On Reflection: Week 12, Module Three

Variations 2.jpgVariations of Composition (Morris, 2017)

Working on the images for the module three Work in Progress portfolio realised an opportunity to explore composition.

More specifically, it was an opportunity to explore subtle variations in composition.

It was a valuable exercise in perceptions.

Furthermore, it enabled me to gather material for a future workshop which is planned.

Playing around with various compositional arrangements took me down quite a philosophical path.

Perceptions operate via various routes simultaneously.

Take, for example, a simple bar of chocolate. In photographic terms, the chocolate itself is irrelevant. Instead, the two factors which are important are the outer wrapping, and the combination of ingredients.

It seems superficial, but from a food photography point of view it is highly relevant. Without a wrapper, and assuming integrity (i.e. the surface of the bar has not been broken in any way to reveal the inner contents), what is there to differentiate between, say, a Snickers bar, a Mars, and a Milky Way?

Consequently, I found myself asking this week, what exactly is it that I am photographing? What is a Snickers bar for example?

Where does the product itself begin, and the packaging end?

Is a Snickers bar the combination of ingredients? Or, is it the combination of ingredients within a unique and specifically designed wrapping?

Francis Hodgson suggests that photographs are of something, and about something, with the latter point often being overlooked. Barthes and Heath suggest that images represent the signifier and the signified.

In these terms, a Snickers bar and its wrapper are the ‘of something’, the signifier. What they imply, the signified – the ‘about something’, can (in my opinion) be one or more of several things.

Firstly, it implies that we ‘beautify’ the food we eat: we need the wrapper to do this – to make the chocolate appear more appetising than it otherwise might be.

Chocolate isn’t eaten for its visual appeal (unless it’s a Black Forest gateaux), it is eaten for its addictive sweetness and the endorphin rush its metabolism causes. Taken purely on face value, does an unwrapped bar of chocolate really look appetising? Does it really initiate a gustatory reflex?

Secondly, it makes a statement about how we live our lives. Busy lives require food in portions that make the task of eating on the go an easily managed task. Discrete little packages of food to be eaten on the go, to be consumed conveniently need wrappers.

Thirdly, it is part of a sanitising process, helping to keep food fresh and clean.

Finally, it reflects the homeostatic (need to eat) and hedonic (eating for pleasure) aspects of appetite.

So much for our Snickers. But we can extend this – steak doesn’t come pre-cooked, it doesn’t come in a form that we accept as being edible. We grill it to make it more digestible (the proteins are broken down by the cooking process, and the cooking process has a sanitising effect). Steak in its natural state isn’t appealing – again, the cooked appearance of a nicely grilled steak is the signifier, the treatment of our food the signified.

Frith writes that: ‘Advertising only “makes sense” when it resonates with certain deeply held belief systems’ (Frith, 1997: vii).

I think that with this seemingly simple statement, Frith is telling us none of this hangs together unless we all buy into it – literally.

All this brings me back to my earlier question: what exactly is it that I am photographing? The product? Or it’s wrapper?

And that is why clever advertising people invented something called the ‘brand’.

References:

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc accessed 19 February 2017

Frith, Kathleen Toland. (1997) Undressing the Ad: Reading Culture in Advertising. New York: Peter Lang

 

 

A Different Perspective

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Caravaggio, 1601-02. Incredulity of St. Thomas

Michelangelo Merisi, otherwise Caravaggio, was active between 1592 and 1610. In his own lifetime, he was renowned as a sensitive, capricious and provocative individual. His temperament extended from his personal life into his work as an artist.

His work made strong use of extreme chiaroscuro, or tenebrism, together with physical observation to portray dramatic scenes, quite often violent, heavy in psychological realism.

Innovative in style, he both challenged and influenced Baroque art.

It is widely believed that Caravaggio used some form of optics to produce his images, possibly a lens, possibly a camera obscura – certainly these technologies existed when Caravaggio was active.

But did the use of this technology, still formative at the time, lead to some inaccuracies, or errors in Caravaggio’s work?

