I picked up a copy (the last one actually), published by the excellent Cafe Royal Books (1) from Foyles on Charing Cross Road last week. Deakin is well known for his street photography and portraits from the 1950’s and 1960’s London art scene, in particular those of Francis Bacon who, it’s thought, commissioned Deakin to take source material for his paintings. The short introduction suggests that the portraits featured, all double exposures, were most likely done at Bacon’s request since ‘the multiple viewpoint resulting from Deakin’s double exposure is virtually impossible to achieve with a Rollieflex camera’ (2).
Deakin is also well known for being part of the Soho art scene himself (he was an aspiring painter and held this in higher regard than photography), and was regarded as unlikeable, unkind, and knowns as an alcoholic (3). His use of a the Rolleiflex camera, which is held at waist level, and Deakin’s short height (so he was typically looking up at his subject) resulted in an awkward relationship with his subjects, so Deakin’s portraits are often unflattering and disturbing.
I went to the Photographers Gallery to see the exhibition ‘John Deakin and the lure of Soho’ (4), which featured Deakin’s portraits of artists (Francis bacon, Lucian Freud, Eduardo Paolozzi), as well as his fashion photography (Deakin also worked for Vogue – but was sacked for porning his camera equipment). A lot of the vintage prints were in poor shape and I think had been rescued after Deakin’s death. The Vogue prints were in much better condition as they had been kept in the their archive. I really liked Deakin’s portraits and his take on the bohemian, seedy, scene of the time, which is way different to the plastic Soho of the present, rapidly being bought up by developers, or edged out by the Crossrail expansion.
Curated by Martin Parr, Strange and Familiar brought together international photographers who have captured and interpreted the identity of Britain. I’m interested in street photography, have spent years trying to get a handle on it, and knew the exhibition would be useful research for the first two assignments as part of the People and Place module. It’s a hugely relevant exhibition for the topics in People and Place, with portraiture by Rineke Dijkstra, Bruce Gilden, and street photography by Gary Winogrand and Bruce Davidson. There is also a great section in the exhibition with lesser known (at least to me) photographers and their takes on London in the 1950s and 60s London (Sergio Larrain, then Frank Habicht and Gian Butturini). Parr is a well known collector and expert on photobooks and these are also exhibited.
I’m just including my notes here from three of the photographers whose work seems to be really relevant to topics covered in the ‘People Aware’ section of the course. I’ll go back to them for write-ups of later sections of the module, for the sake of a clearer line of sight between research and the exercises and assignments.
The three photographs included from Rineke Dijkstra’s represent the The Buzz Club series (1995). Dijkstra’s images are of teenage clubbers, who posed for her. Dijkstra was interested in the ‘uniform’ of the girls (blonde hair, black clothes) but how they were still completely individual. They’re large scale portraits taken with a 4 x 5 field camera and shot against a white background. This set up and her style means that the viewers focus is on the subjects’ pose, gesture and clothing. The exhibition catalogue (1) refers to the technical camera that Dijkstra uses which captures detail, but slowness is required to use it. ‘This slowness creates an awareness in the sitter of their being photographed’. The work was continued, through video of the teenagers dancing and drinking (again, against a white background) which was paired with footage taken in a Netherlands nightclub, and presented as The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/Mystery World, Zaandam, NL (1996-1997). Dijkstra returned to Liverpool in 2008 – 2009 to take portraits of young clubbers at the Krazyhouse club.
Bruce Gilden’s portraits are of ‘underdogs’ of the Black Country, and a continuation of his Face series. They are lit starkly with flash and extremely close, framed so only the head is visible. And the choice of subject, people who look raw and/or have gone through some pretty hard times, means that the viewer focuses on the detail of subjects faces, which is often extreme (heavy lines, thick make up, severe thread veins). They’re unsettling, which is probably the point, although they have been labelled cruel and demeaning in the press. Quoted from the exhibition guide ‘What makes Gilden’s work so compelling is that he renders visible the disenfranchised, photographing the faces we are inclined to look away from’. The work followed a series of UK portraits published as A Complete Examination of Middlesex (a project commissioned by the Archive for Modern Conflict). See sources section below for an article in Vice Magazine (Gilden is a long standing contributor) on this series (2), and an interview with Gilden about the Black Country portraits (3).
The last of the photographers, where the work presented involved subjects being truly aware, was Tina Barney. Barney’s portraits, from her wider The Europeans series, are of the wealthy, staged, and take place in formal settings. While Barney was well networked in America, and her subjects were typically friends or family, for the images presented she relied on introductions. The relationship with her subjects for the Europeans was more of a professional artist, with identity (largely I think with tradition and wealth) communicated through props and settings.
