Thursday, 21 August 2014

Three versions of a Bill Brandt photograph

The other day I was searching around for some information about a particular Bill Brandt image and stumbled upon a different one that certainly grabbed my attention. The photograph, entitled Crystal Palace, 1938 is reproduced in a New York Review blog post by Eve Bowen, and this is it:

Here is what Eve says about the image:
Among the most exquisite photographs from the exhibition was Crystal Palace (1938)—an early nude, but not one of flesh and blood. In this image, Brandt’s subject is a naked statue in a London park. Her curvaceous stone body is coated with white frost and resembles voluptuous flesh. The frost accentuates the folds of the fabric that she holds at her groin, and also highlights the ringlets of her hair, her nose, lips, nipples, fingers, and toes. The pedestal she stands on isn’t visible in the frame, and so her feet appear almost to be resting on the ground as the wind blows through the branches of the trees behind her. The magic of Brandt’s photograph is to make this inanimate sculpture look startlingly lifelike and vulnerable, and it gave this viewer goosebumps.
While I share the sense that this is a very striking and appealing image, I disagree that the effect of the composition and the frost combine to make the statue look 'startlingly lifelike and vulnerable'. I don't get goosebumps looking the image, though I do find it engrossing and very pleasing. But putting my finger on why it is so appealing was not quite so straightforward, and in the course of thinking about it I discovered there are multiple versions of this image, and they don't all have the same effect.

Lets start with the subject matter of the photograph. Its one of the victorian statues that probably adorned the Italian Terrace in the Crystal Palace park in south London. I don't know who the sculptor was or indeed which classical figure is represented. Finding out would require a bit more research than I am willing to do at the moment, and since my interest is primarily in what the photograph achieves, it isn't the most pressing matter.

But while on the subject of the statue, it is worth trying to look at it independently of the photograph (so to speak). Here are a few observations. While all of its features are in a recognisable style, it is an odd representation of a women. Those bizarre gravity defying breasts that look like hemispheres that have  glued onto the chest. Their appearance conflicts with the more naturalistic rendering of the rest of the body. One might also ask why this women is wearing a hat made of a large, hollowed out raspberry. More importantly, look at the very well-crafted but distinctly masculine arms. Then look again at the torso through the lens of masculinity. There really is something of the poorly disguised man about this women.

This masculine rendering, it seems to me, is very important. For the frost softens and feminises the appearance of the skin, creating such a striking contrast with the masculine form. But there is something else as well. Because the frost is particularly prevalent in the drapery, it has the effect of making this seems a distinct material from the rest of the sculpture.

But there are other versions of this photograph available through the Bill Brandt archive, and it is worth comparing them. (The version above is credited by the NYR to the Edwynn Houk Gallery.) Here is one of the other two versions:

The differences are quite striking. First, this version crops material from both sides and the bottom that is visible in the version I began with. Next, the contrast between light and dark in this latter version is far more pronounced. The symphony of greys in the former version is replaced by a more reduced array of black and white.  The light is harder in this latter version, and together with the enlargement of the statue (relative to the whole) resulting from the cropping, the  frost on the body looks more a disease-like fault than an animating quality. The extraordinary appearance of the drapery in the former is replaced by an appearance nowhere near as striking and otherworldly. I have no doubt which of these is the better of the two.

But there is a third version:

The square frame suggests this is an un-cropped printing of the negative, and thus that the first of the versions above is also a cropped portion of this image. (I suppose its possible that there is more than one negative, but if so that fact bears little upon the comparison I am undertaking. For then we would be comparing distinct photographs rather than versions of a particular photograph.)

This last version, it seems to me, is the weakest of the lot. It shares with version two the less impressive tonal quality found in version one, and the visual effect of the frost is diminished. Despite its strangeness the sculpture has a quite majestic presence in version one, but in this last version the reduction in scale is also a reduction in effect. The flora backdrop has too large a part to play in this version, a part well beyond its significance. Look how, in the first version, the scale of the stature relative to the trees makes it appear a goddess-like giantess is looming over us, something that significantly contributes to the powerful effect. In this version, the goddess is reduced to a mere statuette.

