American Photographs

American Photographs is a selection of photographs taken by American photographer Walker Evans in the years prior to 1938 when the images were published.

At the time of taking these photographs Walker Evans was employed by the American government to document the effects of the depression, particularly in the poorer southern states, to show to the politicians in Washington.

In 1938 a selection of these photographs were exhibited by the American Musem of Modern Art under the name American Photographs. They also published the book of the images under the same name.

I purchased the 75th anniversary copy of this book, published in 2013, also by the Museum of Modern Art. Like the original book, there is only one photograph on the right-hand page when opened, with a plain white sheet on the left so as not to.distract from the images. The photographs are then catalogued at the end of each section.

The book is split into two parts, the first section being related to the people of North America, whilst the second half concentrates on the buildings and vernacular architecture of the country.

I have to admit that to me the first half of this book makes uncomfortable viewing. Not only does it show the poverty of the time but it also shows the even poorer status of black Americans in that era.

As an example, this picture of a playbill contains a cartoon of black people which demonstrates the white American impression of them as servants and minstrels. In the book, this photograph is cropped to just the cartoon, which makes it even more offensive.

© Farm Security Administration, Washington D.C.

By comparison, a photograph of a citizen of Havana in Cuba shows the black population in a completely different light.

© 2013 Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The original exhibition consisted of 100 photographs whilst the book only has 87, and only 54 are common to both. (Sawyer 2013). Also whilst the pictures in the book are consistent in size, those in the exhibition varied. Evans often selected different images of the same subject, a good example being Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer Wife :

© Farm Security Administration, Washington D.C.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The first portrait of Allie Mae Burrows appears in American Photographs, whilst the second appears in his later book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Either or both may have appeared in the exhibition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The second section of the book consists of photographs of built America. Covering subjects as diverse as car parks full of model T Fords, shanty towns, churches and industrial areas, it sums up the condition of North America at that time.

© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

It is interesting to note that the division of the book into separate sections did not apply to the exhibition in 1938. Instead the images were grouped in relationship to their subjects and geographical locations. The 1938 exhibition was also the first one at the Museum of Modern Art to be dedicated to a single artist.

Walker Evans continued his photography taking pictures discretely on the New York subway resulting in the book Many are Called. He was also one of the first photographers to adopt instant photography using the Land Polaroid system. He died in 1975 at the age of 71.

refs:

  1. 2013 Walker Evans American Photographs The Museum of Modern Art
  2. 2013 Drew Sawyer Two Views of Walker Evans’s American Photographs The Museum of Modern Art

Exercise 1.3 (Part 1) Line

For this exercise I took some photos trying to use lines to show depth.

Here is the relevant contact sheet:

Contact001This shot, taken in the snow near my house, shows convergent lines, but the lines meet outside the frame, so the result is not terribly successful as the eye is drawn to the top of the image and out of the frame.

Line11Unfortunately when I took this picture, the trees protected the road, so the snow petered out above the image, hence there is no focus to draw the eye.

This shot is slightly more effective as the lines of the fence converge to a vanishing point within the frame, but again there is no true focus to attract the eye.

Line03

This third shot is rather more successful as the eye is drawn to the pony shelter at the end of the fence where the lines converge.

Line14

In this last shot, although not a great composition, the knob on the end of the balustrade adds a focus point to terminate the eye’s movement.

Line08

Exercise 1.2 Part 2

For this part of the exercise I set up a still life using an old Christmas decoration and some extra candlesPoint26Here is the contact sheet from the shootExercise 1001For each ‘point’ I lit an individual candle.

I still feel that this point just off from centre is the most satisfactory with respect to the frame.

Point16

With a bright point near one corner of the frame the image appears unbalanced.

Point22

But with two points lit is is possible to balance the image again, even if the second point is not as bright.Point20

Below I have drawn in my eye movements when I look at printed copies of the above images:Point16_eye_movementPoint22_eye_movementPoint20_eye_movementAs you can see, the brightest point draws my eye first, then the next brightest point, then my eye moves to the rest of the image.

One distraction that I did not notice at the time, is the shadow of the rim of the glass cast by the candle light. If I were taking these shots again, I would move the table further from  the wall so that the shadow was cast above the frame of the image.

For the last part of this exercise I have used a couple of photographs from a travel brochure.

BridgeIn the shot above, my eye is drawn naturally along the length of the bridge away from me, then into the trees above.

TempleIn this shot, of the temples at Bagan in Burma, my eye is drawn along the wall, on to the pagoda then across to the other temples in the distance.

Images from Premier Holidays Faraway brochure.

 

Drawn by Light

Whilst working in London, I took the opportunity to visit the Royal Photographic Society’s “Drawn by Light” exhibition at the Science Museum in Kensington.

The exhibition shows a large selection of photographs from the earliest days of photography right though to the work of current practitioners.

The exhibition itself was held in the media space on the second floor which is a complex of three open rooms. Unfortunately the lighting was quite low which didn’t show some of the images at their best, but I can understand that as some of the prints were the result of ancient processes and likely to fade in strong light.

