Friday, March 21, 2014

Assignment 4: Contact Sheets

I have now been shooting this assignment for nearly 2 years.  It has been an on and off exercise, but one I have sustained throughout the course.  I have taken roughly 2-3,000 photographs over 30 or more separate days out with my camera.  It is now time to put the camera down and start the process of converting this body of photographs into a coherent set that can be submitted for the assignment.

My first task has been to finalize the conceptual basis of the assignment.

  1. I am not going to try to copy Frank's visual style, I don't own a 1950's B&W film based Leica and if I did I still would not use it for this.  I have my own developing visual style and want to progress with that.  I have adopted a clean sharp style and admit that this is very different to Frank.
  2. I am sticking with B&W.  It has been a distinct goal of this course to explore the medium and see whether it works for me.  It does and suits this subject very well.  The fact that Frank used B&W is not a part of this decision, indeed that would be a reason to shoot colour.  Another advantage is that I used 5 different cameras during this assignment, all digital and all with subtly different colour handling.  B&W will a visually more coherent set of photographs
  3. I am trying to channel Frank's way of looking at the world, using my camera to ask questions and capture the strange or the marvelous.  
  4. I have taken time over the assignment, again paralleling Frank's months on the road.  However, I don't have the ability to consider all of Germany as my subject so have constrained my scope to the people of Munich
  5. I have tried to capture within the photographs a complex narrative, each should ask questions of the reader and hopefully contain a few surprises.  Frank excelled at asking questions within a single image.
  6. To add a little context I am drawing a little on a German photographer, August Sander, each photo should be a "type" of Munchener.  However, I am adopting a rather loose definition, not one tied to profession, perhaps more to stage of life, such as child or OAP, or activity, shopper, drinker, or position in life, wealthy, poor, etc.  To a degree I will match this to the final set of selected images, but it will help drive that selection.
  7. I am not standardizing my aspect ratios, I choose whatever works for the image.  This will create disjoint between the images, however, their is no linear narrative, each image is a stand alone statement.  However, sequencing is still important, and so I need to be a little careful.  Frank drove certain themes in the Americans, even if they were hard to follow as a novice photographer.
Applying these concepts to the body of photographs I have taken over the last couple of years, I have refined down to 48 individual photographs that I think are strong enough to submit.  Working down to 12 is not going to be easy.  To assist that process I have created 4 "contact sheets" each with 12 photographs.  I will now take these to the garden with a couple of red and green marker pens.  Hopefully the result will be 12 photographs.  My challenge is that some of these photographs have become favorites due to visual content and whilst they might be funny or striking they do not contain the narrative element I am looking for. A good example is the following

I love this photograph, it makes me smile, but is it really strong enough, I don't think so.  It is a good photograph, but it is simply what it is, it does not really ask any questions.

My challenge now is to find 12 photographs that speak of Munich and reveal something of the fabric of society in which we live.  I am, however, also resolved to create a book from this study, a book that will definitely include the photographer with his proper pose and hat.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Assignment 4: Glockenbachviertal

Assignment 4 is proving to be a good thing for my photography, once a week I now make a point of getting out and about in the city to take photographs.  Each time I try to explore a different district or theme.  I guess I am trying to place myself in Frank's shoes, exploring the world around me, open to whatever comes along, my goal being to document a sense of what is Munich and who are her people.  I am treating Munich as a clock, starting at the hours, roughly 2-3 km from the city and then making my way towards the center.  I live at 2 o'clock, two weeks ago in Schwabing I was at 12.  Last weekend I was in the Glockenbachviertal, an area of Munich associated with the gay and creative arts communities; 7 o'clock.

This is an area that needs more exploration, last weekend was cursory, but that was the point to explore not to examine.  In terms of the current assignment this was not so successful a day, the photos I found were more concerned with landscape than people, although as a part of this study landscape is important in helping to define the context that surrounds and influences the people.

This is a photo that would mean little to anyone not living in a city where cycling is a primary form of transport.  These are trolleys that attach to the back of bikes into which shopping, pets, or as designed children can be placed.  Kids love them, I must admit they look lethal to me.  Anyway this line of parked trolleys is suggestive of the waiting for the sun, winter is still dominant.  Not so interesting other than as a record shot.

Very typical residential area, high gates and security in a part of town that whilst very fashionable is also rough at the edges.  This appealed to me because of the structure, the parallel lines and the depth.  It does not contribute much to the current assignment, but does say something about Munich.

At risk of a study of "The Other" I found the juxtaposition of the poster and the shop interesting - it suggests to me that the lifestyle portrayed on the right is the subject of scrutiny.  I like this image because it says something about the city, there is an open acceptance and even embrace of alternative lifestyles.  Munich is a very liberal and progressive city embedded in the culturally conservative state and deeply catholic state of Bavaria.  There is a balance operating here.

More landscape, this time an anything goes men only gay club.  Again there is a risk of negative comment here, but somehow it does look seedy and uninviting.  Maybe that is the purpose, keep away those who do not approve.

No idea what this was all about.  The mattress is made of bronze and draped over a low wall in front of a chapel.  I think the statue is representative of the down and outs who hang out in the adjoining cemetery, however, why there is a half burnt new testament next to it is a mystery.  Perhaps this works as a metaphor for the uneasy truce between religion and unconventional lifestyles.

Gothic photographs of graveyards are a cliche, but an often visually interesting one.  This is one of the oldest cemeteries in Munich, many of the graves are decaying the writing on them slowly fading.  The grave furniture is massive and clearly a major investment in the preservation of memory, an investment that is slowly failing.