So I think it self-evident that the first version is the best. The one that demonstrates Brandt's genius. This looming and strange figure, apparently possessing a mysterious patina we know to be frost but cannot help imagine being something else, with its masculine and feminine features, is looking us in the eye and appears to be gesturing to us with one hand. Its an intimate and slightly intimidating encounter we have, but the soft greys draw us to this curious goddess.

It is so often the case that a great photograph is the result of a photographers ability to maximise the effect of their image through cropping and mastery of contrast and the greyscale palate. Nobody has been better than Bill Brandt at composition and the power of contrast. These three versions of photograph are a good a place to start in making the case for Brandt's genius through mastery of his medium.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Garry Winogrand's levitating cowboy

While I admire Garry Winogrand's street photography, and understand its importance in the traditions of American photography, I am rarely bowled over by his images. To very loosely adapt  some terminology of Roland Barthes, they strike me as all stadium and no punctum.

But then there are apparently over a million images in the Winogrand oeuvre and I have never actually seen an exhibition of his work. So I freely confess my judgment might be flawed. However, one of his images that is remarkable and captivating is this:

Entitled Dallas, 1964 it has something of the uncanny to it. The thin, lankly cowboy seems not only rubbery, like a toy character, he also seems to be just about floating above the surface of the street. There is something other-worldly, or at least 'wrong' about the image.

The effect is produced, in part, by the position of the camera above the cowboy, and of course the speed of the film that freezes his motion as he steps onto the very slightly raised curb. It strikes me however that the thin and lanky body is just as important to the effect.

We could ask what it means, and I suppose that if we did we would struggle to find an answer. First, because there is no reason to suppose that the right answer will be found in this one image in isolation. We might need to see it in the wider context of his work. Moreover, the meaning may not go beyond showing us his subject matter - human beings in public spaces in America - and inviting us to both appreciate what was there to be seen. (This approach would place his animal photographs is stark contrast to the rest of his work, as these really do present a vision of noble and grand creatures laid low by their near-brutal captivity).

One final point about the image: most other photographers would have been tempted to crop the image differently. Maybe he didn't crop it - I don't know - but the width to height ratio suggests cropping even as the composition suggests it wasn't cropped. Look at the fragment of the women on the lefty edge of image. It suggests a rough and ready composition, as if the camera was just whipped out to capture a subsequently unaltered slice of reality. Maybe, but whatever is the case, I find the composition puzzling.

In fact, the whole picture is a puzzle. An apparently unreal slice of reality. If only we could see the strings connected to the puppet cowboy's limbs, it would all make sense.  Somehow it evades sense, and that is at the heart of its effect and appeal. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Roger Fenton and the two slightly scary princesses

I stumbled upon this photograph recently and haven't been able to shake its powerful effect. Maybe its just me, but this doesn't seem like an ordinary portrait.

First, some basic details. On the left is Princess Helena (1846-1923), the fifth child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. On the right is her younger sister, Princess Louise (1848-1939), the sixth child of the same royal parents. The photographer is Roger Fenton, one of the most distinguished photographers of the middle 19th century, about which much could be said. All these details, and the origins of the photograph itself I will leave to those who are interested to discover. My interest is the effect the picture has, at least upon me, unencumbered with more detail about the sitter or the photographer than I have already given. (One final detail, however, the slanted top edge of the image appears to be in the original and is not merely an effect of poor scanning.)

