Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Assingment 5: Submission

Rather late, but here is my submission text for Assignment 5:

2 years ago I enrolled on this course following successful completion of the Level 2 Landscape module.   I had a choice; either Social Documentary or Progressing with Digital Photography.  At the time the new Level 2 modules were yet to be released and not wanting a gap in my studies I needed to make a decision between the two existing options.  I discussed this at length with my tutor from Landscape and followed his very firm advice that I would learn more from the Social Documentary course than from PWDP.
The advice was sound and I have learned a tremendous amount, but it has been hard, very hard!  I am not a natural photographer of people, my leaning is towards structure and abstraction rather than expression and emotion.  I have shot weddings, and am a fair portraitist, but there I have a degree of control and in effect it becomes a study of the human landscape.  I struggle with spontaneous work, shooting strangers close up, ducking and diving through the crowd.  I can do it, but it takes a huge effort of will.  I prefer to spend time looking and understanding, returning several times to create a picture that is slowly taking shape in my mind.
I am also a solitary person, comfortable in my own company.  I enjoy going out with friends, but I am not a member of any clubs or societies.  My job in Hewlett Packard is technically demanding and time consuming, 50-60 hour weeks are the norm.  I work from home, start when I wake and often finish an hour or two before I retire for the day.  I have little time to socialize.  I am not a member of society in the conventional sense, I go my own way and do my own thing – that thing happens to be photography.  This means few opportunities to engage with groups making a course that is people centric harder to engage with than I expected. 
I am effectively left with street photography as my opportunity for photographing people and here I have walked into the brick wall of German privacy law, simply put street photography is illegal in Germany.  During my second and third assignments I danced around the problem essentially ignoring the law.  However, the hostility I encounter has grown over time and recently I have decided that it is not worth the increasing risk of violence or litigation.
As a result, in this assignment my subject is not people, rather, I am returning to my own passion in photography: the urban landscape.  If it is no longer possible to photograph people I will investigate the environment those people occupy, recording the signs that reflect on society and describing the spaces that society builds for itself.  My goal is to use photography to investigate and illustrate modern German society.  This aligns to the final assignment in my Landscape course, which was a study of the “Innenhof”, the hidden spaces inside apartment blocks normally only seen by the people who live in the surrounding buildings:
By bringing Social Documentary to a close with a study paralleling my other Level 2 work I feel I am creating a platform from which I can start to think about Level 3.  My biggest learning from this course is that I am not a people photographer, I am perhaps also not a landscape photographer, but my definite leaning is towards the topology of modern life rather than that life itself.

