Category Archives: Exhibitions

Exhibition – Fishermen & Kings – The Photography of Olive Edis

Being brutally honest, I didn’t expect to enjoy this exhibition as much as I did!  At the outset it held a couple of draws – it was pretty much on my doorstep being curated at Norwich Castle Museum and also it was celebrating a local female portrait photographer from an era where I guess proportionally, there must have been far fewer females in this trade than males. Olive Edis was born just 30 miles down the road from me in the Norfolk seaside town of Sheringham. Born in 1876 and growing up with photography an emerging technology, the exhibition summarised what made her remarkable…

At the height of her career she photographed the great and the good; prime ministers, royalty, scientists and artists. She was a pioneer of new technologies, a successful business owner, and the first British woman to be appointed as an official war photographer. For a male photographer to have achieved all of this would have been worthy of note, but for a woman in the era that Edis lived, it is difficult to exaggerate the significance of her success.’

Edis with her large format camera  ‘The Countess’, made by the London & Paris Optic & Clock Company around 1893.

I was particularly drawn to Edis’ comments about getting a sense of the character of the subjects of her photographs  … she explained:-

I believe a photograph should represent truthfully the subject at his or her most attractive moment. I have never yet found a human being who did not have such a moment. The face is an index of the character, and the photograph, if you like to put it that way, should be the X-ray of the soul. One is not truly a photographer unless one’s work shows what is inside the sitter, as well as what is outside’.

Despite Edis’ charitable comments about seeing the best in every subject however attractive or less attractive, the exhibition made it clear that she was not ‘averse to making subtle changes‘… e.g. by using the method of removing wrinkles by adding a scratch to the surface of the negative which would disappear when the image was inverted.

One of the elements of her history that attracts me to Edis is her fascination with photographing the local fisherman, some of which had glorious names such as ‘Belcher’ Johnson or ‘Squinter’ West. Edis seems to have been magnetically drawn to photographing the strong characters she met in life.  I can relate to this motivation with my own photography and one of the most arresting images of the whole exhibition was this portrait below of the fisherman ‘Lotion Tar’ Bishop.

Lotion Tar Bishop.jpg

I have deliberately kept the image large so that the real quality of the photograph can be properly appreciated in this blog: The eyes are piercingly sharp and the background pleasantly blurred (including his fisherman’s smock).  It’s rare that I have seen images from this era in the 20th Century which aren’t veiled in some way by the passage of time, either suffering from being blurred, or lacking contrast through poor print development. This photograph almost feels like it is transporting you back in time to come face to face with the subject, not that you’re looking at a photograph which is almost a century old.. It would easily stand its ground today in the Taylor Wessing Portrait competition!

Of course what Olive Edis ultimately became famous for was being the first female official war photographer. If you hadn’t fallen for her as a photographic heroine by this point in the exhibition, you would definitely succumb on reading this excerpt from her journal:

I examined the precious white pass which Lady Norman said hardly any woman had been given  – a permit to travel wherever the British Army was in occupation. One clause amused me, armed with my photographic outfit as I was. It seemed a little suicidal to add my name to it. It ran as follows:- 

The holder of this pass is specially warned that under no circumstances is a camera or any other photographic apparatus, instrument or accessory to be brought into the Zone of the Armies. If this order be disobeyed the Camera etc., will be confiscated, the Pass will be cancelled, and the individual who has broken this rule will be placed under arrest”

I signed it, however, and took the risk’.

Then whilst her images showed the scourge of war in their depiction of the wounded in hospitals, her journal gives away both her naivety and empathy for those suffering:-

Above left: Doctors, nurses and patients in the German ward of No. 4 Stationary Hospital, 7th March 1919….’I did a ward of English surgical cases and another of German prisoners, and I was glad to be able to talk to them a little in their own lingo. The danger list from influenza and pneumonia hanging in the office was terrible’.

Above right:  French civilian women repairing tents using a treadle sewing machine, 11th March 1919. …’We went onto the 8th Ordnance Depot, where French labour was superintended by WAACS. There was a big clothing store. I did a charming group of little French children, and another of some lovely French girls mending tents which hung from the roofs, quite the prettiest scene of the kind I had had a chance of’.

Edis also shared some of her ‘challenges’ of being a photographer (not least having to lug her equipment around which endeared me to her all the more….

Above left: Technical Administrator Miss Nicholls and women of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps … 17th March 1919… ‘We next went to the Motor Ambulance Transport and I did a most difficult long group, with a great many figures in it, in an office about 100 foot long’.’

