Two Exhibitions in One Day: Ruff & Wenders

I recently took a trip down to London, primarily to the Thomas Ruff exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery but I also swung by the Photographers Gallery where I saw an exhibition by Wim Wenders.

My developing interest in the work of the Dusseldorf School led me to want to see the work of Thomas Ruff. A former student of Bernd Becher he was one of the founders of the school. The exhibition is a retrospective covering works from 1979 to the present. Overall Ruff didn’t disappoint; I was itching to see some work from Dusseldorf and this exhibition gave me a satisfying scratch. However, I’m not sure if the retrospective is the best way to experience an artist’s work. Yes, we can see a broad range spread over the years and note how their approach has evolved and transformed. But it does feel akin to a high-class buffet, where despite the range of quality delicacies before us we ignore the cucumber sandwiches and headed straight to the prawn vol au vents and black olives. But then, may be that’s what a retrospective is all about.

The exhibition opens with a series of photographs of domestic interiors. These are said to be the homes of friends and acquaintances. There is a simple clean and uncluttered aesthetic to these German homes of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The images are certainly still lives, representing the stylistic tastes of those who lived in them. The text accompanying the series argues that through the absence of people and domestic mess in the photographs, we can sense “an atmosphere of melancholy, restraint and even repression”. This is quite possible but I couldn’t help but wonder if the night before Thomas came round with his camera, the occupants of these nice middle class homes set too with a duster and hoover. But perhaps that would be the behaviour of the repressed.

Many of the images on display are huge in size, the portraits being a case in point measuring nearly 1.5 x 2 metres. Their size makes them impressive, where every dimple, freckle or minor skin blemish is presented. They left me wondering if Ruff has a playful side to his personality. Portraiture in western art has tended to concentrate on drawing out the character of the person, where lighting, posing and props were all consciously chosen to give the viewer a psychological insight into the subject. Ruff’s deadpan passport style photographs turn this historical approach on its head. Ultimately it may be futile to attempt to dra a psychological insight from a ‘cleverly’ constructed portrait but are these so different from work of Ruff? In the production of his images he is still making choices about lighting (two umbrella studio flashes, judging by the catch lights in the subject’s eyes), background and the position of his subject.

 

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Jude, providing a sense of scale to Ruff’s large portraits

 

Two photographs on display that didn’t really work for me depicted the night sky. These images were taken from an astronomical survey mapping out the whole of the sky and so technically not of Ruff’s making. Again, huge prints whose size seemed to comment on the enormity of the cosmos. Unfortunately, wherever one stood to view them the ceiling lights of the gallery were reflected in the glass. Perhaps in many images our eyes ignore such things but as these are predominantly black the reflections were quite striking.

Some of Ruff’s works I would like to have seen more of were his ‘Houses’. Only two were on display; one of a street and the other a small factory. Like his domestic interiors both are empty of people but that seems to be only part of the aesthetic. While the subjects are human constructions the lack of human activity renders them stark and unreal: though in an urban setting there is nothing indicative of human activity which stands at odds with their design and function.

 

IMG_3221pp

Ruff has even produced work in 3D

 

Further into the exhibition we see how Ruff has made use of found images and digitalized creations made without a camera. This latter aspect of the retrospective appeals to me less. In part because I don’t know enough about abstraction and so respond to it at a fairly primitive level: those are interesting shapes, I like that colour pallete etc. So with these I responded warmly to his ‘Substrates’ with their bright rainbow like colours, while the dark and muted Man Rayesque ‘Photograms’ gained a lesser emotional response from me.

But don’t let this final comment give an impression of disappointment with this exhibition. Far from it, in fact I bought the accompanying book, which isn’t something I do every time. Overall, it met with my expectations. I came looking for the deadpan and found it in his portraiture, interiors and buildings and I love this stuff! This clean unfussy aesthetic allows for a clear investigation of the subject matter.

 

-o0o-

 

The unexpected surprise for the day was the film director Wim Wenders exhibition (Instant Stories) at the Photographers’ Gallery. This place does what it says on the tin and so a gallery trip to London would seem incomplete without swinging by. I’d done no preparation for this, other than a quick look at the galley’s website so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. This open minded unprepared approach worked well today but then perhaps I like surprises.