Privacy Law and the impact on German Photography
Modern Germany has emerged from a difficult history, suffering totalitarian rule under both National Socialist and Communist governments.  Both states pried deeply into the personal lives of their citizens looking for dissent and meting out severe punishment for those it felt posed a risk to the state.  The twitch of a net curtain was more than a joke., people’s lives could be destroyed by a nosy neighbour with malicious intent.  Partly during the Nazi era, but extensively under communist rule, the photograph was used as an instrument of oppression, the Stasi (Staatssicherheit - state security) maintaining compromising images of people under suspicion. In East Germany, files were maintained on 6 million out of a total population of 16 million, nearly 1 in 6 of the population acted as an informant.
Understandably, this has led the modern German state to adopt strict privacy laws.  People are entitled to protect their person, their reputation, and their image.  The right not to be photographed is a matter of law.  Following is the law on the rights of people to their own image:
§ 22 Recht am eigenen Bilde
Bildnisse dürfen nur mit Einwilligung des Abgebildeten verbreitet oder öffentlich zur Schau gestellt werden. Die Einwilligung gilt im Zweifel als erteilt, wenn der Abgebildete dafür, daß er sich abbilden ließ, eine Entlohnung erhielt. Nach dem Tode des Abgebildeten bedarf es bis zum Ablaufe von 10 Jahren der Einwilligung der Angehörigen des Abgebildeten. Angehörige im Sinne dieses Gesetzes sind der überlebende Ehegatte oder Lebenspartner und die Kinder des Abgebildeten und, wenn weder ein Ehegatte oder Lebenspartner noch Kinder vorhanden sind, die Eltern des Abgebildeten.
§ 23 Ausnahmen zu § 22
(1) Ohne die nach § 22 erforderliche Einwilligung dürfen verbreitet und zur Schau gestellt werden:
1.     Bildnisse aus dem Bereiche der Zeitgeschichte;
2.     Bilder, auf denen die Personen nur als Beiwerk neben einer Landschaft oder sonstigen Örtlichkeit erscheinen;
3.     Bilder von Versammlungen, Aufzügen und ähnlichen Vorgängen, an denen die dargestellten Personen teilgenommen haben;
4.     Bildnisse, die nicht auf Bestellung angefertigt sind, sofern die Verbreitung oder Schaustellung einem höheren Interesse der Kunst dient.
(2) Die Befugnis erstreckt sich jedoch nicht auf eine Verbreitung und Schaustellung, durch die ein berechtigtes Interesse des Abgebildeten oder, falls dieser verstorben ist, seiner Angehörigen verletzt wird.
And a mixture of Google Translate and help from my wife, Heidi (not a literal translation, but the meaning is correct):
§ 22 Right to their own image
Images may be put on public or widespread display only with the consent of the person portrayed. If the person is paid for their image, permission is assumed. For 10 years after the death of the person portrayed, consent must be obtained from a relative. For purposes of this Act, the surviving spouse, domestic partner and children of the person portrayed must be consulted, or if neither a spouse, partner or children are still present, the parents of the person portrayed.
§ 23 Exceptions to § 22
( 1) Without the required consent , images may be distributed and showcased if:
1.        The images are from the realm of contemporary history
2.        People appear only as an accessory in addition to a landscape or other location
3.        It is a picture of a meeting or similar event, where the depicted persons have participated
4.        If a person paid for the image to be made that image may be used in promotion
( 2) Even if permission is granted by a person since deceased, the family may still prevent publication if the photographs compromise their reputation.
Whilst it is not specifically illegal to photograph someone in a public space without their permission it is considered extremely rude and intrusive.  The net is that permission should be sought before photographing someone, and must be obtained in writing if the photograph is to be shared in any form or media.  The following Wiki page has a good summary
This has had a manifest impact of modern German art photography, few if any street photographers exist here.  One such is Siegfried Hansen (; this is a statement from his web site:
“Siegfried Hansen traces visual compositions from graphics and colours and creates „Street Photography“ which main points are not humans and faces, but graphic connections and formal relations. It shows the aesthetics of the coincidence in a public area, which is full of surprises.”
His work was featured in the recent Street Photography Now compilation of contemporary artists (P74, Howarth & McLaren, 2010).  The pictures included are people, but they are blurs, their forms hinted at, faces very much obscured.
This constraint is visible in the work of many German photographers. Candida Höfer’s work explores Human Spaces, but there are rarely any humans present (Krüger, 2003).  Thomas Struth made a series of photographs in art galleries (Krusztnski et. al., 2010).  The photographs taken in Russia and Spain show people close up, gazing at an art work behind the camera.  Those taken in Germany depict people as distant objects or facing away from the camera.  Where people are the subject of a photograph it is as a gigantic portrait where the physical size of the photograph changes the person into an object (Ruff, 2012) or they are depicted as a densely packed swarm of people as depicted by Andreas Gursky in his almost epic compositions (Galassi, 2001).
Without permission a photograph of a persons face is valueless as an art object, it cannot be reproduced, it cannot be shared, it is simply a potential source of expensive litigation.

Richard-Strauss Strasse
Instead of fighting the law, I now choose to work with the law, but make that a part of my work.  As it is illegal to make photographs of people, then I elect to absent them from my pictures, but make that absence visible.  This assignment is a visual essay of modern German society through the signs and symbols that represent the people.
My subject is a street.  One block away from where I live is Richard-Strauss Strasse, once the path of Bundesstraße 2 R also known as the Mittlerer Ring, Munich’s inner ring road, the equivalent of Paris’ Peripherique.