Above right:  Dining Room of a Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps camp, 17th March 1919… ‘I did a group of nearly 400 in the great dining hall, many lined up in a queue to fetch their dinner. It was hard work explaining what I wanted to so many, and meant a lot of running around and talking’.

The exhibition also had a section showing a film of a series of stills of self-portraits that Edis took, explaining that she felt that ‘knowing how to sit for self portraits meant she was able to help others pose well for her’.  I was drawn to the self-portraits she took of herself in her studio which was designed to be flooded by natural light coming from skylights. They have an ‘environmental documentary’ quality to them and I like how she is reading, almost seemingly oblivious of the camera, and her inclusion of her home comforts and taste in furniture style allowing us a glimpse into her sense of style.

self-portrait

Norwich ‘twee’ emerged in a corner of the exhibition dedicated to the visitors dressing up in a fisherman’s sowester hat and cape, which made chuckle but not enough to attempt to bring ‘Belcher’ Johnson back to life! However the exhibition was really interesting and almost life-affirming in terms of reading her journal excerpts..

The exhibition in Norwich closed on 22 January 2017 but the full Olive Edis collection is available online at http://norfolkmuseumscollections.org/#!/collections/search?q=olive%2Bedis

Exhibition – Terrains of the Body

I’m really keen to catch this new exhibition opening at the Whitechapel Gallery in London on 18 January 2017.  The image which drew me in to read more about it is this ‘Untitled’ photograph from Hellen van Meene in 2000.

Terrains of the Body.png

The Guardian publicises the exhibition as:

‘An intriguing group show culled from the archives of the National Museum of Women in Washington that looks at the female body as a medium for visual storytelling and personal revelation. Artists such as Marina Abramović, Nan Goldin, Justine Kurland, Hellen van Meene and Shirin Neshat turn the camera on themselves to explore female identity and experience in the contemporary world though still images, video and installation.’

I think the exhibition may be particularly useful given my impending next assignment which requires me to develop ideas for a self-portrait.

Exhibition -Masters of Japanese Photography

I made a trip today to the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia to see the ‘Masters of Japanese Photography’ exhibition. The exhibition focussed on three photographers – Nobuyoshi Araki, Eikoh Hosoe and Kikuji Kawada.

One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition were the historical narratives about photography and Japanese culture. One of the later periods of the 20th century was described as follows:-

‘During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the modernisation of Japan that had begun in previous decades, resulted in an increasing tension between the past and the future, as the influence of foreign trends and the ascent of mass consumption became more apparent. Photographers struggled to reconcile their desire to join the international art world without losing sight of their cultural and national identity’.

It struck me that whilst globalisation and revolutions in photography happen the world over, they must be all the more difficult to accept in distinct and unique cultures such as the Japanese one, which is intensely traditional with strict rules of acceptability for its inhabitants. Pushing the boundaries of photography must have been challenging in this atmosphere but perversely it appears that it encouraged more subversive photography, designed to shock and this seems particularly apparent in Araki’s work. He often seems to focus on themes of female sensuality, frequently depicted in flower forms such as in the images below:-

On researching more of his photographs online at home, I stumbled across an image by a younger artist, Mika Ninagawa, which I found much more accessible than Araki’s style. Her image below is similarly vibrant and it definitely seems to have traces of Araki’s influence embedded in the photograph, retaining the overriding sensual floral theme, but in an altogether more modern, playful way. The bold colours of Japanese floral nature still hit you straight between the eyes also:-

mika-ninagawa

Eikoh Hosoe’s ‘Eye of Photography’ image below left is a multi-layered, surrealist photograph and this stood out for me in the exhibition. I like how the face of the human figure is replaced by the clock-face and the torso and head appears as yet another layer at the base of the image. There were several other images from his ‘Ordeal by Roses’ series in the exhibition and the photograph of the rose in front of the model’s face below right, is powerful for its gritty texture and strong contrasts. I later read that Hosoe teamed up with the Japanese writer Mishima as his subject for several months to create the series and that Mishima later committed suicide by seppuku (the Japanese ritual of suicide by disembowelment). Nothing very cheery here, but the depth of Hosoe’s imagination used to create these photographs is positively febrile:-

Kawada’s photographs were based on astronomical phenomena such as eclipses and the supporting script suggested that the light and shade involved was intended to reflect the powerful opposing forces of good and evil. I must admit I strolled quite quickly past these images as they didn’t interest me.

Overall it was a eye-opening exhibition and my first introduction to Japanese photography, and unlike the Taylor Wessing experience last weekend, this time I had the entire exhibition centre to myself and the security official, so not bad at all!

