Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Americans

The Americans
Robert Frank

This book portrays a personal account of America by Robert Frank through a catalogue of 83 black & white photographs, taken across 48 states of America, with Franks’ handheld 35mm Leica Camera. Robert Frank, born in Switzerland, moved to the US in 1947 and became a photojournalist. His main Influences where Walker Evans and Bill Brandt. Robert Frank is indebted to Walker Evans for making this iconic book. Not only did Frank use Evans book "American Photographs" as precedent but also it was Evans that pushed him forward to achieve the Guggenheim Fellowship of Photography. This Fellowship enabled Frank to take a road trip with his wife and child to document the everyday life of America over a two year period.

These black and white images represent Franks’ personal vision of America. One can feel the emotion that has gone into each snap Frank has taken, whether it is witnessed through a stare, a glance, a pursed lip or a hand gesture.  He finds a way of always ‘showing what is invisible to others’.

The book is laid out with the photographs on the right hand page, with the use of the white space on the left page, leaving an empty message to let the viewer depict their own thought from the image. The Images are set in certain sequence, each image relating in somewhat to the next. One has to read into the image to understand what is being captured. This is achieved through the blurring of the photograph and leaving the subject clear, the use of available light and cropping of a frame, and sometimes a message in the background.  The image of the lady at the movie premier, shows the lady in the foreground slightly out of focus. It is the women in the background that are the subject with the sign saying ‘squires’ behind them.

This romantic work of art was caught through Franks’ quick responsive reaction to snap mysterious, strange and sad portraits of America, giving a darker meaning to the ‘American Dream’.
Sensing the divide in the cultures, Frank captures this by using symbolism.  A bus is representative of a Prison, a car is representative of a Casket, and the American flag as a Shroud. 

The critics did not always give positive reviews of this book, they felt possibly threatened that it may portray a disrupted view of this new world and upset the vision people may have of the American dream.

It is in the later book ‘Looking In’ that gives us a glimpse of the negatives taken on this trip that tells us more of the story behind the one frame that Frank chooses carefully for us to see. 

Born in Switzerland in 1924, Robert Frank travelled to New York in 1947 where he worked briefly as a photographer in the fashion industry before returning to travel around Europe.  His return to the United States in 1950 marked the beginning of a decade that would see his work become iconic of a new, contemporary America.  With the help of his friend Walker Evans, Frank secured a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation in 1955 to travel across the States.  Almost two years and 28,000 shots later, Frank produced a set of 83 photographs entitled The Americans.  Received with caution and even resentment at first by critics, this set of photographs has come to be recognised as one of the most iconographic pieces of work of all time.

The photographs were decidedly different from anything previously produced.  Frank gave the viewer a new way of looking at the world as seen through the eyes of the man on the street.  Many of his shots display characteristics of unusual focus and low lighting, but it is through these qualities and good composition that Frank reveals the beauty of the mundane, that which is inherent of the United States at the time – the barber’s chair, the lunch counter, the jukebox.  All of these ordinary things reoccur throughout to compose something extraordinary. 

The subject of much of the work displayed in The Americans is people.  Frank captures the fundamental quality of life in each place he drives through on his extensive journey, often pausing only for a moment to capture a handful of frames before continuing on his way with his wife and two children in tow.  This new style of snapshot photography differs greatly from previous masters who constructed the subject of their photographs carefully.  It may also part be attributed to the evolution of the camera which allowed for greater flexibility for the user.  Frank used this new freedom as a form of expression.  Often, what may appear as a coincidental misalignment of focus or frame reinforces the subject matter and can be appreciated as something meaningful, a burst of sunlight through a darkened sky provokes images of something celestial for example.  Another reoccurring image is that of the US flag which often encroaches the primary subject matter, although not the focus of the shot, still representing something iconic and truly American.