There is something of victorian gothic horror about this image. Although the sisters were not twins, they do look very similar and are obviously dressed, as twins too often are, in identical outfits. And so the first point of comparison for me is Diane Arbus' famous and unsettling portrait of twin girls encountered on the street:
Arbus' image famously inspired the appearance of twin girls in the hotel corridor in Stanley Kubrick's  masterful horror film The Shining. But what is it that is so unsettling, even a touch terrifying about the image? This is a question that deserves an answer that would take us too far from the Fenton picture which is the subject of this post. But crucial to any answer would be the strikingly emphasised co-presence of powerful sameness and subtle difference that invites us to see the girls as identical and yet in some way opposite as well. The small differences to be seen between the girl's eyes and the mouths, in particular, when set against all that is so similar, gives them an uncanny appearance. 

Back to Fenton's portrait of the young princesses. In the picture they are very similar in appearance, though again there are differences as well - perhaps not as marked as those to be found in the Arbus picture. Like with the Arbus image I found myself being drawn to the faces of the two princesses. I find it hard to characterise the expression of Helena - the one on the left with the face in sharper focus  - but the downturned lips and shadowed eyes give her a menacing look that contrasts with her overall appearance of youthful innocence. Maybe she felt frustrated and bored that this photographer was taking up he time, but whatever the cause I find her expression quite unsettling. 

This is heightened, I suspect, by the contrast with the appearance and expression of Louise. Her face is not is not sharply focused but it still shows a downward turn of the lips and distant eyes. If I had to give a name to the expression it would be 'disapproving', but to a degree in which disapproval teeters on the edge of menace. What is certainly true is that neither girl displays the happiness and lightness of being that one so often encounters in children of their age at play. Of course, they are not at play. But what are they doing? Having their picture taken can only be part of the answer for reasons I will come to shortly. 

But first, looking at their faces raises for me the question of who, other than Fenton, they were seeing when this picture was taken. Children find it harder than adults to hide their feelings about people and the circumstances they are placed in, and these two children are not only unhappy, they seem to me to be disliking something so much that their dislike and menace is powerfully projected. And this so powerfully contrasts with their gay (in the Victorian sense of the word) clothing. 

Aspects of the composition heighten the sense of menace. The overturned stool - or is it some kind of garden table - does some of the work here. What an odd piece of furniture this is. The legs are made of unfinished sticks. but the seat or tabletop looks more manufactured, perhaps even metal. And why is it overturned? Against a backdrop of such elegant dress, this odd and toppled furniture looks powerfully out of place. What on earth is it doing in a portrait? 

Then what are we to make of the unidentifiable jumble of things just below the line of Lousie's skirt? Some sort of piece of cloth? A bit of stone that looks in its obscured appearance a bit like a ploughshare. Is it a leg of a bench that Louise is sitting upon? In fact, what is the position of these girl's bodies? They don't look like they are standing, but they are not obviously sitting either. Well, maybe Louise is, but both of them appear to be strangely unbalanced and yet also comfortable. Finally, what is Louise resting her hand against? A lengthy mound of earth? Where are they? What were they doing before the picture was taken. These compositional mysteries work together with the faces, the clothes and the general air of the picture to create a wonderfully gothic mystery of an image. 

If I had to give this photograph a title, I would call it Unhappy Ghosts

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

A footnote on Prokudin-Gorskii's colour photographs of early 20th century Russia

Yesterday I posted a short piece on Sergey Prokudin-Gorskii's photographs of Russia in the first decade of the 20th century using the three colour process. This morning I remembered a curious relationship between two of these photographs. First, this one:

and then this one:

The women on the right in the second photograph looks very much like the women in the first photograph, but wearing different clothes. Moreover, if you look closely at the tree and branches in the the background of the two pictures, it is very clear that they were both taken in the same location.

I feel there is a story behind the making of these two pictures, and I am so curious to know what it is.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Colour photographs of Russia in the first decade of the 20th century

Sometime ago I posted a comment pondering the question of why the early uses of colour photography were so often uninteresting - in the sense that the photographers didn't really seem to know what to do with the colour process. A couple of weeks ago a friend pointed me to a website with a large number of colour images (mostly) made in the first decade of the 20th century by the Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky. I have lost the link to the website, but the web being what it is there are plenty of others. This one has a reasonable number of images and is easy to navigate through.

