Unseen Amsterdam and Nederlands Fotomuseum

I attended Unseen Amsterdam last Friday and the visited the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam on Saturday.

From the Unseen Amsterdam programme:

“Welcome to the seventh edition of  Unseen Amsterdam, the leading annual event for contemporary photography showcasing artist, both emerging and established, who are pushing the boundaries of the medium.”

Perhaps I am a philistine, but I must admit to finding much of what I saw on exhibit unintelligible and frankly trope ridden.  If this was meant to be artists pushing the boundaries of the medium there were certainly many pushing in the same directions.  There were a number of different photographers that obscured the faces of their subjects with masks, others that photographed the backs of people’s heads, several who put things over the heads of their subjects, super unnaturally coloured photos, and the last trope, drawing random lines over the photo for no apparent reason.  While the quality of the work was of a very high standard and some of it visually pleasing, a great deal of it struck me as people trying to be different by resorting to gimmicks.  I found that work to be unappealing to my eye and tiresome after seeing the same tropes over and over.

If I were to make a generalised statement of my impression of Unseen it would be that it was a good art show, but not so good a photography exhibit.  Yes there were photographic elements in all the work, but there seemed to be such a focus on the artistic that the fundamental beauty and nature of photography is lost.  Bill Jay in Occam’s Razor wrote “I am sure you will agree the contemporary photographer is easily seduced, even obsessed, by the love of Art, which emphasizes personal glorification at the expense of artisan functionalism.  The logical conclusion is a hierarchical structure even within the photographic community – fine artist at the apex of the pyramid, artisans at the base.  In such an atmosphere festers neurotic insecurity and false pride, as well as an alienation from the medium’s intrinsic characteristics that have made it the most relevant social art of our age.  I view with concern the empty genuflections associated with Art’s blessing.”

What I did find useful and interesting at Unseen were the different ways photos were mounted and or framed and displayed in the exhibit, and even more interesting and useful the book section of Unseen.  I spent a good bit of time wandering around the book section looking at the different ways artists had their work published  and collecting cards from various publishers and graphic designers.  Although here also I found some trends repeating, such as the accordion book which I thought in some cases was very appropriate to the subject and in some others not so much.  Nevertheless, I was able to see a much broader range of photobooks than anywhere I have ever been and certainly more than I have access to in the remote village of Dornoch in the north of Scotland.

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In contrast, my visit to Nederlands Fotomuseum was brilliant.  A special exhibition of the work of Cas Oorthuys was on exhibit.

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Photo courtesy of Fons Delrue

One of the most renowned 20th century Dutch photographers, Oorthuys’ work was very much influenced by the avant-garde and Bauhaus movements with high and low perspectives and compositions along diagonal lines.

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His wartime work, much of which had to be made covertly with 35mm cameras provided important documentation of the German occupation and the last year of the WWII.

His post war work earned him a reputation as a “reconstructionist photographer” as he documented the rebuilding of Rotterdam and Dutch industry.

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He was the lead photographer in the creation and publication of travel books for over 40 countries and took commissions to capture images of all the different traditional regional dress of Holland in the time before modern influence caused much of it to disappear.

Among his last works was the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam exhibition “mensen people” in 1969 which was a collection of 120 photographs depicting people in all their behaviours and emotions but emphasised laughter and its liberating quality.

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I was struck and inspired first by the the breadth of Oorthuys’ work and then by the quality in every genre in which he worked.  He was able to capture the soul of individuals in his portraiture, the souls of cities and nations in the cultural, architectural and industrial work.  I have in the past never allowed myself to be restricted to a particular genre and in seeing how splendidly versatile Oorthuys was, I have to ask myself why is it necessary to specialise or restrict oneself to a particular genre.

Again Bill Jay from Occam’s Razor; “The crucial question is this: What relationship does a personal life have on an individual’s photographs – and vice versa.” “The answer, …life and art should have everything to do with each other. In practice, as I view the medium of art photography, from my outsider position, art and life have very little connection.”  “A photograph is the end product of someone caring about something ‘out there’.  The best photographs exude this caring attitude in a manner which is not definable but which is very evident.” “If a photographer is communicating a personal passion for something, anything through pictures then the images are also revealing, incidentally, a great deal about the photographer as well as the subject.  His or her attitude to life is evident.”  Cas Oorthuys’ passion for his subjects was evident and his work was in no way diminished by his wide range of subject matter over time.  So it is possible to be versatile and diverse in one’s practise as long as there is true interest, passion and connection with the subjects.

References:

Jay, B. (n.d.). Occam’s Razor: An Outside-In View of Contemporary Photography (Third). Tucson, AZ: Nazraeli Press.

