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.