Shortly before moving to our current address work began to displace the Mittlerer Ring about 10 meters downwards.  For years we endured the chaos and noise of a major construction project as the street was converted from 6 lane highway to a leafy inner city street.  However, it was worth it, since then the area has changed, small shops began to appear, the buildings were renovated and a new vibrant neighbourhood has emerged.  What used to be a grim dirty place to live is now a joy.
In a sense this street is very representative of modern Germany, a society still in transition, still figuring out what it is and where it is going, confident yet full of angst, modern yet traditional.  Richard-Strauss Strasse is too long and for my purposes I have chosen to focus on the stretch from Liszt Strasse in the South and Mühlbauer Strasse in the North, roughly 150m long (Yes, I live on the junction of Brahms and Liszt, a fact that greatly amuses my English friends to the utter confusion of my German friends).  This constraint simplifies the assignment, but also makes it more difficult.  I have less visual material to work with, but more time to work with it.  My job never goes away, making a study of somewhere 5 minutes from home greatly increased the amount of time I could spend actually taking photographs.  The challenge was to create something that worked as documentary, but was also visually interesting.
To add context, this is a Google Street View image of the street during the construction.

Apart from helping to illustrate the transition that has taken place this image (Looking North about half way along the stretch I am studying) shows the sensitivity to privacy in Germany.  Legally there is no issue in taking photographs of buildings from public spaces, however, Google was forced to include an opt out in Street View to anyone who objected to their residence being viewable in the application.  All over Germany these privacy screens appear in Google.

The Photographs
In common with much of the work I have done towards this course, my study of Richard-Strauss Strasse has evolved over a long period of time.  The germ of the idea began two years ago when an exhibit of US photography was held at Munich’s modern art museum, The Pinakothek der Moderne (  Amongst the modern photographers represented was a first edition copy of Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” a fold out with a composite photograph showing every building along the street, published in 1966.  Each side of the street was shown on the strip, one appearing upside down to preserve the direction of the photographs. I found this fascinating and looked for a copy I could own, lowest price was $1,700. 

A year later I decided to revisit this idea and create my own strip photograph, of Richard-Strauss Strasse.  The renovation had resulted in a two lane road replacing the previous 6, meaning that there was plenty of space on either side of the street for a wide sidewalk which with typical German efficiency ran exactly parallel to the buildings.  By placing my heels on the edge of the pavement and shooting at a constant focal length I was able to maintain the magnification of the buildings and aspect of the buildings.  Each side comprises 24 individual photographs.  I have not tried to create a photomerge as Andreas Gursky did with his image of the apartment blocks in Montparnasse, I have adopted more the approach of Ed Ruscha, accepting discontinuities in the photographs.

This photograph is designed to ask the viewer to talk a metaphorical walk along the street, to experience the space as do the people who live there.  To cross the street the picture must be inverted, requiring action from the viewer to change their view.  This photo captures a moment in time, the weather is warm but overcast, signs point to a forthcoming election, a few shops are vacant, building work is ongoing, people are going about their business.  This is a simple portrait of a street, no judgment, simply observation.  It stands as a record of a place at a time.  Google Street View with Google.

A year after taking the photographs I took another look, refined them a little and did a test print on a laser printer.  I was happy with the result and decided to make this the basis of my final assignment. 