Quite a lots of the Prokudin-Gorsky images have a kind of postcard quality to them. This is unsurprising I suppose since he saw his task as one of documenting Russia - particularly provincial Russia - while at the same time refining his three-colour photographic technique. It is worth outlining this technique in order to get a sense of how hard it is and how accomplished Prokudin-Gorsky was at it.

Our old friend Wikipedia summarises the technique accurately and reasonably concisely:

The photographer takes three sequential photographs in black and white with the use of three color filters: cyan, magenta and yellow. The union of the three photographic negatives, developed in the chromatic scales corresponding to the color filter used, gives rise to surprisingly saturated color photographs and realistic. The main difficulty of this technique is the necessary immobility of the subject being filmed, so the movement of the person portrayed can create colored halos unreal. The birth of modern color photography - that has made this technique obsolete - is dated from 1935 when the Kodak and Agfa invent emusioni Kodachrome and Agfacolor Neue. These films, just like the ones currently in production, contain within them the three emulsion layers sensitive to different light spectra
So three identical photographic plates had to be made each, with a different coloured filter, and then each has to be developed independently in appropriate chemicals for the filter used. The three negatives were then placed together and a single print made. As an historical side note, it was the renowned scientist James Clerk Maxwell who first suggested the technique in 1855, and the earliest examples of colour photographs made in this way date from 1961. However it was only in the early 20th century that the materials required were stable enough for practical use.

Given that Prokudin-Gorsky was so interested in the three-colour process, it is unsurprising that at least some of his photographs display an awareness of what colour might add to photographic image making. Consider, for example:

The blocks of bright colour from the brightly coloured fabrics are perfectly foregrounded against the neutral-toned bleached wood - and offset all the more by being placed against the horizontal lines of the wood (though notice the way the middle girl is framed in the middle of the door). As is often the case with early photographic techniques that requires the subject matter to be very still for a long time, the faces and postures are enigmatic. Lifelike, but un-animated.

So many of Prokudin-Gorsky's images make use of the colourful fabrics within the dress (one gets the sense it is not the everyday dress) of the provincial Russians. Here are two more examples:

  My sense is that Prokudin-Gorsky did manage to make interesting use of colour within his photography by making the colours that adorn or fill the lives of the population he was documenting part of his subject matter. Part of what he is documenting is an account of the place of colour in the lives of the provincial Russian, and that adds something quite compelling to his images. Likewise, his landscape images seem to me at least to be explorations of a coloured environment, rather than merely explorations of an environment that happens to appear in colour. How about this for example:

Here are a couple more of people in more or less colourful clothing against more of less colourful or neutral backdrops.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Lee Friedlander's portrait of Joe James, New Orleans Jazz Pianist

The New York Review blog has just posted a very interesting article by Nathaniel Rich about  photographs of New Orleans jazz pioneers and 'royalty' made in the late 1950s by Lee Friedlander. While I confess to a certain fondness for some varieties of jazz, the classical New Orleans variety has never been among those I have spent time with, or wanted to for that matter. Still, I found this article very interesting because it movingly describes the collapse of popular interest in said variety of jazz at the time Friedlander was making portraits of the then elderly originators of the style - the style which of course is the origin of jazz itself. This collapse of interest coincides with what is probably the high point of popularity for jazz as a musical genre, though what was popular then had evolved into something very different to its New Orleans 'trad' origins.  

The article describes how the Friedlander photographs were taken during a period when outsiders to the New Orleans jazz scene were attempting to revive the style, rekindle interest in the still living titans of the form who - and isn't this a familiar story - were impoverished and unrecognised outside of their small circle. 