The exhibition consists entirely of Polaroid images. Each one framed like a ‘proper’ art photo but their small size is unusual for a gallery space and of course, utterly contrasts with the works of Ruff. Being of a certain age, I passed the milestone marked ‘reading glasses’ a few years ago which meant I had to get up close to these images to see them well; again quite different to Ruff’s whose work can be admired from afar. I quite liked this intimate feature of the polaroid, these are works on personal and human scale and harked back to a time when people would pass their holiday snaps, fresh from the developers, around for friends to look at.

But this similarity with photos from the chemist is short lived. In the video accompanying the exhibition Wenders talks about the uniqueness of each Polaroid. And of course he is right. Unlike the negative and the jpeg these images are not designed to be reproduced over and over again. Each Polaroid is a singular captured moment of time rendered on to light sensitive paper. Despite this rather sophisticated, intellectual consideration of Polaroid images, the product itself was marketed as an easy access to photography. The cameras had few controls and felt and looked toy-like. Though not inexpensive per image they were about fun, about taking snap shots and this aspect of the Polaroid is present in Wenders’ work.

 

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Wenders explains it better than me…

 

Many of the images are simply snap shots taken during the making of his films. They show landscapes, interiors, friends and colleagues, though he also used them in research and planning to record such things as locations. One series within the exhibition was taken by a lead character in the making of a film called ‘Alice in the Cities’. This film echoes the Lewis Carroll’s character Alice but in contemporary (early 1970’s) USA. Being a road movie, it is perhaps no coincidence then that the images have a tourist like snap-shot appeal to them.

 

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From ‘Alice in the Cities’. With a nod to pop art?

 

While I don’t use a Polaroid there is comment made by Wenders that had a resonance with me. In the exhibition’s notes he says that using a Polaroid didn’t feel like photography; that it was casual and fun, perhaps even reckless. This idea that one can still take photographs and not be serious is something I have in my own practice. When I go out to take ‘proper’ photographs I take my bulky and heavy SLR. Its size, and the fact I shoot in manual, slows me down, and so my images are pondered over and considered, most of the time. By contrast when I’m just ‘out and about’, I carry a small point and shoot camera. Very often this comes out for fun and I find myself being far more experimental with it. Some of my favourite images have been taken with this camera but I lament not having the better quality SLR with me at the time. Nonetheless, I see a parallel in this with Wenders regard for his Polaroid.

 

References

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/arts/design/thomas-ruff-whitechapel-gallery.html

http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/exhibitions/thomas-ruff/

https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/wim-wenders-instant-stories

 

 

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Assignment 4: Responding to a Theme

For this Assignment I had to create an assembeled photograph for a given theme. Though it was possible to create one’s own theme, I chose ‘Power Struggle’ from the options in the FiP Workbook.

My interpretation of ‘power’ is electricity, particularly nuclear generation that occurs on the Suffolk coast. We have two nuclear plants sitting next to each other: one is being decommissioned, the other coming to the end of its life and then there are plans to build a third – Sizewell C.

Being anti nuclear by inclination it might seem my thoughts would be clear and concise. But it’s complicated. While I could bring up arguments about the risks to human life and the environment and even point out connections between nuclear power and the nuclear weapons, there are more prosaic and pragmatic factors involved.

UK governments are not very good at thinking in the long term and so for years overlooked the fact that many of our nuclear plants were coming to the end of their working lives. While renewable energy, particularly wind and solar, have had seen an increase, this has occurred because of a move away from coal powered plants. Being ‘carbon lite’ nuclear is often categorised with renewable but the dangerous radioactive legacy of nuclear will be with us for centuries. So, it seems our governments have painted themselves, and us, into a corner where we are still dependent on nuclear in order to keep the lights on!

The Suffolk context adds further layers of complexity. The Suffolk coast is an empty rural location. While some jobs exist in agriculture and tourism the area needs good, well paid jobs. The power stations have provided this for many years and the building of a third will continue that tradition. So, very often the visible objections to the furtherance of nuclear power centre around the congestion and inconvenience the current plans for construction will cause. This of course seems like ‘Nimbyism’ and it may well be, for plenty of folk who live in the picturesque coastal villages have retired there or are weekenders visiting their second homes.