Note:  Apologies for the quality of some of the photos as they were taken quickly with a mobile phone under less than ideal conditions and primarily as a set of visual notes for me to remember key aspects of the exhibit.

Publications – Closing out Surfaces & Strategies and transitioning to Sustainable Prospects

While not directly related to my Coul Links project work, I had been working on project in support of a charity function that would result in a book that would be a very limited edition and which could be auctioned at the event as part of the fundraising activities.  The work involved photographing Dornoch Cathedral and all of the holes of Royal Dornoch Golf Club as well.  I then need to write the copy, edit and publish the commemorative book.  So while not directly project related, it did provide valuable experience in photographing golf course landscapes and using the drone to capture perspectives of the course and cultural structures that would not otherwise be possible.  It also provided another valuable opportunity to produce a publication.

I was able to use the process of a dummy book for the initial concept and editorial reviews which proved very useful to me and to the committee for which I was producing the book.  The next stage of review was accomplished with a PDF version of the book created directly from Lightroom.  The need for fresh eyes and plenty of them cannot be overemphasised. I used three separate individuals in series to review the PDF.  I made corrections after the first review so the second reviewer had a “clean” version to review and yet the second and third reviewers each found additional and unique things that needed to be corrected.  Did something slip through the cracks still?  Perhaps, but I will be surprised because my editors were so competent and thorough.  So great thanks go to Jerry Horak, John McMurray and Roger Boyce for their time and efforts.

It was a very short time frame to produce a quality publication and it was a challenge to get all the photos of  both venues with weather and limited time for best light.  I was able to make photos with a combination of  drone and traditional DSLR work.  Fortunately the golf course and Cathedral are frequent and favourite subjects so I did have work in my archives that could be used to augment what I took in that past few months.  Some technical challenges with the drone resulted in at least one day’s work having to to be largely scrapped because the photos were not sufficiently sharp despite having had extraordinary light quality during the shoot of the photos taken that day had to be scrapped.  This put additional pressure on as the deadline loomed.

I began the book design in the Adobe CC InDesign and completed the publication design in Blurb using their proprietary design software.  I did learn a great deal more about publication design than I did with my first book and was able to produce a far more sophisticated layout.  I was able to explore far more features in layout and design that I didn’t even know were there when I did 19 Sutherland Bridges.  In the end the book totalled 60 pages.  If I had another few weeks there might have been an opportunity to get additional photos that may have been even better than the ones I chose to use, but then that process too could be infinite.  At some point one always has to say, it is time to publish.

A PDF version of the book can be viewed via the following link.

Moderators Tourney Commemorative Book_Final

I must say I really enjoy to idea and the process of creating books and I look forward to doing it again soon.

Week 10 – Finalising Exhibitions

There was a bit of wrinkle in the plans for the local exhibition at Grace of Dornoch Deli and Cafe and we have had to delay the opening one week.  There was a misunderstanding on the original dates and there was a conflict with another artist to whom the owner had committed.

So no real bother.  All the work for the exhibit is mounted and ready to hang.  I will be allocated space in three principal areas as previously discussed and it will show along with the other artist’s work that will be installed in the prior week.  The owner’s were very keen on my work when I first approached them and even more so when I brought in the mounted work that would comprise the exhibit.  We are planning an opening reception on 27 August and the exhibit will run for at least a week, though the owners have expressed and interest in having some of my work on a longer term basis.

Social media announcements will go out shortly on the venue’s Facebook page as well as mine.  Word of mouth has also been generating some excitement and I believe the opening and exhibit will be well attended.

My selections and preparation for the Landings online exhibition were completed just in the nick of time as it went live a few days earlier than I had expected.  I found myself wrestling with different ways to order and organise the photos I selected.  Originally I had some of the macro work in the selection for both the Landings exhibition and my WIP portfolio, but last week’s webinar with Cemre and peers strongly suggested that those photos detracted from the rest of the work I selected and was not consistent enough in style to hang together with the rest of the work.  Though I spent a good bit of time this term on the macro work I understood the comments and took them to heart.  It is still solid work and can stand alone, but it didn’t mix well with the bigger landscape and wildlife work.