I was particularly interested in some of the very early photographs and the techniques used. The exhibition included three of Niepce’s original photos which were produced on metal plates using his ‘heliograph’ process. In practice they don’t look like photographs as we understand them, but look more like printing plates. The process made use of a type of bitumen which was hardened by light. The bitumen which had not been hardened was then washed away, and the image remained. It required exposures of eight hours or more, so was only suitable for static subjects. The exhibition also housed photographs created by other early methods such as Daguerreotypes and Fox Talbot’s Callotype process. It’s interesting that these early pioneers did not see themselves as being in competition as one of the exhibits was a Daguerreotype of Fox Talbot himself and I understand that he returned the compliment.

The Lady of Shallott © National Media Museum, Bradford

One of the things that struck me in particular was how.many of the older photographs were created imagery, produced from several negatives. A good example is the famous image of the Lady of Shallott by Henry Peach Robinson.

The girl in the boat was actually photographed in the studio, while the background was taken on a rainy day in the Kent countryside. I think this shows how in the early days photography was thought of as a new artistic technique, rather than simply a means of recording reality. This probably has a lot to do with the initial complexity of the medium, with the need to create your own photo sensitive plates as well as chemical processing and printing, all of which took time and effort.

One of the photographs which most fascinates me is Phillipe Halsman’s photograph of Salvador Dali: “Dali Atomicus”.

Dali Atomicus © National Media Museum, Bradford

Taken in 1948, it shows Dali and his easel floating off the floor, whilst cats and a stream of water fly across in front of him. I assume that it was taken with assistants on either side throwing the water and animals whilst Dali himself jumped up as the shot was taken. It would have been very interesting to see exactly how it was done. As a photograph it is certainly successful in recreating the surrealism of Dali’s paintings.

A much newer photograph which was created artistically is “Turkish Bath” by Calum Colvin.

Turkish Bath © Calum Colvin

Although simply a photograph of a bedroom, it is enhanced by the painting of the subject to create a cartoon of two people in the bed. The fact that the painting covers other objects in the room, such as the hot water bottle on the bed, makes it two images in one, one of the bedroom itself and the other of the cartoon, without being exclusively either. This is Calum Colvin’s particular artistic style. He paints images in places which can only be seen properly from the point of view of the camera.
I like the use of lighting in this shot. As well as the main lighting on the bed, the table lamp pointing at the wall and the hanging lamp both contribute.

Coming to more conventional photography we have the famous picture of an Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry.

Afghan Girl © Steve McCurry

I can personally remember this being on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. The photograph was taken the previous year at a refugee camp in Pakistan where the girl and her family were fleeing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Newman 2002) The most obvious thing about this photograph is her eyes. They show her fear and really do penetrate the viewer.

Christina © Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman

The other photograph which surprised me was the one used on the poster for the exhibition. It looks like a contemporary photo, but in fact it is one of a series taken in 1913.

“Christina” taken by Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman, is a lovely example of an autochrome, one of the earliest means of taking a colour photograph. An amazing photograph for one taken over 100 years ago.

references:

Cathy Newman. 2002. A Life Revealed. National Geographic.

(not attributed) 2014. Drawn by Light. Royal Photographic Society.

Image credits:

Henry Peach Robinson The Lady of Shallott  © National Media Museum, Bradford

Phillipe Halsman  Dali Atomicus  © National Media Museum, Bradford

Calum Colvin Turkish Bath © Calum Colvin

Steve McCurry  Afghan Girl © Steve McCurry

Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman Christina  © Lieutenant Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman

 

 

 

 

 

Exercise 1.2 – Point – part 1

I must admit to being slightly confused how to approach this exercise. I finally settled for shooting a small LED torch in a dark room, so that only the point is visible. I then took several photographs with the point at random positions.

Here is the contact sheet of the photos:

Exercise 1001To me, the most satisfactory position for the point of light is where the position is off-centre in one direction but almost central in the other direction, i.e.:

Point04

and

Point10Also in the direction where the point is off-centre it is quite close to the position known as the golden mean.This is the position where the ratio between the larger part and the whole is the same as the ratio between the smaller part and the larger. The actual position of the golden mean is shown by the line in the image below:

GMAs the GM is close to 1/3rd of the image it is probably the origin of the so-called ‘rule of thirds’.

It seems to me that wherever the point is it is always in some relationship to the frame, but a position too near to the edge of the frame tends to lead your eye out of the frame completely:

Point07

 

 

Should a photographer be just an observer?

This subject was brought to my attention recently when my son was caught in flood water. He noted that a photographer was at the scene and was more than a little shocked a couple of days later to find a photograph of the incident in his local paper. His concern was not that the photograph was taken but that the photographer did nothing to help his situation.

Copyright Essex Chronicle

So should we just be an observer or should we take part?

This is a question particularly relevant to war photographers. One of the most famous pictures from the Vietnam war is that of a young girl fleeing napalm.

http://also.kottke.org/misc/images/nick-ut-vietnam.jpg

Taken by photographer Nick Ut immediately after a napalm bombing by the South Vietnamese airforce, the girl was seriously burned, but the photographer, rather than just acting as an observer, took the girl and some of the other injured to hospital, almost certainly saving her life. He continued to visit her in hospital until the evacuation of Saigon.