Some notes from the ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Eggleston is known as a pioneer in the development of colour art photography because of his images of everyday urban American life, his use of the dye transfer process (in his search for the ‘ultimate quality colour print’ – at the time the process was used for high-end commercial work), and due to his solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1976. This show is widely considered to be a key moment in the recognition of colour photography as a contemporary art form.
The exhibition groups together around a hundred of Eggleston’s portraits, many untitled and never exhibited before, from his early black and white work to better known colour photographs.
For many of the portraits, including diners, shoppers, people waiting for a bus, the subjects are unaware. For others, including the Nightclub Portraits (1973) subjects seem to be, or clearly were, aware of the camera and were presumably asked to pose.
The Nightclub Portraits were taken in bars and clubs around Memphis using a large format (5×7) camera and a portable lighting set up. I had come across a smaller selection of these portraits before in the Everything was Moving exhibition a couple of years ago at the Barbican.
A portrait is also featured of Eggleston’s friend, ‘an eccentric dentist’ T.C. Boring. Boring stands naked in a blood red bedroom with graffiti covered walls (‘God’, ‘Mona’, ‘Walker’), bed unmade, cigarette left on the sideboard (close to burning it) and remote control and lamp at the edge of the [tight] frame. The exhibition guide notes suggest this was the same bedroom as the location for Eggleston’s most famous ‘Red Ceiling’ photograph taken in 1973.
The introductory notes to the exhibition refer to Eggleston embracing the snapshot style – but notes that the photographs are not straightforward documentary or sentimental, and as a result the viewer is asked ‘to find something more valuable and elusive in the images’. Much of the commentary on the exhibition also rates to Eggleston’s ‘democratic’ style and ambiguous images (see 1 and 2 in Sources section for reviews).
The exhibition runs until 23 October 2016 at the National Portrait Gallery (see 3 below).
An exercise to work through variations in pose. The course material suggests reviewing magazines beforehand to get an idea of variety. Even though a lot of the set-ups and poses are just unrealistic in a home setting (I was looking at Numero, Sunday Times Style supplement etc) it was useful, for thinking about variations within poses, and placement of limbs, in particular where to place hands. As in previous exercises, I asked a member of the family to pose for me – pretty much essential given the amount of patience needed on their part.
There were quite a few constraints to deal with doing this…
– For some of the images (1-4 below) I used a backdrop, but subsequently abandoned it. I got it cheap and it was pretty much impossible to get the creases out. It also wasn’t really big enough (hence the exposed flooring on a couple of the images). You get what you pay for I suppose, but I’m now going to invest in some decent seamless paper backdrops.
– Initially I used a tripod with a cable release as I wanted to keep the framing consistent and use a reasonably low ISO rating (although see below on light source). I decided to drop this as it was pretty tedious moving the whole kit about every time I wanted to get a different pose.
– I used a softbox for light, which didn’t have a lot of power, so I did need to keep the ISO pretty high (for the majority of images I couldn’t use slower shutter speeds as I had given up on the tripod). The answer here I realise would have been bigger lights.
– I was also very limited on space in my place, which was a real constraint when the subject was standing, and meant that I couldn’t use always use a long focal length (these were all taken with a 24-70mm zoom – so I could be flexible – actual focal length for each image stated in descriptions below).
This exercise demonstrates the result of varying focal length on a portrait, with progressively more distortion from wideangle (24mm), compared to standard focal length (50mm here), or medium/telephoto (70mm and 85mm). The longer focal lengths produce more attractive results. Elements of the face at wide angle are often out of proportion, whereas longer lenses have the effect of flattening features. While aperture will also be important, depth of field is reduced with a longer lens, so the background is thrown of out focus to a greater extent. The series below also illustrates that more of the background is included with a shorter lens (although note the barrelling, which is probably exaggerated by relatively wide aperture at f/4). While for a formal portrait this is unlikely to be desirable, wide angle lenses are used more commonly in reportage where inclusion of surroundings add context to the subject of the photograph.