OK, this is odd, but again a comment on the city.  This shop is not an antique gallery, the suit of armor is new and intended to be used.  In the UK we have a number of different groups who get together and re-enact history, normally as conflict.  The English civil war is a big one, but the Napoleonic wars and WW2 are popular.  Re-enacting recent warfare is not an option in Munich, wearing a Nazi uniform here is not an embarrassment committed by the rich and stupid, it is a route to prison. Thus people with a yen for history and wearing costume gravitate towards the high medieval period.  This is their shop!

I like people in rows and lines.  This would work as part of a bigger study, but not in this one, however, I like the structure.  It simply does not say very much.

However, this one is better.  There is an ambiguity in the scene created by the plastic window on the tent that obscures the inside.  Might work better in the evening, when the light inside would lift some of the gloom.

Another people in rows type of photo, but a better one.  There is depth and some animation in this image, plus the contrast of the man drinking alone against the crowded and more convivial background.

Grrrr....  Landscape as social comment.  This used to be a wonderful old beer keller, wooden carving, painted walls, surly but efficient staff, inexpensive but marvelously filling food, and a good glass of beer.  Now it is a hole in the ground that will become a new gastronomic experience.  GRRRRR

This frustrates me and many other people in Munich.  They will preserve the curtain wall at the front offering the new building a facade of age, but inside all will be new and more expensive.  It truly is a symbol of commercial pressure winning over tradition.

I finish this set with the weekend demo, this time against the Venezuelan government.  Every Saturday someone gets a  permit to make noise and have their time to protest.  I thought these people to be more sincere than most, they cared about their message and were happy to be photographed.

In the response to my essay my tutor made the following comment:
In your blog you refer to images in Frank’s style. What many seem to lack is his immersion in the topic - look back at his study of the Welsh miner! Look again at how you remark on his use of focus to be in the middle distance with material closer to the lens being blurred. This adds depth and brings the viewer in. You work seems pin sharp through out and very ordered in terms of uprights and horizontals. Frank’s work was much more fluid. Look again!
This comment is well meaning and informative, but I have a problem.  My goal with this assignment is to explore Frank's world view, his methods and his way of presenting his work.  What I am trying to avoid is to copy his visual style.  Perhaps I am wrong in this, but my goal at present is to further develop my own style, a style that is precise and clean.  I do not think I would gain very much by imitation.  What I want to learn about is context and narrative, to try and imbue Frank's complexity of vision within a single photograph.  I may reject photos that are visually compelling if they do not tell a story that requires some thought on the part of the viewer.  This was Frank's powerful contribution to photography in the The Americans and is something I need to explore in my won work.

Assignment 3: Tutor Feedback

The feedback on my critical essay was mixed, not bad, but not great either.  I am OK with that as this piece of work was a re-connection with my studies after a long absence and as such was something of a new beginning.  The feedback was excellent in content and the advice given something that I will take to heart as I move towards the completion of this course.

To begin, all was not bad:
"Your submission not only succeeds and meets the brief well, but also addresses an aspect of Robert Frank and his work that is more unusual, relevant to your own work and made more interesting as a result."
The essay had done what I wanted it to do, to explore an aspect of Robert Frank outside the usual analysis of "The Americans".  It also connected to my own work.

However, there were a number of flaws in the essay, some of which I was aware of when I submitted the work and chose to ignore. The first and most critical comment is that the essay is overly personal and that the introduction and conclusion are too lengthy.  There was a reason for this.  I was struggling to reconnect to my work and had just stepped back from a decision to abandon the course and the OCA altogether.  I very deliberately used this essay as a way to connect my work and personal experience of photography to Robert Frank and his development as a young artist.

This made for a rather uncontroversial and reflective account of Frank's work which whilst intended, maybe did not make for such interesting reading.  An interesting comment was that my essay at 2,850 words was overly long, hmmm, advice I have had is the word count should exclude the bibliography and +- 10% is OK.  The essay was 2,572 words by my reckoning.  However, there is a good point here, I struggled to get my message into the requisite number of words, this meant that I could not dig deeper into certain elements of Frank.  My tutor called out the following areas to address more:

  1. The influence of Brandt and Tuggener - I had much more material prepared on this topic, how Frank met the Taciturn Brandt who said nearly nothing to him, how Tuggener influenced Frank in the direction of social comment through photography and design.
  2. Evans - Whole books have been written about the relationship between these two men.
I guess, I could have made more of the critical aspect by reigning back my own introspection, but that would have missed the point of the essay.  This was never intended to be a study of Robert Frank, but an analysis of what I am doing with my own work and where I am going.

One very apt comment referenced my conclusion:

A better ending would be to re-focus your points by de-personalising them; answer the question I pose in the revised title. You could summarise why you think Frank’s developmental journey is significant ; not only for himself, but also to others: the defiance of convention, the need to tie in with the Zeitgeist, benefactors etc.
By tying the essay to me, I did not consider how Frank influenced others that followed and how his work changed photography, but then again, that could only be done with extensive reference to The Americans, so perhaps I had limited chance given the topic of the essay.

A parting comment was a critique of my blog and it's lack of direction.  Sure, I agree, in the last year I have been all over the place, but that reflects my inner struggle to get back into the course, but also disenchantment with the Social Documentary course framework. Now that I am focused on purely the assignments, rather than the technique obsessed projects I hope my blog is beginning to have greater direction and cohesion.  The biggest hole in my work at the moment, is any academic reading or critical assessment of others work.  Two years ago, whilst on the Landscape course I was deep in this kind of material, for a period of roughly 4 years all I had read were critical texts and histories, I think I burned out a little on this material.  I need to get back into this, read a little more and most of all look at the work of others.

In conclusion the essay did what it said on the packet, maybe no great contribution to academic writing, but it did get me back to thinking about photography and most of all actually taking photographs!