I had a vague memory of seeing Crewdson on TV some years ago directing one his photos with a crew and lighting set up akin to a cinema production. At the time it didn’t really fall within the framework of what I would have called ‘photography’ and I felt somewhat indifferent towards it. Fast forward a few years and now I have a more open mind to such things. When I started this FiP course I still held this fairly narrow view but understood that my mind was in for a good stretching and that previously held positions might soon feel untenable.
The Cathedral of the Pines exhibition occupies three floors of the Photographers’ Gallery. His photos are very large and are not crowed next to each other on the walls, each has space to ‘breath’. Emerging from the lift on the fifth floor the first thing that struck me was the image quality. They are painterly, in the sense that composition and lighting has been meticulously worked out: a studio sensibility brought into the outdoors as well as domestic interiors. It’s also reasonable to assume Crewdson is using high quality camera.
The image quality is outstanding with lighting Rembrandt would have been proud of! (Gregory Crewdson: Woman at a Sink)
But enough of the ‘techie’ stuff, what of the images? Well to call them ‘staged’ feels like an understatement! Just with his attention to technical details he is again meticulous with the use of props and actors. Known for his cinematic approach calling the people who appear in his images ‘models’ doesn’t feel right. My knowledge of cinema is relatively thin bit it’s clear that he is influenced by it or perhaps, my appropriate for the current age, quality TV. The images in Cathedral of the Pines look like they could be stills from an HBO drama set in some small rural town in the USA where everyone knows everyone and they’ve all got ‘dirt’ on each other. There is also a further influence at work: men and half naked women sitting around flooded, disused and rusted quarry workings are suggestive of European landscape painting. Needless to say none of the images are not happy ones.
In the video Crewdson had made to accompany the exhibition we learn that experiences from his youth have informed the series and he tells us they raise questions rather than give answers. I discovered the video on Youtube after seeing the exhibition and felt pleased about this comment. That’s because as I went around the exhibition I found myself ‘people watching’. Looking into each image I tried to piece together what was going on in the lives of those depicted. The staging and the facial expressions all leaded me to conclude these folk were leading a miserable existence. With some imagination it wasn’t too much of a leap to conceive that loveless relationships, domestic abuse, even child abuse, and misogyny were taking place. In some images I was left wondering if the victims of these were planning to take things into their own hands to resolve their torments: the young women in the barn has to hand a fiendishly sharp looking saw, lengths of chain while some of the floorboards have been taken up. Throughout the images all the vehicles are old and people watch VHS tapes, which makes me think the series may have a sense of place and time about them. The same landscape painting can be found on the walls of at least two different dwellings. Moreover dead birds, chains, windfall apples, open doors when it snowy and icy outside all point to a thorough use of symbolism across the series.
But did I like it? Although the series is rather perturbing with its ever-present misery and depression I have become rather intrigued by it. It certainly raises lots of questions, even those beyond the obvious – for example, I’m OK with all the nakedness but why do these folk chose to go outside on cold winter’s day in bare feet? Writing this a few days after my visit to the gallery I’m still puzzling over it and feel more and drawn to the series – I’d certainly go and see it again if I got the chance. Staged photography was certainly not my ‘thing’ a few months ago but looking at the work of Crewdson and, earlier in FiP, Tom Hunter I am developing a greater understanding of it. I don’t know if it will ever become part of my own photographic vocabulary but with greater exposure to staged photography has come a greater acceptance and a deepening respect for it .
In my moments of relaxed unfocused pondering I sometime thought, how would I photograph Brexit? Then some other musing would squeeze it way through the relaxed synapses and the Brexit thing would slip away.
Well yesterday, while on an unrelated photographic mission, an idea came to me. I was at the RSPB reserve at Minsmere, famous amongst other things for the BBC’s Springwatch programmes as well as my Assignment 1! Like other low-lying locations on the coast it has remnants of World War 2 defenses. In the sand dunes there are what I’ve always know as ‘tank traps’; lines of large concrete cubes only a few feet apart. Constructed in 1940 along with gun emplacements and miles and miles of barbed wire these acted to deter German forces from invading these vulnerable parts of the country’s coastline.
This is work in progress but I started photographing individual ‘tank traps’, consciously avoiding the long shot depicting lines of them. As a line they have a uniformity but individually they bare the effects of 77 years of exposure to the elements and the encroachment of nature.
I’m consciously stepping aside from any debate over Brexit, goodness knows how much shouting I’ve done at the TV and radio over the 12+ months. Here at least I’m keeping my views (or at least I think I am) out of it. Instead I want these images to be ambiguous, perhaps a reflection of the situation the UK finds itself once stripped of the political hype and hyperbole. If that is at all possible..?
I’d be interested in your views on this project. Constructive feedback is always welcomed…
I subscribe to BJP and each month as read through the articles and look at the photos something will always make me stop and think. This month (BJP no. 7862 August 2017) so far (I haven’t read it all yet!) it’s a short interview with Donald Weber. In a few short answers I became intrigued about this guy. He was saying stuff that caught my attention but curiously none of his work was included in the interview. Does that matter? If it turned out that I was turned off by his work how then would I relate to his words?