The final issue I’d like to bring up is a real paradox. The Suffolk coast is famed for its understated beauty. So much so it is actually designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The range of different and endangered habitats is quite remarkable: heathlands, acid grasslands, and wetlands with some of the largest reed beds in the country. These in turn are the homes to a variety of scarce and declining species, be they birds, insects or mammals. Both NGOs and local authorities do a lot to protect and enhance these places, yet it seems OK to build nuclear power stations in the midst of them all.

Here is my assembled photograph:

 

Ass 4 Power Struggle

 

The Photographs

I chose to represent them in a patchwork (similar to Exercise 4.4). All sitting together in this way with no ‘breathing space’ between them reflects my somewhat pragmatic position on nuclear power. The placing of the individual images is less concerned with what they might have to say but how they look as a group. The key exceptions being the top left and bottom right.

Left to Right – Top to Bottom.

 

  1. I found this dead adult Herring Gull under a set of power lines when shooting for Ex. 4.11. Almost certainly it collided with the cables. This bird of a boisterous, larger than life species, a survivor into adulthood (4+ years) had its struggle for life terminated by the power lines. Finding it in this way cemented my ideas for this assignment.

 

  1. The need for electricity – we need to keep the lights on.

 

  1. Sizewell A. No longer generating. A huge monolith, it looks like a tombstone.

 

  1. Solar farm near the A12. Locked in some sort of struggle of its own perhaps, it needs CCTV surveillance. Note the ubiquitous pylons in the background.

 

  1. Those who will build Sizewell C had a consultation road show but it felt more like we were being told rather than listened too.

 

  1. The local villagers kick back. They don’t want a campus for over 1000 construction workers built in their neighbourhood.

 

  1. A Bittern: an example and symbolic of both the sensitive habitats and the species that live in them.

 

  1. The famous East Anglian large skies dissected by the power lines in this part of Suffolk

 

  1. Wind power: an alternative to nuclear. Again, note the power lines…

 

  1. Brought up in the Cold War, images of the potential of nuclear weapons are lodged in my memory. These wind blown grasses in the dunes at Sizewell are allegorical of the results of nuclear warfare.

 

  1. The village of Theberton will see over 1000 lorries per day drive through it during the construction of Sizewell C. Construction will take 10 years. This image also implies that’s all they are thinking about right now…

 

  1. These power stations are part of the national infrastructure. They are secure places aiming to keep out the public, environmental protesters and terrorists

 

  1. This bleached out human character on a barn door in Eastbridge, where the builders’ campus will be located, suggested to me that the views and opposition of local people will matter not, compared to those of the multi-nationals who are looking to profit from the new power plant.

 

  1. This is where the radioactive waste from Sizewell A was transferred to special trains. This could be used to bring materials and people to the new construction site. Local objectors feel this would be better than using lorries.

 

  1. These pylons dominate the landscape and literally tower over every one and every thing they pass. They seem symbolic of a powerful State that will disregard the local over national needs.

 

  1. So far the sea is an under exploited resource of power generation.

 

Contact Sheet for Assignment 4 

CS Assignment 4

 

References:

https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2017/01/britain-heading-towards-an-energy-crisis-mps-claims/

http://www.citizen-times.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/05/29/two-connections-nuclear-power-nuclear-weapons/28166479/

http://sizewell.edfenergyconsultation.info

http://teags.org

http://www.eadt.co.uk/business/edf-energy-urged-to-rethink-sizewell-c-workers-accommodation-plans-after-report-highlights-environmental-concerns-1-5123583

 

 

Preparation for Assignment 4

So far in FiP I’ve approached the work in a very linear manner. I opened the workbook, started at page 1 and worked my through. I did the Exercises in numerical order and completed the Assignments at the end of each chapter. For FiP I suppose there is nothing wrong with that, after all it is designed to be a developmental programme and so each stage follows on from the last.

But now I’m thinking seriously about moving on to the BA course where the Assignments have a greater significance than here. I suppose, in the degree it would be possible to fail an assignment or be given a lower mark that might influence the final outcome. Hence for Part 4 and picking up from a comment by my tutor made, I’ve adapted a slightly different approach this time.

Throughout Part 4 I have been fully aware of the Assignment. As I progressed through the Exercises I’ve been considering how I might approach the final Assignment and even found that one of them overlapped with my preparations for it.

