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