Monday, 30 March 2015

A remarkable un-photographic photograph of a whaling schooner, 1886 (after Whistler)

Here is an eye-catching photograph. Its an image made by a member of the crew of the US Revenue Cutter Bear, the only US government naval presence in the Bering Sea in the early years after Alaska was purchased from Russia. (The Bear had a extraordinary history, having been constructed in Dundee in 1874, seeing action in World War II and only finally meeting its end while being towed to Philadelphia in 1963. More on its history can be found here.) The photographer, as we learn from the inscription on the righthand side was Charles D. Kennedy, who was a young officer on the Bear. As the the inscription also indicates, the subject matter of the image is the whaling schooner San Jose in the ice of the Bering Sea in 1886.

When I first encountered this photograph I initially thought it was a rather good pen and wash illustration, because it has a certain un-photographic quality. A closer look dispels these first impressions as it has a few features unlikely to appear in a drawing, such as the blurred edges of the flag blowing in the strong wind, the inexplicable staining of the sail, and (perhaps) the indistinct figures to the far right the image.

But why does it still have a somewhat un-photographic look? Several features seem particularly important in bringing about this effect. The first is that the picture looks like it has been slightly or partially solarised, though the relative whiteness of the ice seems to suggest otherwise. This can be explain I think by the fact that the light leakage that caused the solarisation came in from the top of the image, particularly to the left where the darkest patch is to be found. But whether it is partial solarisation or the result of some other cause, the ship and it background look somewhat unreal in just the way one would expect from solarisation.

The second un-photographic feature is the composition. Amateur photographers, and even accomplished ones whose purposes are documentary, tend to place the main subject of the image in the centre of the frame. The placement of the ship to the right of the frame, with an empty lefthand side, is more the technique of the illustrator artist wishing to give a sense of the ship as unbound, if not moving, existing with a dynamic environment and being drawn forward into the empty space.

Finally, it looks as if the image is produced under the strong influence of the painter James Whistler, not only because it embodies Whistler's devotion to whites and greys, but also because Whistler' subject matter was often many ships, boats and and water.  His Harmony in Grey: Chelsea in Ice (1864) is, like many of his paintings, far more impressionistic than my whale  schooner image, but both share a certain tonal quality.

But I just can't decide whether a young US navel officer working on a ship policing the northwestern frontier would in the mid 1880s would be likely to know about Whistler. Maybe, but then as we hardly know anything about him, then why should we suppose he would. After all, not many of his other photographs have the same Whistler-like quality. Setting aside those which document people and places on land, Kennedy's other photographs of ships are less interesting and less reminiscent of Whistler:

Its is also worth nothing that these latter two photographs follow the documentarian's convention of placing the central subject matter squarely in the centre of the frame, depriving these images of the drama attached to first image of the San Jose.

But these latter images, despite being very photographic, do seem to owe something to 19th century naval painting. Compare them with, for example, this:

or this:

But then most naval painting exhibits a very limited aesthetic sensibility, showing us ships side or three quarter on, sometimes at anchor in an anodyne landscape, sometimes shooting cannonballs at another ship. With a few exceptions its all pretty similar and unremarkable stuff; not a genre for anyone other than the ship enthusiast (and even then, not for the most aesthetically adventurous among that limited group).

And yet, Kennedy's un-photographic photograph of the San Jose stands out as among the most memorable pictures of a ship I have every encountered. It owes something to illustration and painting, but maybe it owes even more to sheer luck. Somehow I doubt it is luck, and I can't help to want to know more about Charles W. Kennedy though it would be appear he has disappeared into the sea fog of history without leaving many traces.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Photographs that look down from a great height

There is something so compelling about seeing our world from on high. What has become such an easily accessible experience for us was once something truly extraordinary. What must the residents of Paris have thought when they first encountered their city photographed by Nadar from a hot-air balloon in 1858.

To help orient viewers, Nadar helpfully uses superimposed words to provide a few reference points: 'Montmartre' is indicated in the top right, 'Les Ternes' (which in 1858 was a town that had not yet been incorporated into Paris) is at the top left, and the 'Avenue du Bois de Boulogne' is clearly indicated at the bottom. Today an image such as this would hardly merit notice, but it must have sold enough copies to encourage James Wallace Black to produce this photograph of Boston in 1860:

Another magnificent example, produced some decades later, is George Lawrence's aerial photograph of San Francisco immediately after the 1906 earthquake. Rather than using a balloon, Lawrence used a kite to produce his image, and it was striking enough that he sold them for $150 each - the equivalent of several thousand dollars today.

A decade or so later the development of aeroplanes made it much easier to make striking images of cities from the air, and so begins the process by which such images become familiar and less striking. Still, everyone now and then photographs appear that recapture the magic. This is one that I stumbled across recently, taken from the very top of the Burj-Khalifa:

I am prone to acrophobia, and when I came across this image I did (and often still do) feel a mild dizziness. I suspect it is the shoes resting on the edge of the precipice that gives me the flutters. I don't admire the person who can stand there managing to stay calm while they set camera up. Rather I feel a kind of horror.

The Burj-Khalifa is 829.8 metres high, well above the altitude at which the earlier pictures of Paris, Boston and San Francisco were made. Indeed, so much so that what we see below doesn't really look much like a city. That might seem even more obvious in the following image, in which we are spared the feet of the photographer.

If you encountered this last image without any explanation of what it depicted, I doubt many people would quickly be able to identify the subject matter even in general rather than specific terms. The skyscrapers on the left are the best clue, but ignoring them it looks rather like a rather busy abstract composition. Knowing what it depicts, however, I think there is still a bit of 'wow' to be had from this image.

You may have noticed that all of the photographs so far discussed picture their subject matter from a greater or lesser (very much lesser in the case of the Burj-Khalifa images) angle. But the Burj-Khalifa photographs also suggest that a perpendicular perspective provides a potentially very interesting and different way to view a city.

Jeffrey Milstein has noticed tho and produced some quite extraordinary images of Los Angles. Even more than the Burj-khalifa images, which after all are more of the 'hey, look at this', they present urban environments as abstract compositions. One of my favourites is this one of the Los Angles container port.

Would you have been able to work out that it was a container port? And how long would it take you? This gives us the world transformed into forms and colours, disguising its origins. Here is another Milstein photograph, this time of a Los Angles suburban neighbourhood:

and another of the same neighbourhood:

Or another, looking just like a striking abstractor composition:

Not all of his photographs so readily become abstracts. This one of the airport is obviously an airport, and yet the appeal of the forms almost overwhelm the our readiness to see the subject for what it is:

What Milstein manages to achieve is a way of reconfiguring and reinvigorating the wonder at our world seen from above. A similar affect and achievement can be found in the work of many other photographers. Kacper Kowalski, name but one, approaches his subject much as Milstein does, but in his world we find far more organic forms, and a rather more peaceful mood:

But it seems to me that all of these images work their very different magic by being in a kind of Goldilocks zone of not too high and not too low to the ground. Too high up and the disconnect with the world of experience is too great. Too low down and it doesn't provide an interestingly different perspective on our world.

Get it just right and we are given the impression of being in a privileged place, seeing our world in a manner out of the ordinary but also to a degree thrilling.


I mentioned that I suffer from mild acrophobia. Sometimes to test my resilience I try to watch the following film to its conclusion. I usually give up after a while as I simply find it to too uncomfortable. Its such a strange phenomena suffering acrophobic discomfort from a film.