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.

 

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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.

 

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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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Non OCA work: Gregory Crewdson ‘Cathedral of the Pines’ at the Photographers’ Gallery

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.

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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 .

References

https://petapixel.com/2016/05/18/interview-gregory-crewdson/

 

 

OCA Study Visit: Feminist Art of the 1970s

Although quite young in the 1970s I do have some vague memories of the women’s liberation struggle and these will have been informed by TV and radio reporting at the time. I recall this struggle as been quite visceral but more loud and ‘in your face’ than violent. Coming from a reasonably informed left-wing working class background the young me was somewhat puzzled by it. I couldn’t understand why working class people who themselves were engaging in a form of political struggle with structures of power where so anti towards women in their similar struggle. However, I was quite young and while puzzled by this I didn’t dwell on it; I was in my early teens and had young teen thing to do. It is strange though how these memories and feelings were reawakened by the gallery visit and the pre-reading I had in the days beforehand.

The study visit was hosted by the tutor Dawn Woolley and around 10 OCA students attended. We started in the Photographer’s Gallery and afterwards headed to Tate Modern.

As this was my first study visit I wasn’t sure of the format. It was actually quite simple; we would look around one floor of the exhibition and then Dawn would invite us to comment or raise a question on any of the works that had caught our attention. This seemed to work very well and made for interesting discussions between us all, with Dawn posing further questions or adding further information. There was no pressure to speak and the whole event felt relaxed and informal. At the end I left feeling I had a good day feeling artistically and intellectually stimulated and pleased to have met other OCA students. I hope there will be other study visits I can get to in the future.

The exhibition presented works in varying degrees of ‘accessibility’. Some were obvious challenges to the expected roles of women in the male dominated hegemony of the 70’s while others, particularly those presented as performance art, or documenting it, left me not really sure what the artist was attempting to achieve, if in fact they were trying to achieve anything. I cannot comment on every piece at the exhibition so I shall limit my approach to the works that caught my eye the most.

A series by Ana Mendieta referred to as ‘glass on body imprints’ (1972) caught my attention. She was not the only artist in the exhibition to adopt this approach in her work. She distorts her face by pressing it against of piece of glass. I am aware of the role of attractive women in the history of art and it was clear what Mendieta and others were subverting this traditional representation of woman.

 

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Ana Mendieta: Glass on Body Imprints

 

The series reminded me of some of the works by Francis Bacon that I had seem at an exhibition at the Sainbury’s Centre at the University of East Anglia last year. I can fully understand and even politically support the subversion intent within work, and while they are compelling pieces I don’t think I would want them on my sitting room wall.

That last comment has made me curious about these challenging works. While I can get behind the ‘message’ I too would seek to place beauty on the walls of my home – in fact I have large photography of an Albatross on one of them – and would not feel comfortable with the raw and visceral. Of course I guess that is exactly what the artist was attempting to convey. However, I am still curious of to why Mendieta and the others chose to press their faces against a small piece of glass. Within the images it is clear that the glass is being held against the face. If the she had chosen to do the same against a much larger piece extending beyond the limits of the frame there would be a stronger sense of artifice, leaving the viewer uncertain as to whether or not this is how she looks. Of course holding the glass to the face does imply a sense of self-mutilation, of rendering herself as ugly which also subverts the stereotyped view of how a woman should present herself to the world.

A series by Martha Wilson called ‘A Portfolio of Models’ (1974) left me curious as to whether the sexual politics of the time had evolved and moved on. Wilson presents us with several stereotyped roles for womanhood: Goddess, Housewife, Working Girl, the Professional, Earth Mother and Lesbian. It was the last one, the Lesbian and that it didn’t seem to sit with the others that led me to think that gender based politics may have changed over time. All of the others are roles to which woman might be attributed but lesbian is state of sexual orientation. Looking at the other roles I question why can’t they be lesbians too? I acknowledge that homophobia is still around in the UK but we live in more enlightened times compared to the 70’s and I wonder how Wilson would present this work if she was to (re)create it today.