It is challenging to step back from one’s work and look at it with a dispassionate eye and think about how differently viewers will see the work, and how the selections are both meant to be read and likely to be read by viewers.  I found that the story I hope to tell is both early in its evolution and not fully formed in my own mind.  And at the same time it is a big and complicated story that is not necessarily easy to tell.  “A lot of us go about our work and feel like we have nothing to show at the end of the day. But whatever the nature of your work, there is an art to what you do, and there are people who would be interested in that art, if only you presented it to them in the right way.  In fact, sharing your process might actually be most valuable if the products of your work aren’t easily shared, if you’re still in the apprentice stage of your work, if you can’t just slap up a portfolio and call it a day, or if your process doesn’t necessarily lead to tangible finished products.” (Kleon, 2014)

I believe that not trying to determine the outcome before sufficient data are collected can be in part attributed to my training in science and perhaps personal proclivity, but that adds to the challenge of trying to make a narrative hang together at this point.  I hope I have chosen well enough to give some sense of scale, process and context to the beginning of the story and at least pique the interests of people enough to cause them to look forward as I do to seeing the remainder of the story unfold over time.

I am fortunate to have talented peers in this course and they have been very helpful in the process of choosing what and in what order to show my work.  Despite taking photographs for over 50 years I rarely showed my work and never before exhibited or published until beginning this course.  The feedback from peers and tutors has been invaluable in helping me to begin to understand how others see, often differently, than I do.  I have much to learn yet about editing, curating and presenting my work, but it is a path down which I have begun to journey and one I look forward to continuing.

I have a third opportunity coming up as I have been asked by the local chapter of the Scottish Women’s Institute to come speak and display my work on 18 September.  They are expecting me to speak for about 45 minutes so there will need to be some extensive curation to fill that amount of time.  That push will have to wait until after the assignments for this term are complete.

Kleon, A. (2014). Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered. New York: Workman Publishing Company.

 

Week 10 – Overall Reflections on the Surfaces and Strategies Module and Critical Analysis of My Progress in the MA

To my few devoted readers, I apologize in advance for the length of this post.  It is one I have been contemplating and working on for some time now, and it reflects the integration of much of my research to date and how that research has influenced my thinking about my practice.  It also is intended to provide context to my Work in Progress portfolio and the choices I have made and additional background and context for my Oral Presentation.

When I began the MA programme, I would have characterised (had I even been aware of her writings) in “Sontagian” terms as indexical  (Sontag, 1977), and that I was most concerned with depicting reality.  As I have progressed through the first two modules of the MA, I have come to realise my work is only my interpretation of reality within the limitations of the camera program’s ability to capture a moment is time and space, and my rendering of that image in post-processing.

In Ways of Seeing, (Berger, 1972) Berger writes, “Photographs are not…a mechanical record.  Every time we look at a photograph, we are aware, …of the photographer selecting that sight from an infinity of other possible sights.”  In Towards a Philosophy of Photography (Flusser, 2000), Flusser writes “The possibilities in the camera’s program are practically inexhaustible…The imagination of the camera is greater than that of every single photographer and that of all the photographers put together: This is precisely the challenge to the photographer…pursuit of the informative, improbable images that have not been seen before.”  This is indeed a daunting challenge particularly in light of the billions of photographs being taken every day around the world and the ubiquitous distribution systems enabled by the internet.

As a photographer, I and my practise are evolving, but I am not yet evolved and mature as a practitioner.  In Steal Like an Artist (Kleon, 2012) Austin Kleon posits “Nobody is born with a style or voice…We learn by copying.  We are talking about practice here, not plagiarism – plagiarism is trying to pass someone else’s work off as your own.  Copying is about reverse engineering…First, you have to figure out who to copy. Second you have to figure out what to copy.  Who to copy is easy.  You copy your heroes…What to copy is trickier.  Don’t just steal the style, steal the thinking behind the style. You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.” I have endeavoured to embrace this philosophy.

This term has afforded me opportunities to explore new photographic techniques, different approaches in post-processing, and new ways to display my works from books, zines, social media, and physical exhibitions in addition to enhancing my on-line galleries. I have also stretched myself by photographing subjects out of my comfort zone in some cases and in others subjects I had not photographed before within the genre I typically work.  I have also begun to appreciate that what happens to be in front of my lens sometimes contains elements that detract from the real intent behind the photograph.  Whereas in the past I might have left something in the photo because it was really there, I am now making efforts to crop more artfully or remove specific distractors from my photos in post-processing.  Sometimes, less is more.

The Ed Ruscha challenge proved to be inspiring, motivating and confidence building.  It required conceptual development, planning, execution, editing and curation and resulted in a published book, 19 Sutherland Bridges, of which I am proud, and which sits for sale in the Bookshop below the flat in which I live.  It was the first time in all my years of photography my work was contextualized in a way that resulted in a tangible, physical product; and it was thrilling.

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Creating and publishing 19 Sutherland Bridges had a significant impact on my thinking going forward causing me to be more purposeful about when, where and what I photograph, and to plan how I want to use what I capture.

