good quality papers.  So, who will I use?  There have been a number of companies recommended by fellow students, none of whom I have tried so far.  There is a decent printer locally in the Tyne Valley who has done some decent work for me before.  For now though I am going to use LumeJet.  I have had good prints from them before and I now want to try their new process, L.Type, and updated approach to silver halide printing.  (it helps that they have a special offer on at the moment!)

Whilst for present purposes I expect that the paper I do have at home, made by Fuji, would be more than adequate given that I understand there is no requirement at this stage that prints be of gallery/museum quality, given that physical prints are called for I want them to be of the best quality that I can manage at the moment.  I have recently had some prints made professionally on Fujicolour Professional paper and have been very pleased with the results.

Finish is a tricky one.  At the end of the day does this just come down to a matter of personal taste?  My prints are going to be in black and white.  From experience, and having run a couple of test prints at home on some glossy paper, I can see that you can get some nice ‘contrasty’ effects and rich, dark blacks.  On the down side though I find the reflections that you can get with glossy paper distracting and even counterproductive; there is no point having a nice rich black if a reflection then turns it into a grey.  My taste inclines more towards a “lustre” finish, not completely matt but not too shiny.  For me this keeps the richness of the tone without the distracting reflections.  The prints I have had made recently have been on matt paper and have worked nicely.  I am also influenced by the fact that Magnum (who know  thing or two about these things!), from whom I bought a couple of prints recently,  use a fairly flat paper.

Border or no border?  It seems to me that if prints are going to be mounted or framed it does not make a great deal of difference as any mount board will form a border.  However, as these prints are going to be seen without any mount my feeling is that a border will be useful to give the image something of a frame.  I have a couple of prints that do not have borders (they have not yet been mounted or framed) and to an extent the images look a little bit lost or adrift.

Almost forgot: what size?  The limit for this assignment is A4 and for now I would not want to go beyond that anyway (not to mention it starts to get expensive!).  That is a size that I think will suit most of my chosen final set anyway.  There are though a couple that are squarer, as a result of cropping, so I guess the largest I can go with them is 8″x 8″.  I will need to work out the respective costs before deciding exactly what sizes to go for.

So that is where my thinking is at the moment.  Let us see what the results are like and then think again.

Postscript

The prints are here.  I decided upon four A4 sized prints, three portrait and one landscape to suit the subjects, and two 8″x 8″, in a lustre finish.  As I expected the degree of contrast is not as strong as on the trial print I made on glossy paper.  That said the range of tones is wider and more subtle, more natural.  More detail has also been preserved.  They are not as impactful but I think I still prefer them.  Certainly I do not miss the distracting reflections that afflict the very glossy finish.

By the way, although the LumeJet website can at first be a bit fiddly, once you get the hang of it it is easy to upload your chosen images and the finished prints then came back really quickly.  The prints were evidently made the day after they were uploaded last Thursday and arrived today, Monday.