For the past two months I have been taking an hour here and there to return to the street and start building a set of more detailed images that illustrate on or the other aspects of German society.  Some are details, others landscape shots taken from an alternate angle to the very geometric approach taken to the strip photographs.
The assignment brief did not specify the number of photographs, I have chosen those that work for me, leading to an additional 15 over and above the 48 photographs in the composite.  I started trying to incorporate people and managed to obtain a few good images, but it was not working; this is not a busy place, there was nowhere to hide among a crowd, every photograph I took was clearly visible to the person being photographed.  I adopted small discrete micro 4/3 mirrorless cameras but was still too conspicuous.  I had to rethink and that is when I adopted the approach of eliminating the people from the frame.  This supplemented the geographic constraint, further limiting the range of subjects I could choose.  I limited the areas I shot in to those immediately adjacent to the street, using a simple rule that wherever I took a photograph I must be able to still see the street. 
I have returned to colour, I consider my experiment with B&W to be a success, however, I am far happier working with a more complete palette. Colour is important to this set, in particular the greenness of the urban landscape is a key indicator of social attitudes towards the environment.  To that end I have increased the brightness of the Green and Yellow in the photographs as well as reducing the blue, adding a little colour contrast.  Otherwise I have tried to be careful with the application of contrast and sharpening.  To add continuity to the pictures all retain the 4:3 aspect ratio of the camera that I used and all are in portrait, they should be thought of as a series of slides in a drum projector.
Apart from what to include the sequence was not an easy decision and one I am still not totally happy with.  The photographs are contextually linked but there is not linear narrative and so no immediately obvious order for the photographs.  The sequence basically starts with where people live, moves to where they shop, looks at the signs of regeneration in the area and then gradually starts to add people back into the frame, first through posters then finally an end shot that shows real people, but walking away from the camera, their identities still private.  A key shot is the very first, the names on the apartment door bells, illustrating the social diversity of Germany, of the 12 names, 5 are clearly not German in origin.  This is a diversified community at ease with itself.

