David Solomons / Garry Winogrand

© Estate of Garry Winogrand

© Estate of Garry Winogrand

This shot (above) from Garry Winogrand may not be the best of his (women) shots. And indeed at first sight it looks not far from what the average Joe would come up as a lousy tourist snapshot from a restaurant terrace. But I think it has some strong characteristics of Winogrand’s peculiar style. More specifically it shows Winogrand’s ability to have a pivotal subject to further explore “how things look like photographed”. What do we see the first here ? The girl on right/foreground I believe, she’s pivotal. But why ? Whereas when the aforementioned “average Joe” would certainly have centered subject matter (and zoomed it if possible) what we have here is a quirky distribution of different elements in frame all cohesively tied by gestures and expressions captured. Also it is to be noticed that the tree maiden could be seen instead as a sequence of the same girl doing different things at different moments… which is absolutely brilliant (reminds me a sketch out of “Tintin et le Crabe aux pinces d’Or” from Hergé where he used a similar procede). Finally the resulting image is closer to a stage with performers with a role assigned to each of them. Winogrand was very good at that, achieving cohesive and vaudevillesque choreographs within the frame of a photograph.

© David Solomons

© David Solomons

The picture above from David Solomons is more crafted in some way. Better said it is more “photographic” in a sense that it is an obvious result of a photographer’s well developed skills and the techniques involved (choice of wide angle lens, point of view, DOF…). It is craftily composed in a way that there is few risk for the viewer to be distracted from the main subject matter. But it includes enough of the context to make it an interesting shot that undoubtedly falls into the street genre (on a further personal note I have to say I really love the capture that I find fantastic, the kind of shot I’d be proud to have in my PF)

Winogrand’s was often accused of machismo/sexism. If any I think the sexism in this specific photograph lies more in the facts basically described rather than in the photographer’s intention. In that way it is different from many other women pics from him that can be said the exact opposite. But this one is as closer as to what Winogrand would refer as “female energy” – arguably to defend himself from the accusation of being macho.

The photo from Solomons is to me devoid from the controversy Winogrand would face about his women shots. It is somewhat asexual – one could say it has some political correctness for that matter. The Jean Seberg haircut is a little responsible for that (plus that together with the b+w rendition it give some retro vibe to the image that I personally find nice) but it is more because there is few in the picture (i.e. what the people are doing, are looking like) that can considered controversial or better said aggressive with relation to gender – unlike in many Winogrand’s shot about women. In other words it has vitalness but no aggressiveness (by the way some of Winogrands’ airport shots have similar vibe)

Though rather different in composition and “mood” I believe both images share crucial characteristics.

There is of course similarity in subject matter. In both cases you have women shown in public space whereas the other people captured in the frame emphasize the mundane context of the shot. That is the older couple on left in Winogrand’s pic, enjoying a lunch, or the people on background in Solomons’s shot, reading newspaper – which is the typical thing to do in boarding/waiting room. In fact both images are somewhat about boredom and the resulting waste of energy around. But furthermore you have the main character of both shots (i.e. the girls) who stands nearly as the narrator, or better said the medium between the situation described and the viewer (as opposed to other folks who are immersed in the scene and don’t seem to be upset from it). Also their attitude indicates that they react (both in very different manner) against the boredom stat of fact. There is great body language in both pictures, that serves well this idea. It is that sort of negative juxtaposition that makes most of the tension and impact here.

About David Solomons:
David Solomons is a remarkable contemporary street-photographer. Beyond an obvious eye for the everyday little and unnoticed drama he shows a solid and witty sense of composition – without which the image hardly takes off from the mere anecdote.

David Solomons is part of In-Public project to promote contemporary street photography.


Andre du Plessis – Emmet Gowin

Reproduced below is an image from South African photographer Andre du Plessis:

Consolation © Andre du Plessis

Consolation © Andre du Plessis

I believe this image shares some similarities with the following photo from American Photographer Emmet Gowin:

Edith and Rennie Booher © Emmet Gowin

Edith and Rennie Booher © Emmet Gowin

Both images have in common a background formed by the corner of the room. The same sort of things can be seen around, a painting/photo, a wiper/doily.
Despite obvious difference in standard of living both – rather bare – scenery offer same the amount of hints for sheer privacy in a very similar modest manner.