Exhibition -Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2016

I’ve religiously trekked to all the Taylor Wessing competition exhibitions and ignoring the minor wrestle for a decent view of the photographs and the captions on a busy Saturday afternoon last weekend at the National Portrait Gallery, it was worth the trip.  I think the best images are below, or at least these are the ones which most resonated with me…

In two of these images the subjects are over 100 years old. The stories of their long lives lived are etched on their faces. Through the course I am now more conscious of checking the supporting captions when looking at photographs and these two photo captions made me smile… The image to the left by Paul Stuart is entitled ‘John Harrison – 36852 days old, June 2015’, the image to the right by Karsten Thormaehlen is entitled ‘Susannah Mushatt Jones (1899 – 2016) At age 116 and 14 days, July 2015’.  There seems to be a marked interest in photographic studies of centenarians now as the exhibition highlights, because they are that much more prevalent globally, rather than just residing in the Guinness Book of Records and living in Japan…

The appeal to me of Stuart’s portrait on the left above, is the superb use of the really shallow depth of field blending everything sitting behind the plane of his wrinkles and eye sockets to an almost dreamlike texture. I’ve used an image from the internet here, but I remember the portrait being printed deliberately dark which was very effective also when seeing the full size print in the gallery. The photograph has echoes of almost sci-fi genre in nature, maybe it is Harrison’s rather Star Trek round turtle-necked top, but I couldn’t help but think that he looks like he’d come from another planet where they had invented a pill to stop ageing past the age of 80, it’s just so strange how relatively ‘young’ he looks… his eyes are still so bright and inquisitive and this has been perfectly captured by the photographer.

The Thormaehlen image to the right above similarly portrays a characterful face and whilst there is also a fairly shallow depth of field, this effect is not so marked in this image. I think it is the determination in the expression which is striking here, and the eyes whilst closed, but in no way take away from the strength of the portrait. It makes you wonder if she is praying and it is strange that a face can be that animated, even when closed off to others by the eyes. The creases in her head covering are echoed in the lines down her face from the side of her flared strong nostrils, and the creases down her blouse further replicate the pattern of her head covering creases and facial lines.

In stark contrast the third image that caught my eye is from Ebony Finck, an untitled image from the series ‘Juncture’:-

ebony-finck-from-the-series-juncture

The subject of the image is struggling to stand up and his skeletal arm, awkward and crane-like, points out at an angle. The image appears to be covered in a layer of voile, all the colours are pale and crepe-like with the exception of his pants and watch. Whilst the image is bathed in light, we sense impending passing away of the old man and there is a reminder of our own mortality in the visibility of the bones through the pale skin.  This image touched me as it was so sensitively shot, and the composition is balanced and simple.

I enjoy Taylor Wessing despite the crowds and the inevitable sets of twins on display each year. It gives me ideas for how to pose subjects and invariably I find that the most successful images are the ones which retain a clear simplicity.

Mary Doggett, aged 17732 days with hopefully a few more to go….

Part 1 – Cartier-Bresson and the move away from Surrealism

Cartier-Bresson was known to have been heavily influenced by Surrealism in his early years as a photographer, he socialised with Breton and other Surrealists in Paris in the 1920’s and was inspired by the idea of allowing subconscious thoughts to create images.

The British Photo History website described how Cartier-Bresson photographed political events in Paris such as the French liberation and the 1962 massacre and the following quote from him seems to imply a certain level of automation in his image creation which of course would link him to the idea of surrealism:-

‘I kept walking the streets, highly strung, and eager to snap scenes of convincing reality, but mainly I wanted to capture the quintessence of the phenomenon in a single image. Photographing, for me, is instant drawing and the secret is to forget you are carrying a camera.’  (Pritchard, M. 2016)

However, further research into Cartier-Bresson and how his work has been exhibited, has persuaded me to ensure I avoid type-casting photographers as belonging to a particular genre or artistic movement:

In her article ‘Beyond the Decisive Moment’, Ellie Armon Azoulay reviews the Cartier-Bresson exhibition curated by Clément Chéroux at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2014. She explains that the exhibition was arranged in three sections, each of which spanning a particular time period :-

  • 1926-35 – Mostly marked by early, Surrealist photographs made during his travels;
  • 1936-46 – Distinguished by his return from the US; and
  • 1947 – 1970s – Begins with the foundation of Magnum Photos in 1947 and ends in the 1970s when he retired from Photography and turned to drawing.

