Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Photograph of the Day

Humphrey Lloyd Hime, a 19th century Canadian photographer catalogued sites and people, often native americans, he encountered in the western frontier in the 1850s. This is one of my favourite of his pictures, a view of the prairie beside the Red River, facing east, made in 1858.

Film at that time was not sensitive enough to picture clouds (and they were often painted in), and anyway it could have been a uniformly blue sky. But there isn't much here, other than the title, to give us a sense that it is a desolate landscape. In the notes accompanying the picture Hime tells us that the lack of visible grass is due to a swarm of grasshoppers that had recently swept through eating every last leaf. I first discovered this image in a very good university slide library collection. When I had a bit of extra time I used to like to dip into the collection almost at random - they catalogued it in part by generic subject matter rather than photographer - and I pulled this out of a bit of the collection devoted very generally to exploration. My first thought when I saw it, and before I knew when it was produced or its title, was that it was some sort of attempt at an abstract photograph. Imagine it were in colour, and the sky was a deep blue and the ground a rich if varied copper brown. It would almost be a proto-Rothko.

This image certainly whetted my appetite for more Hime, but although his work is interesting in that kind of amateur 19th century anthropologico-explorer kind of way, I lose interest pretty quickly in another picture of an alienated looking native american, or shanty looking construction. There was another like the one above, taken I believe at the same time and location - but this time looking west.

That stone in the foreground, to my mind, makes it less appealing than the one above. Its also a much poorer quality slide and scan of the slide, but it contributes to understanding Hime's purpose. That is, he took four images, all equally desolate and empty, facing each of the key directions on a compass.

Although it is only supposed to be one photograph of the day, and I have already introduced two, I can't help but post a third. All this semi-abstract desolation reminds me of one of the most striking and evocative of Roger Fenton's photographs:

Taken in 1860, and therefore among the last of the images he made (he gave up photography in 1863) it is an image of a target with what looks like a bullet hole just above and to the right of the centre point. For all of his many strengths Fenton was never able to use his camera to record the horror of war, though at his best he could evoke it (such as his images of the cannonball-littered road the Light Brigade charged to their doom) and for me this image does just that. But then, maybe he made it because he shot the rifle and was proud of having, finally, come near to a bull's-eye. Its a strange image whatever motivated its making.  

Monday, 25 November 2013

Autrochromes: When Colour Photography Began

As is reasonably well known, the first colour photographic process was invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1903 and first marketed in 1907. Wikipedia provides a reasonable account of how the process works, and so I won't bother with a full technical description, but the one technical detail worth noting is that the glass plate upon which the image is produced is coated with dyed grains of potato starch that create a chromatic filter. Since the grains of starch typically varied in size, the resulting photograph have a slightly pointillist and rather impressionist visual quality. These features made them ideal for those photographers working under the sway of the 'pictorialist' aesthetic that continued to predominate for a few further years.

But what got me thinking about autochromes was the general question of how photographers handled the introduction of colour to their medium. If you work in a period of very rich grayscale or black and white - think of those gorgeous platinum prints! - it takes quite a leap of imagination to incorporate colour into your photographic practice. Colour film had been around quite long time when it began to be quite commonly used by artists in the 1970s, following Ernst Haas and William Eggleston, but there was a huge quantity of filmic imagery in colour that could provide material for reflection upon how to use colour, or better, what colour photography could or couldn't do better than grayscale. But in 1908, this was a new and cumbersome technology, and it isn't obvious what it would be most effective for. Imagine, for example that a 3D camera is invented; that is a camera that lets you print a an object or scene in all of its spatial dimensions - using I suppose a 3D printer. (Probably such a camera exists, but I think its fair to say that it is rarely if ever used to make works of art.) OK, you have the camera, you are an artist, what do you do with it? The first autochromes suggest that very often the first ideas are not the best.

For example, this is Alvin Coburn's surprisingly dull Autumn Landscape:

This is the ever innovative photographer who only a couple of years before produced striking images such as this of St. Paul's:

But it is as if given a colour process he was just stumped and couldn't think what to do but photograph a tree with colourful leaves. Along the same lines is this from George Bernhard Shaw (ok, not the most noted photographer of the age):

Yawn. A bit better is J. Craig Annan's portrait of the children's book illustrator Jessie M. King:

Great hat . . . no, altogether a great outfit. An interesting picture, but it could hardly be said to have made much use of the new colour process. The one exception I can think of (though there may be others) is Baron de Meyer. Here are two still lives that clearly manifest an interest in what colour photography might be:

Sensuous, rich and very colour aware. It was sixty some years later that William Eggleston began the turn to an art of colour photography, and from that point the slow demise of black and white began. Still, compare Eggleston's groundbreaking The Red Ceiling (1973) with the first of the de Meyer still lives above:

It must be something about red. Isn't it captivating?

Friday, 22 November 2013

Photograph of the Day

This is Shepherdess by Stefan Moses.

It is one of a series of images Moses made in East Germany soon after German reunification. The images are very much in the tradition of August Sander, presenting 'types' of people - typically identified by the work they do - but Moses' images are more humane and less sociological than Sander's. They are often quite whimsical, as the composition of this image illustrates, and this lightly humorous eye is very effective at emphasising the humanity of people who had been both locked behind the iron curtain and as a result poorly imagined by those on 'our' side of that curtain. Another way that Moses emphasises the humanity of his subjects is through the very effective use of a backdrop, something that again distinguished his approach from that of Sander.

His work deserves to be much better known than it is in the English speaking world.