Take for example, the Incredulity of St. Thomas (also Doubting Thomas, 1601-02) in which Christ offers his wounds to Thomas as proof of his suffering, death and resurrection. Thomas, seeking confirmation of these events, needing reassurance that the person standing before him is indeed Jesus, reaches out to touch the wounds. But study the painting closely.

Thomas’ gaze does not fall where his hand touches Christ’s flesh.

This shift in perspective is not limited to this single painting.

Supper-at-Emmaus-1024x728

Caravaggio, 1601-02. Supper at Emmaus

Taking Supper at Emmaus (1601-02) as a further example, St. Peter’s right hand, although being furthest from us, is visibly larger than the left which is closer.

Hockney suggests that is ‘maybe a consequence of movements of lens and canvas when refocusing because of depth-of-field problems’ (Hockney, 2001, p. 120).

Hockney goes on to suggest how Caravaggio might have used optics: ‘on many of his canvases, this one included, there are a number of incised lines made with the wrong end of the brush in wet undercoat. These lines do not follow the forms precisely, and they do not show enough to be compositional drawings: only the key elements – the head, the arms – are marked. I believe that Caravaggio used this technique simply to record the position of his models so they could take a break. They could then resume their positions, and Caravaggio could project the image and adjust their pose until they fitted the incised lines’ (Hockney, 2001, p. 123).

‘He would not, of course, have needed all his models there at the same time. The complete tableau would need only to be set up once – to mark out the overall composition. After that, the models could come back one by one, as he worked on different figures’ (Hockney, 2001, p. 123).

1024px-Caravaggio_(Michelangelo_Merisi)_-_The_Cardsharps_-_Google_Art_Project

Caravaggio, 1594. Card Sharps

The Card Sharps (1594) is an excellent example of this. Light would be set up to illuminate only one subject at a time, the lens to focus on only one subject. Each element of a painting would then be presented to the lens in turn. The canvas would be moved to allow the relevant section to be worked on, coinciding with where the optically projected image is falling. For example, the canvas would be moved to the right to allow the projection to fall on the left-hand side of the canvas to allow the model on the left to be painted. This is referred to as compositing.

Do either of the two card sharps gaze convincingly at the cards held by their mark? Or do they more convincingly look past the hand of cards he holds?

Martyrdom_of_Saint_Matthew-Caravaggio_(c__1599-1600)

Caravaggio, 1599-1600. Martyrdom of St. Matthew

The Martyrdom of St. Matthew (1599-1600) provides a further example of altered perspective. Notice how disproportionate the foot of St. Matthew’s executioner (centre) appears relative to his body.

Did Caravaggio sacrifice true representation of perspective in order to achieve the realistic illusion he so avidly sought? Are the inaccuracies present in some of Caravaggio’s works purely artefacts arising from the use of optics? We may never know.

Hockney puts forward a compelling argument and summarises succinctly: ‘Caravaggio’s models are not always looking where you would expect – but the intended object of their gaze would not have been there!’ (Hockney, 2001, p.123).

So, how do I relate this to my practice?

Analysing Caravaggio’s work has been a valuable exercise in looking, in paying attention to detail, and in spatial awareness in relation to a three-dimensional scene being represented in a two-dimensional medium. These are important aspects to consider during the creative process. I think, in terms of designing an image, quite often it is easy to look, but not always so easy to see.

References:

Caravaggio: Man & Mystery (2015) YouTube Video, added by Steely_Blues_Man [Online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_s6gj2KB7s (Accessed: Thursday 07 September 2017)

Hockney, D. (2001). ‘Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters’. London, Thames & Hudson Limited

Breaking Free

As I progress towards the completion of assignments for module three of my MA in photography, it’s perhaps a good time to take stock, and to ask myself what path it is that my photography is taking.

My current project, Cravings, has met with positive feedback from all those who have previewed the images. Shared between all the comments, is the opinion that the project is an interesting change in direction.