Germany in 2014
So what does my photo essay reveal about the Germany of 2014 and the people that live there? 
Richard-Strauss Strasse is not a wealthy street, the apartment blocks, although recently renovated show their age when looked at close up, a nearby building has 1942 on the wall above the door.  The people here do not own their properties, they generally rent as do Germans all over.  However, there is a sense of pride; it is a tidy place, it is clean.  There is a little graffiti, but it is prominent by its rarity.  Living in a flat provides limited outdoor space, however, that space is well maintained, balconies become small gardens and the green surrounding the flats is well maintained with provision for sitting and enjoying the fresh air; even if the tendency towards modernity can provide slightly odd looking garden furniture.
Along the street several shops can be found, on the East side a large entirely organic supermarket, Basic, occupies a third of the street.  Next door Garibaldi a wine merchant supplements it’s income selling a glass of wine to a few customers at outdoor seating.  On the West side are mostly small businesses that include a traditional seamstress, an office furniture shop, and computer component retailer.  Supplementing the shops is a hairdresser, nail parlour and fitness studio.  At one end just across the street a fruit and vegetable stall sells fresh produce during the summer months just opposite the steps to the subway station.  The organic supermarket points to a belief in eating quality food, fresh fruit and vegetables are valued, it is not all Sauerkraut and Wurst.  Germans do not shop once a week for everything they need, they buy a little often ensuring that they have fresh food.
At the South West corner stands the Hüttenwirt a tiny corner pub selling the best beer and Schnitzel in the area.  I rented the whole place for my 50th Birthday last December.  On the North West corner a new Italian café has opened making their own ice cream.  Although this is a low rent neighbourhood, it is one that values quality and convenience.  The supermarkets have little or no parking, if you want to shop bring a rucksack.  Times are changing, though, every so often a large white van from Rewe Online trundles down the sidewalk to deliver an internet load of food to someone, advertising delivery until 10pm, 2 hours later than the shops can open by law.
The lack of parking for the retail businesses does not hide the fact that Germany is a car obsessed society.  Careful scrutiny will reveal that most of the cars are made in Germany, people believe in buying German wherever possible.  On the other hand everywhere you look there are bicycles, cars are for long distances, a few kilometres travel is a bike ride not a car journey.  Using a bike to transport furniture is not deemed odd, although a bed might be taking that a little far.  Garibaldi has cheekily suggested that people can park on the pavement when picking up wine, their sign offering a rare example of a German play on words, Einfahrt (entrance) has been supplement with a W.  The fact that the W is in brackets suggests an insecurity in even this meagre attempt at humour.
The street does not have an Apotheke (chemist), surprising in a society obsessed to the point of hypochondria about its health.  Sitting in a draft is almost a form of suicide to hear people talk.  This absence is corrected by a helpful sign pointing to a nearby Apotheke on Barbaross Strasse (another oddity, given the history of the word).  There is an Apotheke every 200-300m in the city.
Although most of the post build renovation is nearly complete, building continues and is evidenced by the presence of a bright blue Portaloo, perched on a rather precarious slant (the mind boggles).  These blue plastic boxes are all over the city, as far as I can tell there was no major turn down in building here, I suspect the government invested in public works to keep people in jobs and maintain crucial skills during the recession.  Almost opposite across the street one of the shops vacant a year ago is now an Estate Agent.  Estate Agents are rare in Germany, the very presence of this office is a visible sign of the gradual move upmarket of the neighbourhood.  If you look closely, though, it is temporary, the sign is attached not placed and no attempt has been made to tidy up the shop front, I feel as if they are still unsure of the market.
Amongst all the modernity and change a poster provides a counterbalance, 3 typical Bavarian men in Lederhosen sit up against a bar.  The language is Bayerische, not German, a dialect few northerners can understand. The poster points to the tie to tradition, but its placement also says something about Germany.  All along the street similar utility boxes, probably for electricity or telecoms, have a space for a poster.  These posters are always for cultural events, never advertising products – fly posting of concerts does not happen.
It is election season, in fact it almost always is an election period for something, today it is the Euro elections, a while ago the city mayor, last year the Bundestag. I find it rather refreshing that Marxist-Leninism is still alive and well in a modern wealthy society.  Germany is a pluralist society when it comes to politics, all shades are present and their views are upheld by society, even the Neo-fascists right to demonstrate is granted, if not popular. Contrasting with the reds a more typical poster presents Dr. Gabriele Weishäupl wearing a traditional Dirndl and jewellery that is clearly targeting the middle class middle aged.  The use of her title on a poster also hints at an element of German society that stubbornly clings on, a very formal approach to addressing one another, built into the language with the familiar du and formal Sie for “you”.  Most people in their workplace still use Herr and Frau to refer to one another.  I sometimes feel like I have stepped into Grace Brothers when I visit a department store.
Altogether I think this is a society truly at ease with itself, comfortable in its prosperity, desiring to get along with its neighbours.  A little formal, perhaps, and certainly jealous of its privacy, but a genuinely good place to live.
In this assignment I have brought together everything I have learned so far in my studies with the OCA.  I cannot point to a specific learning point other than the following.
This assignment brought about an epiphany, the realization that; 1. I dislike photographing strangers, and 2. that I was going to get punched if I kept on trying. However, rather than stress over this I have embraced it and included it within my approach to the photography for this assignment.  Social documentary is a study of society not necessarily individual people.  I have tried to create a portrait of a people using my camera, but without actually including those people.  This is a record of a place at a time.  It risks being banal, I am sure that some of the photographs are not stunning examples of the art, but collectively they yield the story of a people in a place.
Bringing together the thoughts processes that informed my other level 2 course with those from Social Documentary I think I have established a good place from which to turn my mind towards the final year studies.

Galassi, P. (2001) Andreas Gursky, New York: The Museum of Modern Art
Howarth S. and McLaren S. (2010), Street Photography Now, London: Thames and Hudson
Krüger, M. (2003) Candida Höfer A Monograph, London: Thames & Hudson
Krusztnski A., Bezzola T. amd Lingwood J.(2010), Thomas Struth Photographs 1978-2010, New York: The Monacelli Press

Ruff, T. (2012),  ‘Thomas Ruff’ exhibition, Munich: Haus der Kunst. 17 Feb – 20 May

No comments:

Post a Comment