Azoulay is critical of the restriction that classifying the images places on their meaning. She explains… ‘in the second section of the exhibition, “The Attraction of Surrealism,” a large number of photographs are read through the prism of Surrealism, which diminishes their humanistic, social, and political aspects.’ The example she uses is the following image of Livorno, Italy (1933):-

livorno-italy-1933

She explains ‘the wall text reads: “the viewer would dearly love to lift the cloth, but the image cannot be unveiled: that is how our desire to see it aroused.” This invocation of the “veiled erotic” seems out of place’.  (Azoulay, E.A. 2014)

In order to find out more for myself, I visited the Cartier-Bresson ‘Paris’ exhibition at the University of East Anglia where 81 images captured between 1929 and 1985 were on display. I wanted to see if I could distinguish any point in time where the influence of Surrealism started to become absent from his work.

The images were an ecletic mixture of different photographic styles and genres but nevertheless there were some early images clearly influenced by Cartier-Bressons interest in Surrealism:-

Both photographs above were taken in 1932 and the image to the left, harks back to the Surrealist obsession with depicting something which looks alive but isn’t (or vice versa), while the image to the right clearly echoes the Surrealist idea of ‘doubling’ (originating from Freud’s essay on the ‘uncanny’), and ‘inexplicable repetitions’.

la-villette-1929

However, other images in the exhibition from his earlier years as a photographer, appear to be making more of a social statement such as this photograph ‘La Villette’, taken in 1929. There may be a tenuous link to Surrealism in the fact that the lifeless body on the ground appears to have no head and a dark menacing form, but I sense that the essence of this photograph is all about depicting the harsh life on the streets during the years of the Depression post WW1.

It’s true that many of the later photographs curated in the exhibition appeared to have little to do with Surrealism, and more to do with e.g. composition or communicating the sense of a person via a portrait, such as in the two examples below:-

Above left: The Palais Royal Gardens. 1959.
Above right: Jean-Paul Sartre, Le Pont des Arts, Paris, 1946

Both of these images appeal to me. The Palais Royal Gardens photograph is beautiful in its movement generated by the curved rows of trees, framed by the perfectly placed row of houses in the background. The comtemplative portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre is atmospheric with the fog as well as being perfectly composed with the main subject obvious and his companion deliberately cropped out of the frame.

I get a sense that whilst Cartier-Bresson moved away from creating the more obvious Surrealist-typee photographs, he was always influenced by the movement throughout his career. In ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Early Work’, Peter Galassi selected the following quotation which highlighted this idea:-

“Alone, the Surrealist wanders the streets without destination but with a premeditated alertness for the unexpected detail that will release a marvelous and compelling reality just beneath the banal surface of ordinary existence.”

He goes on to express : ‘The geometric formalism of Renaissance painting and the serendipity of Surrealism were two key influences on Cartier-Bresson’s photography…. Over the next half century Cartier-Bresson would travel the world with a Leica in one hand… inwardly he held onto the spirit of Surrealism while outwardly calling himself a photojournalist’. (Springer, M. 2011)

Sean O’Hagan from the Guardian re-iterated this idea by selecting another of Cartier-Bresson’s quotations:- ‘Surrealism has had a profound effect on me and all my life I have done my utmost never to betray it’ (O’Hagan, S. 2014)

Further insight from the man himself can be heard in the following video clip:-

 

Sources

Pritchard, M. (2016) Exhibition: Henri Cartier-Bresson: PARIS / 23 April-29 August. At http://britishphotohistory.ning.com/profiles/blogs/exhibition-henri-cartier-bresson-paris-23-april-29-august. Accessed at 1/9/2016

Azoulay, E.A. (2014) Beyond the Decisive Moment. At  http://aperture.org/blog/beyond-decisive-moment-bresson/ Accessed at 2/9/2016

Springer, M. (2011) Iconic Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson takes you inside his Creative World. At http://www.openculture.com/2011/11/henri_cartier-bresson.html  Accessed at 1/9/2016

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Comrade Cartier-Bresson: the great photographer revealed as a communist. At  https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/20/henri-cartier-bresson-exhibition-pompidou-centre-communist   Accessed at 3/9/2016

Exhibition – Burden of Proof

The exhibition ‘Burden of Proof: The construction of visual evidence’ sought to:-

‘Through the presentation of eleven case studies……examine the way experts, researchers and historians use images as evidence in instances of crimes or acts of violence suffered by individuals or groups.’. (Photographers Gallery, 2015).

Of the 11 studies, I was particularly drawn to the series of photographs created by Alphonse Bertillon (1853 – 1914).  His photographs were taken using…’an overhead camera, equipped with a wide-angle lens, set on a tripod more than 2 metres tall. The images were then mounted on special cards offering graduations in centimetres, perspectometric framing and indications of scale.’  The exhibition supporting commentary explained ‘This elaborate representation system provided a unified, overall view of the event’s material elements: the position of the body and of any weapons, other objects and traces’. (Photographer’s Gallery, 2015).