Is it a change in direction? I see it more as a natural progression.

At the back of my mind for some time now has been the need to identify a project theme for both the module four Work in Progress portfolio and the Final Major Project.

The initial success of Cravings has enabled me to do just that, to identify themes for both projects. Work is underway to research the viability of these themes and carry out initial planning.

But what happens if the projects are set aside?

Taking this concept further, what happens if we set aside food photography?

Posed another way, the question could become ‘what other genres of photography interest me?’

Still life which isn’t food related appeals to me very much, as does fine art photography.

I am also very interested in portraiture, and whilst there is a tentative link between the three genres still life (including food photography), fine art and portraiture, the final genre – reportage – can be described as an outlier.

There are, I think, significant advantages to breaking out of a mould and trying other types of photography, advantages which will enhance my skills as a food photographer. Looking beyond a still life table (or kitchen work surface), looking for different subjects, in different areas will, I believe, improve my skills as a photographer – not least of all by improving my skill in looking, and in seeing the potential within a subject for good photograph. After all, I think I am skilled in recognising items of food which will make images with aesthetic appeal, am I adept at recognising the potential, or the opportunity, for equally interesting and appealing images in other genres?

By turning away from my subject, only briefly and periodically, by including other genres in my repertoire, I am becoming more rounded as a photographer, I am becoming more skilled over a wider subject area and acquiring skills I can bring back to my specialism. In turn this will allow me practice my specialism in an innovative way.

Progressing the discussion: food photographer – is that a label that I wish to be identified by?

Wouldn’t it be better to be considered as a photographer who specialises in food photography? In essence, letting the images I create do the talking.

The former is quite constrictive. In artistic terms, it shows that my area of interest, if not my talent, lies in food photography. But in practical, commercial terms, it closes off lots of avenues for potential work.

The latter, however, leaves lots of doors open: both artistically and commercially.

Food photography is my passion and I gain an enormous amount of satisfaction from creating images of food. But there is a lot to be gained from, at the very least, experimenting with other genres of photography. And by doing so I am keeping things fresh.

Looking West

Using only natural light, my current lighting set up is dictated by the layout of what passes for a studio.

The large room is lit by a single, large western facing window.

The walls are decorated with an off-white matt – sufficiently white enough to not produce a colour-cast, the ceiling with a soft matt white.

During the day, light enters the room in an even manner. The building is located in quite an open environment, the studio is located in an upstairs room, the view directly opposite is open with no over-looking buildings. Old in character, all the buildings are externally stonewashed. Consequently, the adjacent and opposite buildings bounce lots of beautifully diffused, soft light into the studio. Inside the studio, the light is further softened by the soft matt surfaces of the walls and ceiling. There are no dark surfaces to absorb light and provide negative fill.

In effect, the surrounding environment acts as a reservoir of light – buffering the ebb of flow of light as the sun completes its path through the sky.

Ginger beer

Morris, 2017. Untitled # 4

The images from the series Cravings were taken in this studio arrangement.

They are beautifully lit images, having a richness and a depth.

Are there any problems associated with this arrangement?

There is a brief period, around late afternoon, where the arc of the sun results in a beam of light entering the room. The cause of this is the sun’s lower position in the afternoon sky, together with it falling in line with a gap between two buildings. The effect of this beam is to produce a hotspot of light which transects the still life table.

If I was looking for a particular aesthetic, a warm summery scene with high contrast split between pools of bright sunlight and deep shadows, this would be ideal and I could put this to use. However, for my current projects it is not what I am looking for.

So, when this phenomenon occurs, I sit back, and reflect on the day’s work before packing away the equipment for another day.

It’s all about finding the right light, and basing my judgement on the Cravings images, I believe I have done just that.

It is either that or waiting.

