Category: Exhibitions & Books

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.

Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016, Sunderland – Exhibition

The Taylor Wessing prize is now the most prestigious in this country for portrait photography and this is the first time I have been able to get a proper look at it.  It has been showing at the delightful Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens for the past couple of months but I have only just been able to get over to see it, just before it ends.  This is the first stop on a national tour so is quite a big thing for Sunderland.

Although this is a classical grand Victorian civic building, funded by the philanthropy of local shipbuilders, the exhibition space is a now equally classic white box, perfect for displaying these, generally, large, plain black framed prints.

The technical quality of the pictures goes without saying – these are the best 57 images out of an original entry of a couple of thousand.  There are though a number of things that particularly struck me.  One is the range of techniques that are now being used to produce prints.  Lots, as you would expect, are one or other form of digital print.  There has though been something of a move back to older methods, such as photogravure (which I have tried) and even tintype – it was odd to see a clearly modern composition appear in a picture that looked as if it had been taken more than a hundred years ago (it did in fact use a Victorian large format camera).

Another was that with I think just one exception (I could though email have missed someone) all of the photographers are graduates of one form or another.  This is not a prize for amateurs, which puts it in stark contrast to, for example, the BP portrait prize where amateurs often have a good showing.  I am not judgmental about this; I am after all going down the degree route myself.  It is though interesting to see how photography has, for want of a better word, to some extent become academicised.  Similarly I was struck by how many of these pictures were the result of commercial commissions, which is perhaps part of the same sort of trend.

Otherwise: lots of strong colours, very little monochrome work; inevitably as this is portraiture, mostly posed, with very little that appeared spontaneous or uncontrived so that what there was really shone out.

The end result, whatever one’s preferences or prejudices, is that there were a lot of images that were intensively emotional and moving.  For all that the camera can leave a sitter exposed and vulnerable I felt there was a strong sense of tenderness and compassion in many of these pictures which was quite moving.

If this shows comes to a town near you, whether or not you are interested in portraiture per se, so long as you are interested in photography and humanity, go see this!

Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen: The Coal Coast – Exhibition

As part of their celebrations to mark their 40th year the Side Gallery in Newcastle has put on this exhibition of Konttinen’s photos taken between 1999 and 2002 of mining industry detritus on the coast of County Durham.  I first saw these pictures years ago when they were originally shown at the Baltic Gallery (I cannot now remember exactly when) but they have lost none of their impact over the years.

These are big works, the panoramic shots particularly so, which itself gives them impact.  A bit like Anselm Adams’s work, with their deep depth of field and sharp detail throughout, and a degree of distortion in the really big panoramas, they are quite otherworldly and slightly unreal.  It would not have surprised me if some of these photographs had been taken on Mars, so alien does the landscape appear.

Previously Konttinen had only worked in black and white, which worked brilliantly well with her subject matter, much of which focussed on mining, and this was the first time she worked with colour.  Although the colours are quite subtle they are nevertheless particularly striking because of the incongruity of the industrial remains in this coastal landscape.  It is funny the tricks memory can play – I had remembered the colours as being very vivid and highly saturated but mostly they are not.

The presentation of the images is interesting and also adds to their impact.  They are stuck directly onto the white walls of the gallery, without any mount or frame, so there is nothing to distract the eye.  Apparently this was largely a pragmatic choice: framing these big photos would have been prohibitively expensive and the relative humidity in the building would have led the prints to buckle and wave; also, rather than being printed on photographic paper, which would evidently have pulled the plaster of the walls when they are removed, they are printed on industrial wall paper which is easy to stick to the walls and easy to remove.

Accompanying the main exhibition is also a short video, made by Amber Films, called Song for Billy, showing many of the photos interspersed with video footage from the same coast, and in which an ex-miner retells the story of the death of Billy in an accident under ground.  A specially composed soundtrack by So Percussion complements the visuals beautifully and emphasises the human tragedy without being overtly dramatic or programatic.  This is a very moving, deeply affecting work that reminds us that mining was not built just out of concrete and steel which remains to this day even if only in a shattered form, but also the bones of men.