Amongst the comments he made that appealed to me were:
Trust yourself. Allow yourself to open up and view the world as you see it. Experiment, don’t get caught up in photographic decorum
Let your curiosity get the better of you
Photographic practice is more about collaboration with others than the singularity of the ‘heroic artist’
Photography is a completely subjective experience.
Even though I’m still learning and by that I’m willing to try new approaches and techniques, I’m still developing my own vision. It is something I feel strongly about and so Weber’s comments have strong resonance for me.
I then went on to look at his work. Interested in Russian and Ukrainian life since he was a boy he has visited many times as a photographer. His series on Ukrainian police interrogation was just jaw-dropping. These images (at least the ones I’ve seen) were not voyeuristic, nor patronizing or sensationalistic, but demonstrated great empathy towards those being interrogated. It was also interesting to read his thoughts on the police, recognising that they were only doing what they were trained to do, so criticism is directed to the State and the power within bureaucracy.
An interview with Weber where he talks about his early influences to be come a photographer
The last few weeks and months have not been the easiest for me. Back in the autumn my partner was diagnosed with cancer. Tests followed tests and appointments followed appointments. Eventually a date was set for an operation to remove a cancerous tumour. This took place a few days before Christmas but as her recovery was good, at least she was home for the festive period – not that it felt particularly festive for us. However, after weeks and weeks of angst a few days ago we learnt from the surgeon that she is now free from the cancer. Regular tests will be needed over the coming years, of course, but he was confident he’d removed all of the cancer in the operation.
There is no one model for how people react to the stress and anxiety that such circumstances bring with them. For me it meant a complete cessation of my OCA work. While there was no way I could face it, it didn’t mean a complete end to my photography. My partner and I are ‘outdoor types’ and though the cancer and subsequent abdominal surgery had lessened her strength and stamina, the need for fresh air and to experience the Suffolk countryside was still strong. So while out and about on our short winter rambles I took a camera. There was no reason to take photographs other than for its own sake but I did feel drawn to photograph bare winter trees and I think this is something I could develop more in the future. So, here they are a few shots taken during this difficult period in my life…
Cheap white sliced will do. Tear each slice into several pieces and find a place where the gulls hang out. Scatter the bread on to the ground, not all of it at once mind. A lose handful first will alert the gulls to what is happening. You’ll soon hear the distinctive cry of a Herring Gull or two announcing to the whole beach what you are up to. Within few moments you’ll be surrounded by gulls; the smaller ones, the Black-headed Gulls will be down first. The Herring Gulls being larger and less agile are more cautious, especially when someone stands close by with a camera!
Encouraged by my tutor to keep at this I’ve taken the ‘Stillness and Movement’ exercise in Part One a few steps further. The basic premise is to capture the movement of the gulls in flight. Simple as that but quite counter intuitive to the bird photography I have been absorbing all my life. And it’s actually quite liberating. Two broad themes I’m drawn to at the moment are those when the movement blurs the bird so much that it’s hard to tell what it actually is, the photography becoming quite abstract. The other type I like is the opposite where the wings are blurred but the head and body look are still.
The technical stuff; well, since the exercise in Part One I’ve gone hand-held but I’m not certain this is wholly correct. At some point I’ll revisit using the tripod. Shutter speeds are still slow – on brighter days this means the ISO is low and f stop can go as high as f22. Postproduction figures quite highly in the final images; with grain, B&W conversation for some and cropping being the most obvious. Earlier images had quite course grain effect added but I’m drifting to a subtler look. I do wonder what results I would get with a longer lens. At present my maximum is 120mm and my close proximity to the gulls is keeping away the larger species.
I once read a piece on street photography that said expect to take many hundreds of photos to get one good one. Gulls photography is just the same…
At the north end of Aldeburgh on the shingle beech is a small cluster of dark wooden sheds. From here what remains of a local fishing industry still plies it trade. Wondering around here I was certain I wasn’t going to fall into the photographic cliché of recording the noble, yet colourful, fishing boat stranded on the shingle above the high water line. I would have avoided that before signing up with the OCA and I wasn’t going to do it now (September 2016).
Without the people who work here it is perhaps hard to judge the state of the place but we often hear about an industry in crisis in the news media. Certainly, the debris scattered around the sheds does speak of decline; not of a once prosperous industry ebbing away but of one hanging on to the wreckage of itself and slowly disappearing before out eyes.
In our local fishmongers we heard that those in the industry all voted to leave the EU. The decline in their industry being attributed to the regulation and quotas imposed upon them. But what of the future and especially for these small inshore boats and the families who run them? Will ‘Brexit’ and a UK outside of the EU bring the security and economic stability they crave? Standing at the threshold of this momentous time in British history it is hard to say. Perhaps I am making a case for further documentary work to record the future around the wooden sheds at Aldeburgh.
Although my FiP work takes up a lot of my free time I still like to do my own thing. Recently I spent a few days with friends in Devon and Cornwall. Naturally I took my camera and came home and uploaded over 300 shots – now reduced considerably due to editing.
I used the opportunity to experiment, to explore some themes that have been buzzy around my head for a while now. Having ‘sat on’ the results of our trip for a few days I now present 10 images, which I feel reflect the spirit of my exploration and experimentation. Moreover rather than writing an explanatory and reflective text I’ve also experimented with my sketchbook and present a scan of these notes to accompany each photograph.