Records suggest that Vermeer’s studio faced north. However, I suspect that at least some of the great artists and photographers didn’t have north facing windows and fantastic light – consistent all day, every day. If I am right, I am beginning to share some skills with great company: the ability to be in the moment, and to see light as an entity with a presence of its own. Oh, and learning to wait …

See also: A View from a Window

Da Vinci on … Self-evaluation

How to Judge of One’s Own Work

It is an acknowledged fact, that we perceive errors in the works of others more readily than in our own. A painter, therefore, ought to be well instructed in perspective, and acquire a perfect knowledge of the dimensions of the human body; he should also be a good architect, at least as far as concerns the outward shape of buildings, with their different parts; and where he is deficient, he ought not to neglect taking drawings from Nature.

It will be well also to have a looking-glass by him, when he paints, to look often at his work in it, which being seen the contrary way, will appear as the work of another hand, and will better shew his faults. It will be useful also to quit his work often, and take some relaxation, that his judgment may be clearer at his return; for too great application and sitting still is sometimes the cause of many gross errors.’

Leonardo da Vinci, ‘A Treatise on Painting’, chapter CCCLV

 

Da Vinci, Leonardo and Rigaud, John Francis (2015) ‘A Treatise on Painting’. Istanbul: e-Kitap Projesi

Visual Anthropology

‘Visual anthropology can be broadly understood as the anthropological study of the visual and the visual study of the anthropological’ (Banks, 2012).

Writing elsewhere, Banks also states: ‘most anthropologists produce visual representations in the course of their work (often photographs, but also video footage, maps, drawings and diagrams) and all societies make visible aspects of their social life and their cultural understandings. Visual anthropology is concerned with understanding the production and consumption of all these forms’ (Banks, 2017).

So, what is the relevance to my current photographic practice? By specialising in food photography, am I in fact practicing a form of visual anthropology?

I would argue that it is.

When we photograph, we are recording not only the trace of the object, but the trace of that objects purpose. Consequently, in doing so we are inevitably recording something of our society and its culture. The artefacts exist or existed, therefore, we must exist or have existed.

I would also argue that this holds true for all forms of photography – including landscapes, which act as proof of our human interest in our environment for aesthetic, industrial and scientific purposes.

‘Photographs are also of growing importance in research, and they have the potential to become an important element of social inquiry; this is because there is a vast and growing stock of photographs relating to social life past and present, but also because we can generate our own photos on many topics we research’ (Tinkler, 2013).

Trends come and go, arguably, trends that stay change their form – sometimes drastically. Salvage ethnography records peoples and cultures which are becoming extinct. Extinction is a fate that awaits the majority of species – it’s just a matter of time. By making visual records of ourselves, our possessions, our environment, and the things we do, we are recording a trace of our existence for both present and future generations. But, beyond that, for whom?

 

References:

Banks, Marcus (2017) ‘Visual Anthropology’, Discoveranthropology.co.uk [online]. Available at: https://www.discoveranthropology.org.uk/about-anthropology/specialist-areas/visual-anthropology.html (Accessed: Tuesday 05 September 2017)

Banks, Marcus (2012) ‘Visual Anthropology’, Oxfordbibliographies.com [online]. Available at: http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199766567/obo-9780199766567-0028.xml (Accessed: Tuesday 05 September 2017)

Tinkler, Penny (2013) Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research, London: SAGE Publications Limited

‘Repeat Photography’ … Revisited

‘Repeat photography, which involves re-photographing a location from the same vantage point, has become a common method to document the changes occurring in the landscape’ (McManus, 2011).

McManus goes on to write: ‘Artists, ecologists, geologists and anthropologists alike have employed this practice. What unites these disciplines across great ideological and cultural distances is their understanding of photography as a truthful witness to the passage of time.’

As a technique, repeat photography is widely used in the natural sciences to compare images of the same scene. Separated by time, independently the images provide data, together they provide information.

Images are evidence of a change having taken place, a before and after. Whilst by themselves they offer no full explanation for a particular change, the collection and interpretation of empirical, contextual data can subsequently identify the cause of that change.

Repeat photography, then, provides a starting point from which further investigations can be conducted.