 The technique of bringing people to life and forming a relationship with the subject is of greatest appeal to me.  The unidentified girl in a Miami elevator, caught glancing upwards in what appears to be a poorly captured shot as other more distinguished looking people pass by.  Frank captures the ordinary, what he recognises as an American.  Previous photographs of this moment would undoubtedly be of a staged image, perfectly framed and lit with the well-dressed patrons ready and rehearsed.  Here, Frank reverses all of these practices, not without critique, to photograph iconic America.  The same technique is used to photograph the Hollywood star at a movie premiere.  Once again the focus shifts to the unexpected, coincidental inhabitants of the frame, the smiling faces of the public (the squires) in the background and away from the sultry pose in the foreground. Another example includes Frank’s iconic image of rooftops from a window in Bozeman, Montana where the obvious image of choice, a street shot, is overlooked in favour of rooftops framed by the curtains of his hotel room. 

The strength of this style of photography for me is the personal engagement these decisions induce, a feeling of connection to a place and the photographer having experienced neither previously.  Frank identifies the ordinary, captures it in a light which reveals its true significance and beauty before moving on to his next iconic image.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

New Topographics : Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape

Who would have guessed in the mid 70’s that a photographic exhibition could change the history of photgraphy? At that time photography was still considered a "fin-arts", characterized  by aestheticising pictures of dramatic landscapes. It was therefore against the flow that William Jenkins formed in 1975 the exhibition New Topographics. 168 pictures from 8 different American photographers (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore and Henry Wessel Jr.) and the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher were shown in George Eastman House in Rochester, home city of Kodak. The common interest of all these arstists was their interest in a documentary style, represented so far by Walker Evans’ work. 

All the prints, in black and white format (except for Shore’s work), show some urban situations from 70’s american cities. They all focus on landscapes, but landscapes without special "quality", far from the typical aesthetic criteria of beauty. They highlight common places of suburbia with their industrial sites, parking lots and dusty motels. When assembled, they present a certain face of the contemporary American society. That documentary style is greatly assisted by a certain neutrality of the prints, free from any style effect. The photographer’s presence seems here to disappear, not to alter the information taken. In that way, some pictures seem to be made mechanically, as a first precursor to the technologies invented thirty years later as in Google street view system.

Lewis Baltz,  Jamboree Road Between Beckman and Richter Avenues, Looking Northwest, 1974

But as his subtitle Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape may suggest, New Topographics can be seen also as a first draft of criticism on the development of big American cities. Although ecology was far from being a societal issue at this time, Shore’s shots of empty and anonymous huge streets where pedestrians seem to be intruders, or Adams’ pictures of aligned mobile-home districts, standardized and pretty inhospitable might appear as a questioning about the inhuman extension of suburbs. In this particular print, landscape in the background is not only altered, but inevitably colonized by human actions.

Stephen Shore, Second Street and South Main Street, Kalispell,, Montana, 1974

Robert Adams, Mobile Homes, Jefferson County, Colorado, 1973

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work is also part of the exhibition. They took pictures with the same documentary style of numerous industrial structures such as salt mines, creating a sort of architectural directory. The result is a series of prints, dramatic and fascinating in terms of their level of detail. What is considered by society as the ugliest part of man-made construction is elevated here as an art subject, to be as beautiful and interesting as any natural landscape. 

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Preparation Plant, Harry E. Colliery Coal Breaker, Wiles Barre, Pennsylvania, USA, 1974

New Topographics is first of all a highlighting of the banal, aestheticized in every picture. Looking back, the pictures can be seen as well as a political critique of the way cities developed in thqt period.

It is interesting to notice that the first exhibition held in George Eastman House wasn’t really succesfull, critics underlined the ugliness of the subject chosen by the artists. Nevertheless, New Topographics elevated the status of photography from fine-art to a contemporary art, and still influences a lot of current photographers such as Andreas Gurski. Collected in a book with the same name, New Topographics exhibition is still shown today, compiling about 100 of the 168 original pictures. 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Walker Evans, American Photographs

American Photography; a Document or an Art form?
Walker Evans, 1903 – 1975

Walker Evans began photographing in 1927, using a small handheld camera. He soon started to specialize in street life, viewing buildings, roadsides, and the people of cities, town and villages. His images focuses in on a subject, and research how it is changed and perceived by being photographs. A complex technique that mange to approach a subject while at the same time keeping it at a distance.
His documentary perception was inspired by the french photographer Eugène Atget, who he admired for his poetic dimensions of the images that celebrated an era that Atget knew was doomed. Through Atgets work Evans learned how the things people make are immensely evocative to whom they are attached - everything is its own.