The proof of the pudding etc will come in my tutor’s reaction to my work but I do feel this has been a useful change in my approach. Rather than turning the page at the end of chapter and discovering what’s needed for the assignment, this time when I reached that point I had a coherent set of ideas in place for me to pursue.

Assignment 4 is about following a theme. While it’s OK to create your own I chose one from the list offered in the workbook and selected ‘Power Struggle’. Living in coastal Suffolk the fact we have 2, nearly 3, nuclear power stations close by is never far from one’s mind or line of vision. While I would naturally lean towards an anti nuclear standpoint, any developed or considered understanding of the situation would recognise that it is a complicated and nuanced situation.

In an attempt to focus the thoughts over the theme of ‘power struggle’ and the local nuclear situation I produced this mind map. Please excuse the poor handwriting and bad spelling (such a shame the Bic biro doesn’t come with a spell-checker…)

 

Ass 4 Mind Map

Exercise 4.12 Presence/Absence

I really can’t imagine my life without birds. If I hadn’t have taken notice of the birds seen on family holidays in the Lake District then I have no idea what kind of life I’d be leading now. Coming from inner city Hull, Cumbria was a culture shock! And while mountains and lakes were obvious differences I also noticed interesting and colourful birds we didn’t see back home.

That initial childhood curiosity was an embryonic phase that ushered in a life-long preoccupation with birds. For the Christmas of 1976 I got my first pair of binoculars and I’ve not looked back since. Birding has influenced so much of my life. I screwed up my A levels because birds were more interesting than studying. When I finally did get my educational act together birding informed where I went to university and since then has influenced career choices and even where I live now. And, yeah, I met my partner while out birding. So, if over 40 years ago the young me hadn’t been curious about the Chaffinches, the Pied Wagtails and the Wheatears, I have no idea what the middle-aged Dave would be doing now or where he’d be doing it.

Below is my response to Exercise 4.12. It is an allegoric exploration of how the absence of birds from my life might be interpreted.

 

Ex. 4.12 Presence Absence

 

Personally, it is an uncomfortable thing to consider and to look at. This image suggests more than an alternative life trajectory were birds didn’t figure very much. The absence of the pictures and the appearance of the hooks that held them in place are suggestive of some kind of memory loss.

Having completed this exercise, the results remind me of the work of another OCA student, Rob Townsend. He recently shared on-line some images on a theme of dementia, where faces were ‘scratched out’ from family snap shots. These could be inferred to either depict a loss of memory or, even the ‘loss’ of family member whose condition meant they no longer recognised their loved ones.

This exercise turned out to be quite a ‘heavy’ subject and nothing like the purely hypothetical journey I thought I was starting at the beginning. Acknowledgement perhaps, of how a photographic project might evolve over time and adopt a life of its own beyond the initial idea.

 

Exercise 4.11 Emulation

In Part 3 I did a rather tongue-in-cheek ‘rip off’ of the Betchers work in Ex. 3.7 but for this exercise I’ve been guided more their approach to image making. I did consider using the exercise as an opportunity to photograph trees again. But I felt the result would look rather similar the work I produced for an earlier Part 4 Exercise.

https://david516059.wordpress.com/2017/10/18/exercise-4-9-repetition/

I think this emulated approach would work well with leafless trees but I’d need to wait a few more weeks before that will be possible.

In stead I’ve chosen a subject matter for which my curiosity has grown out of my small preoccupation with trees. Driving through the Suffolk countryside I look out for trees that suit the sort of images I want to make, however, this has also led me to notice and consider other features within the landscape. Seemingly more common the types of tree I want are ‘telegraphy poles’. The use of inverted commas is appropriate: more often than not these pole carry electricity and not telephone wires. Every so often a line simple poles with two wires on it gives way to more complex set ups with multiple wires and boxes fastened to the pole. I don’t have faintest idea what these are all but I find myself visually drawn to them.

So here is my emulation of the work of Bernd and Hilla. Electricity transmission poles.

 

Ex. 4.11 Emulation

 

Emulation or copy? I can point to divergences between my approach and that of the Bechers. I’m working in colour, though the subject matter and the grey overcast sky renders the photos somewhat colourless. They displayed individual images on a gallery wall in a grid formation while I’ve produced a grid as a single image in Photoshop. However, perhaps the greatest difference is that I’m not seeking to record and present an historic record of these transmission poles. Just noticing them in my local countryside and beginning to identify differences in form and structure stimulated my interest – much in the same way than my interest in trees developed. Visually both occupy a similar space within the landscape, one a feature of the natural world while other very much a part of human industrialised society. All of that said I’m not too sure of the extent to which I have emulated their work or just copied their approach.