Below are three examples of Bertillon’s mounted images:-

        Murder of Madam Gilles

Murder of Madame Lack

Above left:- Corpse of Emilie Japy, Steinhal case, 6a Impasse Ronsin case, Paris, 31 May 1908
Above right:- Murder of Madame Gilles, 11 October 1904
Left:- Murder of Madame Lack, Porte Saint-Denis, Paris, 10 June 1912

I found the images quite shocking, in particular the 3 above were murders of frail, elderly victims. The existence of bed clothes around two of the bodies seem to heighten the vulnerability with people being murdered as they slept. Bed is generally the place we all go to feel safe – it is a place of sanctuary and warmth,  and Emile Japy’s choice of bedwear is almost childlike which accentuates the photograph presenting him as a helpless victim.  Further the lighting in the ‘Murder of Madam Lack’ image is dramatic and focussed like a spotlight on the corpse tethered and bound among the bedsheets.

Conversely I found that while the images themselves evoked strong emotions and sympathy in me, the mounts with their ‘ruler-like’ measurements encouraged you to be more detached from the photographs – symbolising the necessary scientific and perhaps ‘cold-hearted’ approach to solving the crime. Combining the image in the mount somehow accentuates the heinous nature of the crimes.

The exhibition commentary also points out that Bertillon himself realised ‘the photographs themselves could have a psychological influence, either on the accused, by inducing a confession, or on the judges’. (Photographer’s Gallery, 2015).

For me the most dramatic element of the images is the overhead perspective. This renders the corpse almost as a ‘sacrificial’ subject. Is it God looking down at the victim?  Is it the victim himself looking down on his corpse as he descends into the afterlife?

I have noticed other images which use the same perspective for a similar dramatic impact:-

This first image of a mountain gorilla being carried through the jungle was taken by journalist photographer Brent Stirton in 2007.  The photograph was taken in Virunga national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Park rangers had been trying to protect the gorillas but it was a war zone and in the conflict seven gorillas had been shot.  The image shows the rangers and villagers carrying the dead animal to the park HQ.

Gorilla
Rangers and locals carry the body of a mountain gorilla killed in Virunga national park, DRC, in 2007. Photograph: Brent Stirton

This similar aerial perspective evokes the same response from me, that of witnessing a sacrifice, of a God looking down on the subject as the villages carry the corpse to its final resting place.  It seems to almost depict a funeral procession: the vast number of villagers as pall-bearers juxtaposed against the slaughtered beast simply accentuates the size of the main subject.

The next image Bertillon’s photographs reminded me of was one I had saved at the beginning of my TAOP studies last year as I found it similarly immensely powerful and this is again all down to the aerial perspective.  I had visited Israel a few years ago and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always interested me, although I can’t claim to be very educated in it – it is way too complex!  The photograph by Reuters is of mourners carrying the body of a Palestinian militant at his funeral in the Central Gaza Strip.

Reuterspic05
Mourners carry the body of Palestinian militant Marwan Steem during his funeral in the central Gaza Strip. 7 July, 2014.

The overhead perspective again reinforces for me the sense of ‘sacrifice’. The sheer number of mourners carrying this man’s corpse and the perspective from above really only able to show the tops of their  heads and their arms, places the corpse again at the very centre of this image and your eyes are drawn to it. I also really like the lines in this image, the 2 lines of the stretcher and all the lines created by the arms of the stretcher-bearers. It is an extremely powerful and emotive composition.

A clear learning point from me is that perspective can add serious impact to photographs and I should seek to look to vary these perspective, or at least consider my options for doing so, every time I go to take a series of images.

Sources

Burden of Proof: The Photographers Gallery, 2015

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/oct/22/brent-stirton-best-photograph-dead-silverback-gorilla-congo-virunga, 2007.

http://pictures.reuters.com/

October Exhibitions

few accumulated ideas for trips to exhibitions in October:-

  • Burden of Proof – The Construction of Visual Evidence
    The Photographer’s Gallery – 2nd Oct 2015 to 10 Jan 2016
    (Probably most useful to Context and Narrative course)
  • Simon Schama’s Face of Britain Exhibition
    To accompany the brilliant ‘Face of Britain BBC series looking at portraits on the theme of Power, Love, Fame, Self and People – National Portrait Gallery – until 4 Jan 2016

Norwich-based….

  • Magnificent Obsessions – the artist as collector
    The University of East Anglia Sainsbury Centre – to 31 Jan 2016
    To see Martin Parr’s weird and wonderful collections and the spooky glass eye collection!