Consequently, it is no surprise that rephotography is also an established research method within visual anthropology and Reiger (2011) writes accordingly: ‘perhaps the most reliable way we can use photography to study social change is through the systematic visual measurement technique of ‘repeat photography’ or, simply, ‘rephotography’.’

He continues ‘more frequently, though, we are likely to use repeat photographs to study change in a qualitative way. We will be looking for obvious or subtle clues about the changing character of social life’.

I find repeat photography an interesting area for research. Previously I revisited an image from my early days in food photography: the early image being purposefully chosen to allow me to compare images with the greatest possible time lapse.

At the time, I wrote:

‘I think revisiting images of food differs from the revisiting of other subjects because of the highly ephemeral nature of food: there are no fixed co-ordinates to which a food photographer can return in one or two years’ time. Consequently, because the original subject, for me, no longer exists, the real value in this exercise was in appreciating how my photographic practice has developed over time.’

I still believe this to be a robust statement.

Rephotography, to me, has significant value as a tool for evaluating my past and current work – for understanding what my work has been, and what it might become: a means of seeing how my technique has become refined over time. Indeed, repainting an old and familiar subject again and again is an established technique used by artists to improve their technical skills and enhance their ability to see detail.

As my interest in visual anthropology increases, I become more interested in way that I can use rephotography. For example, my current project, Cravings, looks at the struggle for an athlete in preparation for competition to maintain a strict ‘clean’ diet, and the desire to consume ‘comfort’ foods as the body depletes stores of fat to fuel the training

How can I, for example, use rephotography to record trends regarding the food we eat? And changes in the way we eat? How fast do food trends come and go? What are the conflicts that surround a particular food trend? Culturally, what will be most interesting for future generations to observe with regard to the way we eat today? Are some things less important to record, or will they all be of equal of equal importance to future generations? How does one decide now, for the future? By deciding am I transferring my own views onto how my images will be viewed, and interpreted, in the future? How does one record in an objective, and unbiased manner?

See also: Repeat Photography & Rephotography

 

References:

McManus, Karla (2011) “Objective Landscapes: The Mediated Evidence of Repeat Photography.” Intermediality 17: 105–118 [Online]. Available at: https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/im/2011-n17-im1817262/1005751ar.pdf (Accessed: Sunday 03 September 2017)

Reiger, Jon H. (2011) ‘Rephotography for Documenting Social Change’ in Margolis, Eric and Pauwels, Luc (ed.) The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods, London: SAGE Publications Limited, p. 133

 

Further Reading:

Tinkler, Penny (2013) Using Photographs in Social and Historical Research, London: SAGE Publications Limited

On Reflection: Week 11, Module Three

Problem …

Identifying themes for projects hasn’t always been a strong point.

To be more correct, more specific, identifying viable themes hasn’t been a strong point. Thinking of ideas isn’t a problem in itself – feasibility is the issue.

Add to that, the crushing self-doubt forcing me to ask myself ‘is anyone really interested in this [subject], apart from me?

A solution …

Two books, Freeman’s The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative, and Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, have been extremely insightful.

Taking storytelling apart, identifying and examining the constituent parts – exploring the narrative, has been an extremely educational process – one from which I feel I have gained enormously.

Taking a long-hard look at critical thinking, working on a series of mini-projects (not photographic in nature) which develop the skills for looking at situations from multiple perspectives, has also helped significantly.

As work continues on the assignments for module three in the last few weeks before submission, this knowledge has already proved itself highly beneficial, and continues to do so.

Seeing the Appeal

Sudek_Simple still life

Sudek, 1956. Simple Still Life

A Simple Still Life (1956) – what is it that makes Sudek’s image so visually appealing?

Sudek’s images have a definite aesthetic – his style is distinctly recognisable. Indeed, it was Sudek’s haunting style of photography which triggered my passion in still-life photography.

The image itself is of the skeletal remains of a decaying leaf, which appears quite dark against a lighter, somewhat patterned or textured background, possibly wood although this is hard to discern.