The POV is rather similar as well. I believe that a wider angle was used for the photo by Gowin, but apparent distance from the models and vantage point are comparable – a bit closer in Andre’s image. I don’t do lots of portrait myself but obviously the distance from the model (the apparent distance resulting from the combination of actual distance and lens focal length) is an extremely important factor for good portrait (*)

Despite similarities in the composition and the set-up the “message” coming from these two images are to me rather different. It is not surprising coming from portrait shot, where the personality of model is largely responsible for the impact. But as Andre told me situation are very different here, which is true and I also feel that a major difference is in the photographer deep intention.

I feel that the image from Gowin talks as much of himself as of his relatives shown in the image. Doing family portrait with artistic purpose is a challenge. It involves the artist in a very specific, private and mysterious manner. Emmett Govin is one of those one who apply to this risky endeavor in the long run. It is more than mere family portrait of course and he said something about his wife Edith that she was/is part of his artistic journey, may be not that differently that his mentor Harry Callahan did with his wife Eleanor.

On the other hand I feel that Andre’s concern is more to show the humankind in stranger’s eyes. He has a very important – and not so spread – quality which is humility. In his book “Looking at Photographs” John Szarkowski said about Diane Arbus “The force of her portraits may be a measure of the degree to which the subject and the photographer agreed to risk trust and acceptance of each other”. I think Andre’s portraits has something of that – though not in the Arbus way.

On a further note I’ve been browsing Sally Mann pictures lately and think Govin’s work kind of prefigured what Sally Mann would do later in a more controversial way.

… Now let’s see what Andre was kind enough to write to me about his work and this specific image:

In my work I meet people who I do not know, like one knows friends or relatives. My objective is that the images of those people become something that transcend this void. I want to feel, when I look at the picture afterwards, that these are people that might be strangers, but to whom I feel a kinship, an understanding, and that respect for one another is tangible. None of my subjects are rich (i.e. wealthy), they don’t have the goodies that I have. However, this opportunity to be captured should make them feel special. In this the interaction that I get during these impromptu sessions is always an interaction, in which what is displayed on the LCD screen becomes paramount – they share this with me continuously, and in the process they become excited and cooperative, and loose many reservations / shyness. It is important that they understand that I wish to portray them in an artistic manner, and therefore I sometimes urge them to actively participate in my quest for the correct and sensitive light. On occasions I have had them leading me to sections of their homes where they feel that we can take ‘arty’ pictures, or they have suggested that I return at another time, when e.g. the light in the kitchen will be good at 5pm:) I do prefer direct eye contact, unless I do a double portrait, where I usually try to construct a triangle of energy.

In “Consolation’, there was very little choice of location – what you see here is the whole structure. There is only a door behind me, and as the light was coming from directly behind, and far too strong, I asked some kids who were watching this to collect a table cloth from the house next door and they held this up in the door to shield the light. Shooting in low light, and simply relying on what is available is my modus-operandi. No reflectors are used, and there cannot be too much spontaneity in the image, as the shutter speeds are inevitably quite long. Motion artifacts remain a problem – in spite of me using high ISO settings. The people that I photograph have inevitably never experienced dedicated photo sessions – at most snapshots or having their ID book pic taken at the chemist. So delivering on the promise that I shall bring prints hold substantial importance.

I am a South African, and proudly so. However, in our Kaleidoscope of peoples down there, there are very interesting dynamics. Also – as a white South African, and having always stood to the left politically speaking, this is also I guess a way that I deal with all the years of wrong. So maybe there is a deeper meaning to my work in that respect – I do not know. As far as technicals this scene simply had to be done! Her face is interesting, and the inclusion of her belongings in the back elevates this to environmental portraiture. I do like close-up portraits, but what do they tell me about the person ? After you have seen their eyes, and nose and so on, only a special capture lingers. I used a wider inclusion before, but since joining 1X (note: OneExposure / 1x.com) I have cropped a bit away in the frames – somehow became influenced by the way that 1X sees photography. My own work is less tight, and wider.

Environmental portraiture remains my ideal – and I want to expand my vision in this section. However, that is not really an elective decision that one can make and apply, as every person lends to other opportunities. I prefer darker tones, both from an artistic point, but also for mood – they usually are inter-dependent. The addition of the dog here came as a surprise. The dog jumped onto her lap after the previous capture (‘Feelings’), and thus this frame. The poster of the man makes me think that (as in all of us – dreams are universal), and given the meager furnishings here this single element says so much for me. She is not very happy at this time of her life – financial insecurities, and the relationship neither very strong. Also – where she stays she is regarded as an ‘inkomer’, which means that she moved to this community from elsewhere, and therefore seen as a stranger – and not too welcome.