I used this term also to learn and experiment with additional methods of capture and post-processing, and with added subjects sets than had been my norm. While using and investigating macro photography and how it could potentially complement and add additional dimension to my project, I encountered the work of John Hallmen and the technique of focus stacking. I was stunned by the detail and clarity he was able to achieve which far and away beyond anything that is possible with mere depth of field management and I felt compelled to learn more about his process.

 

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Photo: John Hallmen

It is quite exacting and difficult to achieve in situ if the environmental conditions are anything but quite still air and reasonably stationary subject because between 20 and 50 frames with minute focal plane changes are required.  I was able to manage a few good results from the field, but I had even better success bring the subjects into a more controlled environment.

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Given the subtleties of the natural changes in the short time in which I have been photographing Coul Links, I was looking for away to represent a sense of time in the place that could be contrasted with the anthropogenic changes that are anticipated.  In addition to the “standard” natural history repeat photography techniques I have been employing and having the foreknowledge of a significant event to come, I sought to also approach the project from a Before and After Photography (Bear and Albers, 2017) perspective.  I captured images along the planned routing of the golf course with and without a model dressed as and using equipment from 100 years ago.  I then desaturated the images to imply a sense of age to the photos.  Richard Barnes in his Civil War series took contemporaneous photos of Civil War re-enactments in monochrome and deformed the edges of the negatives to create a sense the photos were taken during the war and to achieve a Matthew Brady type aesthetic.  Barnes work, however, is often cheekily betrayed by the presence of anachronisms such as power pylons or observers of the re-enactments in clearly modern attire.

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Photos: Richard Barnes – Civil War

 

 

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In anticipation of the possibility that my Coul Links story might not be able to be told without the inclusion of the human elements of the story, I took opportunities to do some environmental portraits and documentary photography.  The inshore lifeboat crew on which I serve proved to be an excellent subject, because I am also responsible for managing most of the team’s social media presence, internet fund raising and for photographs provided to print publications for news reporting and promotion.  Photographing people, something with which I have always been a bit uncomfortable, and publishing to social media and newspapers has been a good, practise expanding experience and shown me how much reach and influence social media can have on the organisation.

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In these genres, I am actually inspired by two of my peers; Danny North and Mick Yates.  Danny’s portraiture has a soul penetrating quality and yet conveys a deep and abiding empathy for his subjects.  There is never a hint of exploitation, but rather a real sense of emotional connection and care for his subjects and their feelings.  I find much of Danny’s non-commissioned work very intimate and intensely personal.

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Photo: Danny North – Jenna

Mick Yates work also shows great respect for his subjects but conveys something more in a sense of time and place than soul penetrating.  There is often a slight distance and detachment that puts the person and place in perspective giving it more of a documentary and formal character than an emotional and very personal one.

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Photos:  Mick Yates – Cambodia

Lastly, I continued working to improve and refine my wildlife photography skills.  I went even bigger, working with focal lengths up to 840mm, which presents challenges with dynamic subjects, but the results when I got it right are extraordinary and I was able to record some very special images.  It gave me the reach necessary to get the kind of detail on subjects that were often quite far away, but to which I could not physically approach any closer.

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I encountered some technical challenges in my aerial repeat photography work which I have not fully resolved.  I have been very successful in using a mission management application that allows me to fly the exact route and take photographs of the Coul Links from identical perspectives each time I fly.  However, since it is a third-party application, it appears to not be as good at controlling the camera as the manufacturer’s proprietary application.  The resolution is adequate to detect change, but it is not at the standard I would like to show detail.  The proprietary application cannot do the multi-waypoint mission profile around the perimeter of the nearly 800-acre plot of land, so I am faced with something of a dilemma to resolve.  I am continuing to explore means of improving resolution in the third-party application.

 

Barnes, R. (n.d.). Civil War — Richard Barnes. Retrieved August 9, 2018, from http://www.richardbarnes.net/civil-war-1/

Kleon, A. (2012). Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You about Being Creative. Steal Like an Artist (Vol. 53). New York: Workman Publishing Company. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781107415324.004

Flusser, V. (1983). Towards a philosophy of photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0031-9406(10)62747-2

John Hallmén. (n.d.). Retrieved July 10, 2018, from http://www.johnhallmen.se/2016/12/8/emus-hirtus-1

Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. Penguin Books. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13398-014-0173-7.2

Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Bear, J., & Albers, K. P. (2017). Before-and-After Photography; Histories and Contexts (1st ed.). London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.

Webb, R., Boyer, D., & Turner, R. (2010). Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences. Washington, DC: Island Press.