This exercise involves setting up a portrait session, and taking a sequence of portraits where the subject is looking directly into the camera, or away from it, and using judgement to determine which produces the better image. As with most of these exercises, I asked a member of the family to pose for me – I’m not sure someone that I didn’t know would have the patience. I used a simple set-up, with the camera on a tripod, and a cable release (so easier to talk to the subject and no need to constantly be looking through the viewfinder) and used the same focal length throughout. This set up also meant that I could ensure that roughly the same amount of space was occupied by the subject in each frame. I took these outside with a softbox to brighten the shadows (behind the camera to the right of the subject at about 45 degrees) and a reflector to the left of the subject to even up the lighting on the face. Again using an identical set-up throughout meant that the lighting would be consistent across all of the images. As I knew the subject it was easy to give a bit of direction where needed to make sure I produced a reasonably varied set of photographs in terms of where the gaze was and position of the head.
I did this exercise in conjunction with the next in the course material, which asks for a review of a portrait sequence. The number of asterisks against each image below indicates my rating. As requested in the course notes, I have rated each image as either not good (*), acceptable (**), good (***) and identified what I think is the single best shot (****). I should be upfront and state here that most of the poorer quality images (which were either not sharp enough or there was really obvious flaws such as the subject’s eyes being closed) didn’t make it past my editor. I also had to be selective in what I have posted since some of the differences in expression or pose were very marginal. The course notes suggest that at least 20 images are taken. I had a set of over 70 (I stopped at this as I thought I had exhausted the possible variations but, on reflection, I could have taken more face on with the head straight – and perhaps altered the positioning of the subject in the frame).
The checklist in the course notes is a useful guide for assessing portraits – I mainly concentrated on composition, angle of the head, and facial expression. I’d managed to control for some of the other criteria mentioned through my set-up (e.g. using a plain background so no distractions were behind the subject, making sure nothing else was in the frame so the whole series is simple, and the lighting balance was good due to the use of external light and a reflector as well as ambient light, and the lighting is consistent across the sequence). I took some notes throughout, and started off with some fairly standard portraits with the subject looking into the camera and then a number where the gaze was away to varying degrees (1 through to 7 below). The portraits where the subject is more side on to the camera (8 through to 14) are probably a less typical pose for a portrait. I thought these would be the better shots when I took them and took a fair number with subtle variations to gesture and pose but, after reviewing them, I don’t have enough of the subject’s head in the shot and they look a little awkward (for a further edit I would be inclined to crop so the white space to the right is not so prominent). However, I think these work better than the similar sequence where the other side of the subject’s side of the face is closest to the camera (19-22), perhaps because this position didn’t feel as natural to the subject, and there wasn’t actually much space on this side for her to look into. After reviewing the whole set I would say the better shot is probably where the subject is face on (16). It’s a fairly formal pose but the subject is at ease, with the head to a slight angle.
The idea of this exercise is for the subject to be preoccupied and involved in some sort of activity, but the image shouldn’t necessarily capture the activity itself. The focus should be the person and the facial expression. I can appreciate the role of active portraits, particularly in magazine and newspaper features, where the subject wouldn’t be asked to pose, but instead would be taking part in an familiar activity, and sometimes perhaps not even aware of the camera. It’s not a style of that I am used to, at least where the subject is aware that you are taking their portrait, and I should have tried to capture the subject in a more engaging activity here as the image has little to draw to the viewer’s attention. As the course notes explain, a large number of images are usually needed to edit down from (inevitably there will be gestures that look awkward, hands obscuring the face etc).
An exercise involving portraits, ideally using the same subject and framing, but different lighting conditions. I needed to have a couple of attempts at this. While on the first attempt I was doing different things, the difference in lighting effect was marginal so I did them again, using natural light only, natural light with a reflector, and two images where I used a softbox (closer from the side, then further away from the back). I stuck to the same location. With hindsight I should have used some others, as I had limited variation from the natural light source which was daylight coming in from the window. Still, there is still quite a stark difference where artificial light is introduced, evening the lighting and reducing shadow on the subject’s face.
The second exercise in the ‘People Aware Module’ of OCA People and Place. It’s about finding different backgrounds for a portrait, either full frame or torso. I found the backgrounds below in a park, hence all were woods, stone, shutters etc. The guidance notes state how ideally backgrounds should have tonal and textural simplicity from edge to edge. The exception to this might be where a subject is deliberately placed to show context of their environment. I settled on the shutter for the background (but taken from with the subject at an angle rather than flat on – and admittedly probably a bit too close) for the portrait as it was the cleanest background and provided a good contrast I thought. I used natural light and a reasonably long focal length of 75mm (equivalent – a 50mm lens on a cropped sensor) to limit distortion of facial features, and a wide aperture of f/2.8 to soften the lines on the shutters.