                                                       Sharecoppers work shoes , New York, 1929

The difference of Evans is that he is portending to give you the facts, but for most parts he is by the choice of the facts influencing how you understand it.

Evans is best know for the work he did for the FSA ( Farm security administration) as an information specialist, where he was assigned to represent the small-town life and ease the depression in rural america. Evans first concern with this work was photographing in the context of any ideology which he refused; “This is pure record, not propaganda”1

                                                                      Alabama Tenant Farmer wife, 1936.

Evans wanted to show what was there and during his assignment in Hale county he made most of his photographs in and around the four-room cabin of Floyd and Allie Mae Burroughs. The family owned nothing - not their home, land, mule, or farm tools, all of which they leased from their landlord.
The honesty of the situation Evans tries to capture by studying Allie Mea up close. The encounter does not show who these people lived, but it becomes an intense scene between the subject and the photographer, that respects and equalize them both. The roughness of the picture and the expression in her eyes tells us about her worries and her life with out telling us, but the forwardness in the picture is deceptive for by saying less it forces the subject to reveal everything. “The value, and if you like, even the propaganda value for the government lies in the record itself, which in the long run will prove an intelligent and farsighted thing to have done. NO POLITICS WHATEVER.”1
Evans worked with little concern for the ideological agenda and tried to distill the essence of the American life to the simple and ordinary. Doing his employment at FSA (1935-1938) he contrived to keep his employers relatively happy, but foremost he took advantage of the opportunity to perfect his photographic techniques. “Very often I´m doing one thing when I´m thought to be doing something else.”2

                                                              Kitchen corner, Tenant Farmhouse,1936.

Photographic documentation focuses on two things; 1, to deliver the truth, and 2, to act as a social agent making life better. Evans would recent both ideas, but kept calling his photos a document aesthetics to state that documentary images looks like the fact but is not objective. This would be a thorn in the eye of FSA, revealing their propaganda scheme in a radical and bold artistic move. Much of Evans photos are therefor not the fact, it only looks objective. He would rearranging the scenes in order to elevated simple objects to iconic symbols, and by the simplicity in the scenes he would represented american life through his own persona.

Evans assembled his material for the exhibition and book “American photography” in 1938, where he showed the best of his photographs since 1928. He loathed the idea of art as a unique peace, and the intention of his pictures, most importantly, therefor exist as a collection of statements. They are thought to be seen together and presented as a consisting attitude. He was able to show how fare he had gone beyond the documentary traditions and many of the images in American Photography are characterized by erosion, chaos, neglect, or dilapidation, and should be read in its historic scenery.


1 Walker Evans The Hungry Eye, by Thames & Hudsom, p. 134
2 Walker Evans The Hungry Eye, by Thames & Hudsom, p. 132
3 Walker Evans The Hungry Eye, by Thames & Hudsom, p. 132

Phillip-Lorca diCorcia, Heads

Phillip-Lorca diCorcia

DiCorcia is an american photographer with a master in fine arts from Yale University, where he now act as a teacher.
Doing his early career, in the 1970s, diCorcia would stage his friends and family members in a domesticity/ interior tableaux so that the viewer would believe that the pictures were spontaneous shots of someones everyday life. But they would in fact be carefully planned beforehand.

                                                       Mario, 1978

He would later start taking photos of random people in the urban space – Berlin, Rome, Tokyo, New York. He would hide lights in the pavement which would illuminate pedestrians and isolates them from the other people in the street.
Since the 1990s diCorcia has redefined traditional street photography, such as Walker Evans´s subway pictures. When he began photographing strangers caught in a strobe light he turned pedestrians into unsuspected performers. The strobe highlights the pedestrians like actors being isolated on stage by a spotlight, focusing on their gestures and letting everything els fade.
Even if the pedestrians seem detached from their surroundings, diCorcia uses the City as the title for the photos, placing the pedestrians back in to the city’s anonymity.