Project 3: Learning From Other Photographers

Using the ‘mind map’ approach in my sketchbook I undertook quite a thorough reflection on my photography to date. It took some time having mulled over it for a few days before putting my thoughts on paper.

The most significant learning point for me is that I’m not turning out be the photographer I thought I would be. When I last studied photography at a formal level, we studied ‘the greats’ Henri Cartier Bresson, Ansel Adams etc. The younger me was enthralled by HCB and at the beginning of FiP I’d have said that I’d want to produce work like his. The reality is that photography has moved on a long way from my early studies and FiP has exposed me, not only to a wider range of photographers but also broadened my appreciation of what photography can be.

Throughout this reflection exercise one theme has underpinned my thinking: and that is I consider myself still to be on a learning curve. Feeling there is still much to learn my reflection addressed the five key genres (see the scanned pages from my sketchbook)

 

Project 3 -1

 

This Project then asked a more narrowly defined question about what sort of photographs do I want to take. That is a little easier to answer. My own work centres on the natural world and I’d like to take this further exploring the overlap of the natural and human world in my local landscape. All of that said my mind remains open to new possibilities and idea of staged photography is one I’d like to explore too. On a personal level I’d like to photography cycle racing but I don’t think I’d be approaching it from the perspective of a sports journalist. (see the scanned sketchbook page)

 

Project 3 -2a

 

The next part of the Project was easy too. I started to look through my copy of Photography: the Whole Story to find a photographer whose work impresses me. There is one image that I found jaw-droppingly impressive the first time I saw it and that is Andreas Gursky’s Paris, Montparnasse.

 

andreas-gursky-national-art-center-tokyo-paris-montparnasse

Andreas Gursky’s Paris, Montparnasse in situ on a gallery wall

 

For the next exercise we are asked to consider a photographer’s work that impresses us and then to emulate their work. Gursky’s work here serves as an introduction for I discovered he was part of the Dusseldorf School, a group of photographers who had been taught and influenced by Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Despite it’s monumental size Paris, Montparnasse still retains an objectivity in approach that was found in the work of the Bechers. I have already written about their work in Part 3 of FiP:

(see: https://david516059.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/exercise-3-7-a-significant-object/ )

Their work appeals to me on several levels. While I like the subject matter, I’m primarily drawn to their pared down aesthetic. Their deadpan approach to camera angles and use of monochrome in flat light creates it own aesthetic. Combine this with their grid like, repetitious approach to displaying the subject matter and their work then creates a taxonomy, an historical record of industrial architecture.

So for the next exercise I have chosen the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

 

References:

https://randomprecision.org/articles/paris-montparnasse

Hacking , Juliet: Photography the Whole Story (Thames & Hudson) 2012

 

 

Exercise 4.10 Processing Technique

How do they do that? How did she get those muted colours? Why can’t I do it? These are the kind of questions I’ve been asking myself for a little while now. Scrolling through Instagram or leafing my way through the BJP I’ve seen the odd photograph that impresses me for it post production qualities. In my ham-fisted way I’ve dabbled, trying to achieve similar results but to no avail.

And then, as time inevitably marches on, I reached page 137 of FiP Workbook (2014 edition). In only four pages I have been taken along a post productive road to Damascus! With a few clear directions I’ve achieve the sort of ‘analogue film look’ that had eluded me. What’s more, there was a ‘Brucie Bonus’ as this Exercise also introduced me to Photoshop presets where those multiple adjustments in a curves layer can be save and used again. Overall, I’m very pleased with this bit of FiP!

So here are three, paired examples showing the ‘before’ and ‘after’, or rather the other way around…

 

Pauline with a ‘film look’

Ex 4.10 film AFTER 3

And before

Ex 4.10 film BEFORE 3

 

Aldeburgh Beach Lookout’s pebble table with the analogue feel about it

Ex 4.10 film AFTER

And before the post production

Ex 4.10 film BEFORE

 

My Mam and Dad in with the ‘film look’

Ex 4.10 film AFTER 2

And before…

Ex 4.10 film BEFORE 2