Typically dark, Sudek’s images are photographic impressions which represent light as a substance which occupies its own space, which has a presence of its own rather than merely influencing the way a three-dimensional subject is shown in a two-dimensional format.

Even in this simple image there is contrast, another trademark of Sudek’s photography being diversity of light values – perhaps better known in contemporary terms as wide dynamic range.

Clarence-white-rain-drops

Clarence H. White, 1908. Drops of Rain

The influence of Clarence White is visible in Sudek’s earlier work – highlights glint from within deep shadows cast by dimly lit interiors, the same highlights appear to glow in a manner which can only be described as vaguely Orton-esque.

Sudek was a master of capturing the ambience in an images lighting – highlights seem to retain the character of the natural light which was their source – it takes very little effort to discriminate between images taken in cold, wintry or warm, summery light and the viewer is immediately transported to another place, another time.

I would go as far as to suggest that the highlights in Sudek’s images have an aura.

Hodgson (2013) suggests that we frequently refer to images as being of something whilst failing to recognise that images are also about something. Barthes and Heath (1977) inform us of a signifier, something which is identifiable in an image and which conveys a denotational message, and the signified or the connotational (implied) meanings, ideas or ideologies which an image attempts to communicate to the viewer.

Consequently, Sudek’s images portray the grim reality of everyday life, the banal: but do so with a degree of hopefulness because where there is light, there is hope.

Was Sudek trying to capture, and in doing so describe, or perhaps re-aquaint us, with the notion that beauty lies all around us: in banality, in decay, even in death, even in the skeletal remains of a decaying leaf.

I am intrigued by what it is that distinguishes between subjects that will make visually appealing images, and those that won’t. I am interested in defining this, and if not defining it, then at the very least achieving some clarification.

Sudek is attributed with the following statement:

‘I believe that photography loves banal objects, and I love the life of objects.’

William Thackeray stated:

‘The two engaging powers of a photograph are to make new things familiar, and familiar things new.’

In terms of relevance to my photographic practice, this is getting to the heart of the issue. Alluding to a subject’s appeal, or perhaps the appeal of an image, lying (at least partly) in the way the subject is portrayed – aesthetically unappealing subjects can appear aesthetically appealing if photographed in an appropriate way.

I think contemporary food photography is overly commercialised. I also think that images of food can exist as works of art in their own right in addition to carrying a message – that is to say, have aesthetic value whilst also having a socio-political theme.

Food imaging, as a genre for photography or painting, is strong enough to stand on its own two feet and entertain us, and robust enough to serve the dual purpose of informing or educating us.

Food photography is a symbol of our disposable, commercial society – food is merely a commodity, any pleasure that it brings being temporary. And yet, in the past, images of food have been so much more, and I think can be, and should be, again.

There is huge appeal in Sudek’s images and each one presents me with a fantastic learning opportunity. I am currently exploring the use of monochrome images in food photography – drawing a direct line between my photography and that of Sudek. I think it is both interesting and informative to explore this concept: black and white images strip away some of the identity provided by colour, and as a result introduce some ambiguity. Additionally, black and white images focus the viewer’s attention on content and meaning – important at the moment as I explore the photographic narrative, and develop my skill in this area.

To return to our original question which, posed alternatively, might become why did Sudek choose to photograph this particular subject? What was it about this subject that captured his attention, that captured his imagination? What quality of this subject made him realise the potential for a strong photographic image?

Have we become desensitised to the beauty that surrounds us – are some, like Sudek, more ‘sensitive’ to the beauty that surrounds us? Did Sudek share an important characteristic with da Vinci – that of retaining a childlike inquisitive nature with regard to the world around them?

 

References:

Barthes, R. and Heath, S. (1977) Rhetoric of the Image in Image Music Text. London: Fontana

Francis Hodgson: Quality Matters (2013) YouTube Video, added by Huis Marseille, Museum for Photography [Online]. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dj3Wq-I7tc (accessed 19 February 2017)