                                                       New York, 1997

To create the Heads series, diCorcia fixed a powerful strobe light to a scaffold high above the streets in New York´s Time Square. He activated the strobe by radio signal and captured unknowing pedestrains in a flash light from over 6 meters away. The strobe could not be sensed by his subject since the photographs were taken in broad daylight. Using this technique, the figures appear to emerge from inky darkness, spotlighted and as if there was almost no distance between the camera and the subject.

                                                        Head # 10, 2001

The images are simple and intimate which is ironic since the pictures are taken for a fare distance. But the distance allows diCorcia to zoom in close to the pedestrians faces with out them knowing that they are being photographed and thereby enhancing the intimacy. It gives a sense of drama from the accidental poses and instant facial expressions.

                                                       Head #23, 2001

The cinematic quality is preserved by the big poster-size print; 120 x 150 cm, high resolution digital scans. Over the course of two years diCorcia took more than 4000 of these photographs, but only those 17 for the series.
The strobe gives us an unusual light that stops time and inclines us to look at what we see every day but fail to notice, and the longer we look the more extraordinary they become.
Unaware of the camera they act like most people would, walking down the street in a crowd, focused on something or nothing. But when they become enlarged and isolated their expression becomes a riddle, intense and melodramatic.

                                                       Head 22, 2001

DiCorcias´s Heads series was center of debate between free speech and individual rights to privacy in 2006. One of diCorcia´s subjects sued the artist and the gallery for exhibiting, publishing and profiting from his picture which was take with out permission. DiCorcia explained that he did not seek consent because the images could not have been made with the knowledge and cooperation of the subjects.
The case was dismissed because of the freedom to photograph in public is protected in the u.s.

                                                       Head #13

Link Phillip-Lorca diCorcia exposed;

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

American Prospects

In 1978, on the back of a Guggenheim fellowship, Joel Sternfeld set out to explore America and its ever changing landscape.  The final work was initially exhibited in 1984 at the Museum of Modern Art under the title “Three Americas”, comprising images from his initial year on the road as well as two subsequent years.  The work was published in 1987 as “American Prospects” and presents another landmark visual account of America in a similar tradition to that carried out by Walker Evans (American Photographs) and Robert Frank (The Americans).

The images from American Prospects demonstrate Sternfeld’s move from the spontaneity of the snapshot to the more composed image; a conscious result of his transition from using a 35mm Leica hand held to a large format camera (8x10).  This new format, with its slower picture taking process, forced deliberation and allowed him to stand back and assemble his shots. In some ways Sternfeld was moving from the sketchbook to the blank canvas where composition became more prepared and to some extent staged. 

In addition to, or resulting from Sternfeld’s increasingly directorial role, he moves his point of view higher and back from his subjects.  This “celestial perspective” allows him to join the foreground and background on to one continuous plain.  Increasingly influenced by compositional and colour painting conventions, he begins to assemble and capture scenes as a painter may. He brings a map like quality to the image; flattening out his points of focus and points of narrative into one large depiction providing the viewer a birds eye view of the scene below.  This new compositional style and his use of people in a photo was inspired by similar approaches taken by traditional painters such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jacob van Ruisdael.  Sternfeld’s frames had now become landscapes within "landscapes". 

From left:  The Fight between Carnival and Lent (Peter Bruegel the Elder, 1559), Wet n' Wild Aquatic Theme Park, Orlando (Sternfeld 1980)

This new elevated position provides a less voyeuristic and more observational perspective for the viewer.   The images unfold upon inspection, bringing the viewer into multiple areas of the frame, sometimes the edges providing the most interest.

The collection of images showcases the cultural and social humanity of America juxtaposed in its natural surroundings.  They provide a perspective of an America ever changing and beautiful but one at odds with its “utopian dreams” and the natural landscape it inhabits.  While always aesthetically pleasing, the images are tainted by a gentle skepticism.  He mixes magic with sadness, hope with uncertainty and prospect with danger.  

Lake Oswega, Oregon (1979)

Sternfeld evidently questions America’s "prospects" but does so in an objective manner.  We sense his own uncertainty about the future based on his observation of the present and the past.  Never cynical but always dubious, you can’t help feel that Sternfeld is painting a picture of reserved hope. It is an America that strives for constant progress but at times succumbs to the pitfalls this ambition brings. Any sense of progress is typically tempered by a reminder of the abandonment of the past.  A prevailing gloominess penetrates the beauty of what America has become or is becoming.