 

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Martha Wilson: ‘Lesbian’ from A Portfolio of Models

 

In our group discussions Dawn made a very relevant point regarding the exhibition. What was missing was any reference to women in the work place. We didn’t know it if this was a curator’s decision or whether the source collection from which the exhibition is drawn doesn’t include any works covering this aspect of women’s lives. On reflection I do wonder whether the exhibition had a somewhat bourgeois slant to it with this important exclusion. However, this gap was filled by an exhibition in the Switch House wing of Tate Modern. Three artists collaborated in this work: Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kelly. This exhibition was interesting in that the artists used social science research methods to create their work. The study took place in a factory in south London in the mid 1970s. As exhibited the works included photographs to women and men in the work place and the task they did. But it also used text and official documents – for example ‘clocking on & off cards’. Overall the exhibition highlighted the discrimination women faced in terms of their lower pay and access to the higher skilled jobs and supervisory roles that attracted better pay levels. As an artistic approach this differ greatly from the works in the photographers gallery and probably because of my own background it had an immediacy with which I could connect. Although I view it through male eyes this work seemed more personal and even more relevant (more important?) because of it’s connection to lives of working women than some of the works in the Photographer’s Gallery. That said it is not my intention to form some hierarchy of feminist art, preferring to accept each on its own artistic terms.

References 

The Photographers’ Gallery

http://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/feminist-avant-garde-of-the-1970s-works-from-the-verbund-collection-7-october-2016-8-january-20

Francis Bacon Exhibition

http://scva.ac.uk/art-and-artists/exhibitions/francis-bacon-and-the-masters

Tate Modern: Women and Work

http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/display/performer-and-participant/women-and-work

Research Point: Gabriele Basilico

This week I have looked at the work of the late Gabriele Basilico as a preparation for ‘Exercise 1.9 Soft Light Landscape’. I wasn’t familiar with his work before this. I was so impressed with his depictions of buildings. Photographed in early morning light he captures a great tonal range. No doubt also aided by the use of medium and large format film cameras.

As a record of the built environment the near absence of people is intriguing. Perhaps the presence of people would be a distraction and hence the viewer can assimilate the image without the very human reaction of wondering about who the people are and what they doing.

The war-zone images shows us buildings as survivors, or otherwise, of conflict. In this sense they seemed ‘too obvious’. I’m sure most of us we would be curious about these. So for me it was his other architectural images, those of factories and docklands that drew me in more.

Recently, I been taking some images of redundant old buildings and others that have undergone changes in use. And now feel inspired by Basilico’s work to raise my standards of image making – as best I can with the equipment I’ve got.

Picture Analysis: Red Bridge, Okawa

Take a close look at the photograph above. What do you see? Write a visual description using short phrases and keywords. Describe the objects you see, their shapes, colour and tones, the direction of lines. There’s a picture to analyse in each part of this course. Always start your analysis by describing what you see. 


(Before I approached this task I avoided researching this image on the internet or in reference books. So, what follows is my interpretation and one not influenced by the writings of others…)

I see a bridge, a large red bridge, possibly a suspension bridge. The view point is to the right of the bridge producing an image three-quarters to the viewer. The image is in landscape format however, it is not far from being square.

The most striking thing about it is the shape and the colour. It is basically triangulate in shape and red. Steep square columns rise up dominating the image. Several of these columns make up the bridge and the basic triangle shape. They are a red oxide colour and lit from the left causing a few highlights on some of the columns.

The walkway/road sits at the base of the triangle. This has what looks like a pale creamy timber fence on either side. This starts in the bottom left of the image and raises a little, disappearing into the red columns and terminating about two-thirds across from the left.

Beyond the bridge the background is a dark green, making the sun lit bridge stand out. On closer inspection it appears to be a wooded hillside covered in pine tress with some bare trees in the lower section. This is difficult to make out as the background appears very flat. At the far end of the bridge on the right hand side the light has cause a narrow triangular shadow to form against the trees.