Andre du Plessis on OneExposure: http://1x.com/v2/#member/14976/

Note (*) Basic portrait advice for beginners are to focus on the eye and have a not distracting background (neutral bkg or the clutter behind blurred with shallow DOF if necessary). But one thing that really great portraitists have over others is their ability to choose the right distance and to click at the right moment. The 2 images here are to me a good illustration of that point. You have stare as well as body language. You have a coherent scenery, and the distance to the model makes the overall message shine from every corner of the image.

The Boy and the Abstract Truth…

… Sorry for this apparent pompous title, but it is merely a pun on word with jazz album title “Blues and the Abstract Truth”, by Oliver Nelson (1962), a great album by the way…

No blues here, but a boy, Alex O’Brien, a 16 year old english photographer based in Cambridge UK.

I am not a real fan of abstract in photography, for several reasons that I will try to summarize briefly later on in this post. Also I don’t really get how most contemporary photographers classify their work as ‘abstract’. More than often abstract is a pretext to come up with something non-figurative but “pretty” and pleasant-looking in the first place, the kind of stuffs that hype restaurants managers would hang in their room, i.e. the somewhat visual art equivalent of elevator music (which I appreciate too ;)) … Sorry for being harsh and little offensive here but I do believe that when good-looking is the genuine – though sometimes undeclared – purpose it begins to be a mere matter of taste, and the final outcome might range from eye-candy, pretty (in the good sense) to cheesy. A matter of taste… is the problem since I believe that Art ends where taste begins (or the other way round).

There is nothing of that with Alex, as it is very obvious that he couldn’t care less about prettiness.

Pixel Pomegranate © Alex O'Brien

Pixel Pomegranate © Alex O'Brien

Abstract in photography began almost simultaneously as in painting, in the early 1910’s or so. There was Man Ray, who was among the first to come up with artistic outcome based on photographic emulsion paper without using the medium (i.e. nor camera nor film). Other photograms were made by László Moholy-Nagy and Christian Schad… Afterward many photographers did attempts in the abstract field, using more regular techniques and many of them without making a specialty of it… And in the 1910’s there was also British photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn who did shots with the use of kaleidoscopic device that he would call ‘vortographs”.

Reproduced below is one of Coburn’s vortograph.

Arrow Shadows 1917 © Estate of Alvin Langdon Coburn

Arrow Shadows 1917 © Estate of Alvin Langdon Coburn

… and what Alex did with his Nikon D90 is not very far – at least from mere visual perspective.

Now the reason why I am not a big fan of Abstract photography (apart from the few words in introduction of this post) is that I find it hardly competes with abstract painting – and more generally any non pure-photo visual arts (including collage etc…). First and foremost other visual arts can provide visual information which is not just encapsulated in the support, as it is in a photo print. For example if Pierre Soulages black paintings are not plain black, it is because the way oil is laid down the canvas would provide motifs and gray scales by the action of surrounding light on it. In such abstract paintings there is additional dimension and interaction of the environment (natural light and resulting shadows) which is caused by the dry oil itself, its texture, thickness and any other material that may be used in the process.

Furthermore because a photo can be used as a material in collage it is tempting to assess that whatever successful you are in doing abstract photography it can always be reduced as a mere material for other visual arts.

Now I know this kind of statement is very reducing and photography has specific characteristics that makes it a relevant and powerful medium for abstract as well…. But this is much more challenging than it appears in the first place (and the reason why I don’t risk myself in that!). I do believe that in order to be successful to work as an abstract, a photography should represent a visual phenomenon which is questionable per se, and not just interpretation of a common subject matter – be it altered by common photographic techniques such as blur etc…. To put it roughly if the viewer thinks/says in the first place “This is a beautiful rendition of x” or “What’s that ? (with the only concern of guessing what is captured) ” it does not really work.

And this is precisely why I think Alex is successful, as well as Alvin Coburn was. Because not only he ignores doing something pretty, not only he is creating fine composition involving harmony, rhythm as well as tension, but furthermore he manages to create a peculiar visual phenomenon. In other words whereas many photographer would interpret a subject matter for a mere aesthetic outcome Alex O’Brien would reduce and alter the superficial information from subject matter to come up with something directly questionable as the heart of the (subject) matter, which is precisely what abstraction is about.

Alex O’Brien:
On deviantart : http://aobaob.deviantart.com/