After a Flash Flood, Rancho Mirage, California (1979) 

Monday, February 18, 2013

Doug Rickard - A New American Street View.

A New American Picture by Doug Rickard is most simply described as a book of images harvested from Google Street View, which show downbeaten and neglected views of America. But this belies a complexity of thought and ideas which underpin the work.

Rickard’s previous projects - American Suburb X (ASX), and These Americans, show him to be deeply engaged with photography as a medium, and well versed in its history and canon. Looked at as a view into Rickard’s mind, they attest to an ongoing search for the iconic image which transcends its specificity, and an obsessive collecting and cataloguing of what might define the American psyche.

Now focussing his gathering, collecting and editing eye through Street View, Rickard appropriates and recontextualizes as social documentary, an image originally created as pure documentation. The social aspect of this is important, and Rickard cites his conservative upbringing and subsequent study of civil rights and slavery as formative for his work. The book’s essay by David Campany also draws Rickard’s work into the tradition of street and documentary photography the likes of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, but also other artists concerned with the day-to-day “beneath the canopy” of American idealism, such as Edward Hopper, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Toni Morrison.

The use of Street View to source images immediately raises questions and encourages debate about the very nature of what it is to be a photographer, and more so what it is to be a photographer in the art world. It recalls long standing and recurring debates surrounding the validity of the ready-made as artwork, and the merits of photography as art. It also raises new questions about privacy, the place of technology in the world and the consequence of its ubiquity for photography. 

The process which Rickard uses is relatively straightforward — he searches until he locates the exact view he wants, composes the image on screen, and re-photographs it with a 35mm camera directed at the monitor. It is a process accessible to almost anyone, and does not necessitate a visit to the location in the image - a fact which draws criticism of his work.

51.310296, Amite City, LA (2008), 2010

The very specific technology of multiple wide-angle captures shot from well above eye level and stitched together, creates a look which has a particular feel. As Rickard says, “the actual dynamics of the camera within Google emphasized the way that I wanted to speak in these images.” (From interview recorded as part of a TV segment on Rickard). Particularly striking features of the look are the strong diagonals stretching out to the edge of the frame, the sense of looking down into a scene, and even the lense flares Rickard often includes in his captures. Additionally, the incredibly poor quality, the antithesis of ordinary photographic competence, lends a softness and which recalls early photography or even painting.

42.418064, Detroit, MI (2009), 2010

Initially selecting locations based on what people consider areas to avoid, Rickard also searched by the key phrase of “Martin Luther King”, which invariably located impoverished and neglected urban landscapes to select images from. Seeking a capture which speaks precisely of the place where it is located, he seeks within a frozen world exactly what he thinks is there to be found — an archetypal image. Framed and presented as a large glossy printed, they also wander into the tricky territory of the aestheticizing poverty - beautification possible through the safe access allowed by Street View.

Each picture in the book is identified with a number sequence and place as its title. Whilst based on the geographic location of the image, Rickard has manipulated it to ensure the exact location of each capture cannot be identified. This reinforces the anonymity of the works - connected to the world, but disembodied from it - perhaps similar to the experience of actually using Street View.

Yet the images somehow possess a kind of intimacy too. Rickard has sought out images containing people — never crowds, but almost always there is a lonely figure or small group present. The images draw us in with their universality and apparent glimpse of how other people live their lives. They also feel intimate in their familiarity. However, the blurred faces and the camera perspective which forces even close figures into the distance, emphasise again the effect of anonymity and isolation. As Rickard puts it, “the subjects then are really symbols or icons, and not individuals”.

39.259736, Baltimore MD (2008), 2011

So, A New American Picture is not so much about being completely new, as harnessing technology of the current time to produce something intimately connected and conscious of what has come before it. It also straddles various tensions — of intimacy and distance, placeness and universality, photography and the painterly, the aesthetic and the social. That each of these are palpable in the work ensures it lives beyond being a simple screen capture, and has a power that resonates wider.