What would you do in a similar situation?

 

 

“Heads” by Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

This image is no longer availableAn interesting set of photos taken in Times Square in New York by fitting a remote controlled flash to scaffolding and taking the images of random people who enter the illuminated area. The result is a series of images which show people deep in thought as they wander through the square. Apparently about 3000 people were actually photographed to get the 17 images for the exhibition, which makes me intrigued to see the ones which were rejected. Continue reading “Heads” by Philip-Lorca diCorcia.

Tutor Report

Student name
Gary Bainbridge
Student number
513749
Course/Module
Expressing your vision
Assignment number 1

Overall Comments
Great to see the assignment appear so quickly and it is a promising one. Your technical and visual skills are good, with beautiful grey tonality and thoughtful dodging and burning consistent through-out these photos. And the visual qualities of your decaying subject ‑ texture, shape and form ‑ all stand out well. Focus is often spot on, quite deep and helps draw the viewer into the scenes you depict. The series ‘sits’ well together, being all about dilapidated farm buildings and all processed in the same way.
My main concern about this work is that it is overwhelmingly technical and visual without a meaningful connection to you. You don’t say much about the farms themselves nor about any reason why you chose this as a subject. Your text is mostly about composition and technical issues. That’s fine, but don’t neglect the meaning of the subject. Of course, it may be that it is only the purely visual aspects of photography that you are interested in at the moment, but you will find photographs are rarely purely visual. They depict a subject in a particular way.

Assessment potential (after Assignment 1)
“Formal Assessment: You may want to get credit for your hard work and achievements with the OCA by formally submitting your work for assessment at the end of the module. More and more people are taking the idea of lifelong learning seriously by submitting their work for assessment but it is entirely up to you. We are just as keen to support you whether you study for pleasure or to gain qualifications. Please consider whether you want to put your work forward for assessment and let me know your decision when you submit assignment 2. I can then give you feedback on how well your work meets the assessment requirements.”

Feedback on assignment
1
This wide shot of barn is nicely composed and beautifully balanced in tone. I like the way you can see the inside of the barn as clearly as the outside and the eyes roam around the picture, which is totally in focus.
2
There’s a ‘snooping’ quality in this viewpoint towards the old wooden door, which adds an air of mystery in the overgrown scene.

3
In a few pictures you struggled with strong highlights and this is one. Cameras usually perform better in the dark tones than the whites, so under-exposing can help. You then lift the photo in Camera RAW repressing the highlights. You can also explore using High Dynamic Range (HDR Pro) 32 bit images, which can help with tonal latitude.
I have to say, if your highlights are this blown out, you would probably benefit from waiting a few hours for the light to change or just return on another day.

4
I like the composition of this old tyre and the door. The two shapes stand out well as the two main points of interest. The blown highlights are distracting though, and this could also have benefited from a cloudy day!

5
Amazing tonal quality in this almost abstract vision of decay and neglect. That pole…why didn’t you move it? I realize it may have been there, but it looks quite new and it is visually distracting being right in the foreground.

6
Although the exterior/interior shots are visually more exciting to rove around, this interior is have provided you with a much more sympathetic light for what you wanted to achieve. Lots of shape, form and texture here.

7
This light bulb is an interesting subject, but you’ve framed it against a distracting background – the dark shapes. I think you needed to frame it against either one or the other so that its outline would stand out well. It would also have been good to try to render the translucency of the bulb and it’s fragility.

8
This drain pipe is a good study of a line. I like the way it stands out against the overgrown shrubs behind it.
Doorways and windows make good frames within frames, but here there isn’t much to lead the eye to. It’s good to have a focal point of some kind.

9
Another example of a two-point composition with these two wooden rectangles standing out well with shape and texture. Really good lighting here, no problem at all with the sky.

10
Your framing of the flower pot, lower right, looks a bit indecisive as if you weren’t sure whether to include it or exclude it. But this is another good study of decay, with the white barn doors standing out in quite high contrast.

11
It’s interesting the way the ivy has started to grow around the barbed wire. This is a strong detail that emphasises the prickly barbed wire well. Actually, this may not have been so strong in colour, which can lose the strength of edges and textures.

Learning Logs/Critical essays
Apart from being a bit too technical, your writing is fine, but do try to consider intellectually the subjects that you are photographing. What does a decaying farm building “say” in a conceptual way? It could be something to do with abandonment, or the end or change of the farming industry – more mechanization leading to less work for country people and the effect that has on nature. There can be any number of conceptual reasons to motivate photography, and usually they deepen the meaning of the photographs.
Your blog needs a section on it for Research. Have a look at this OCA blog template https://predegree.wordpress.com/ You are welcome to use it and rename it.
Pointers for the next assignment
You have already started to make a collection of images here. And these views fit pretty well together. Have a look at the series “Heads” by Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Ask yourself, which of the heads stands out, and what does it make you think about what that person is feeling or thinking?
Good luck with the next stage.

Tutor name
Robert Enoch
Date
14th January 2015

Learning log