 

What took your attention first? And where did your eyes move to after that?

The red triangulate shape of the bridge

 

A picture can have many subjects, but what’s the main subject? Apart from the objects depicted, does the photo have a metaphorical subject?

The bridge would appear to be the main subject. However, as an image of a bridge things don’t quite add up. We don’t see what the bridge crosses nor do we see where the bridge meets the other side. It is an though this could be a model bridge who’s far side runs into a flat two dimensional background print of a pine forest. The shadow cast by the bridge also seems unnatural perhaps confirming the flat background.

A metaphor? Possibly. Bridges take us from one place to another different place. “I’ll cross that bridge when I come it” expresses an anticipated or perhaps postposed decision or action. So a bridge can be a metaphor for a kind of transition or translocation. However, this image might imply even more because it seems this bridge doesn’t actually go anywhere. In this case perhaps the metaphor is about a lie or a misrepresentation, something that will or disappoint or let us down.

 

Describe the quality of the light and shadow. Note the atmosphere or mood of the picture.

The mood is interesting. The sun lit bridge implies something positive. Red is an exciting colour, hopeful perhaps, while the background is dark, barely discernible – not quite what it seems.

(Light and shadow already covered, see  above)

 

What does the title tell you?

The title tells us it is a red bridge and implies the location of the bridge is Okawa. Researching the image before writing this may have given a greater insight into it. However, at present the title implies a real legitimate bridge in a real location.

 

Name every object, that is every ‘thing’ that’s in the picture.

The red structure of the bridge

The road or walkway of the bridge

The fence either side of this

The background – the trees – this appears as one uniform thing

 

Is what you’re seeing and what you’re describing the same thing? Or is there something you think you ‘know’ intuitively? Make a distinction between what you can see and what you’re guessing, feeling or intuiting.

I am seeing the structure of a bridge but there is nothing else to give it a sense of scale. This could be a ‘real’ bridge but equally it could be a scale model. In fact the shadow cast by the bridge hints that there is a scale issue here.

‘Intuitively’ I suggest the image is not what it seems as the bridge doesn’t go anywhere.

 

What is your felt or personal response to the photograph? This is your experience of it.

A little disappointed, like a magician has fooled me! It reminds me of one of those images that depict one thing while at the same time depicting something else (eg, that old visual trick of young woman and an old woman all in one portrait), as though its intention is to deceive or trick the viewer. Although low on any scale or measure, it doesn’t feel particularly ethical to me.

Project 2: Light & Shadow

In preparation for next photographic project I have to study the work of Trent Parke. Here are some notes I made on how he uses light and shadow in his image making…

Parke certainly makes some very bold images. Generally monochrome his emphasis on contrast is quite forthright. Falling into the genre of street photography but quite unlike conventional photos of this type he sometimes produces images that are quite abstract, making use of reflections in glass and water and using slower shutter speeds to blur movement. Some left me pondering what is actually was he had photographed and then it was a short step to wonder how he had done it.

Technique wise, light is a major driver in Parke’s images. Living and working in Australia he uses the harsh bright sunlight there to his advantage. With scenes that are strongly lit to start with, he then overrides or ignores the meter reading. For example, in the image below, Parke may have taken his light reading from the lower section of the wall to the left of the woman. All the other darker areas of the image, e.g. the shadows, the abstract form on the left and the woman’s coat have been rendered under exposed and thus very dark.

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In this other example (below) a light reading had been taken from within the poorly lit areas of the image thus, rendering the figure of an old man completely bleached out in a column of direct sunlight.

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In addition to natural light he sometimes uses a flash while he also uses reflections in glass and water to further enhance his compositions. Whether Parke manipulates, his images I have not yet established. He could emphasise contrast further in Photoshop or even use coloured or polarising filters on his camera to exaggerate contrasts.