As Rich points out "The attitude of the professional revivalists tended to be equal parts celebratory and anthropological . . . [but]"
Friedlander’s portraits do not feel celebratory . . .  Friedlander found authenticity in the toll taken on his subjects by decades of privation and indifference. In his portraits the musicians—most of whom didn’t have the chops to follow Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong north to Chicago forty years earlier—stare wistfully into the distance, or at the wall, as if indulging in some bittersweet private nostalgia . . . There is dignity in these portraits, to be certain, and pride, but there is also despair.
The Friedlander images reproduced in the article confirm this reading, but one of the images in particular caught my eye. It is of Joe James, the famed pianist in the Kid Thomas Valentine Band, plus an unknown guitarist:

Yes, there is the melancholy than Rich writes of, but this more than any of the other images reproduced has the kind of complex but fascinating composition characteristic of Friedlander. The contrast with the cut-out couple in the beer advertisement, the pile of hats, and the conglomeration of lines traveling in every direction. It is unutterably sad, and wholly captivating. Compare it to this second image, obviously taken at the same time (at the Fireman's Hall in Westwego, for anyone interested):

It expresses the dignity and despair that Rich speaks of (this images is not one that he reproduces), but not with the power of the former. It is interesting, but not anywhere near as captivating.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Early 20th century pictorialist photographs of London

I recently had a conversation with some colleagues about the two-way traffic of influence in the arts between Europe and America throughout the 20th century. Think of American writers and artists coming to Europe and representing - or, perhaps better, imagining - Europe within their work, and likewise UK writers and artists doing the same with America. There are so many examples I am not going to even begin to list them, but there is one in particular that interests me.

I have a longstanding fondness and interest in the deeply unfashionable pictorialist movement in photography that began in the 1880s and came to an end soon after the first decade of the 20th century. Arguably (I don't intend to argue it here) pictorialism was finished once Paul Strand began to eschew its technical conceits, though obviously it limped on in the work of some photographers for a few years after. Anyway, pictorialism is one very powerful example of transatlantic artistic exchange, and a very great deal indeed could be said about this.

Now, when I was having this conversation I kept thinking of an Alvin Coburn photograph of London that I have always found very intriguing:

Taken in 1905, this is very different to the typical photograph of London that one find at this time. Here London is a dynamic, cluttered, gritty place of activity. As one of the largest commercial centres, as well as the locus of a global empire, this is perhaps as one would expect the city to be represented. But British and European pictorialist photographers (and they are not documentarians) so often represented it as a calm and elegant urban landscape, untroubled and relaxed - like this:

This is an image of London by the Belgian pictorialist, Leonard Misonne, made in 1899. Where are the people? This image is belied by the descriptions of London of the time, a place of teaming streets and frenzied activity. Some of the same calm can be found in this image by the British photographer, Malcolm Arbuthnot made in 1908:
Slightly more gritty than Misonne's view of the city, but still a largely static and unpopulated place. Contrast these city-scapes with the following of New York, by Alfred Stieglitz, made at the end of the 19th century:

Even if there are not that many visible people, this image shows the city as a site of life and activity. Of course, not all of Stieglitz's cityscapes are like this. He was as prone to rendering New York a ghost town of appealing shapes and shadows (think of View from the Shelton), but at his best he envisaged in his photographs the city as a place of life and activity. Its this sensibility that I see Coburn bringing to his photographs of London in the first decade of the 20th century.

Steam helps convey this sense of life and activity. Look at the steam in the Coburn, and then contrast it with the steam coming from the horses. Does this sound far-fetched? Consider what the steam from the train does within this image - again by Stieglitz:

Those billowing clouds of steam give the scene an energy and movement that would be lacking if the steam were not there because the train was sitting stationary and with an unfired boiler. But steam isn't necessary if the camera catches people at work within a scene representing change, as in this image of London by Coburn from 1909

Now to return to the point with which I began, it seems to me Coburn's photographs of London brought what was then a very American visual sensibility to the European cityscape. I simply cannot find examples of European pictorialists who represent the city as a place of life and activity, or as a place containing the dynamism and energy that makes a city more than a large conglomeration.