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.
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).
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.
The first exercise in People and Place asks for four portraits, starting with a close crop of a subject’s face; then scaled to show the subjects’s head and shoulders; then torso (with arms and hands); then full figure. The images below were all taken in one sitting using natural light with the camera mounted to a tripod and using a cable release. For the first two at least, the elements of focus are the face and eyes. In the third, the eye is also drawn to the subject’s hands. With hindsight I might have set the series up differently, so that the light was stronger on the side of the face closest to the camera, but there are later exercises that deal with lighting where I can take alternatives. Likewise I mainly kept focal length at 70mm (apart from the full figure – as it wasn’t practical to distance myself any further from the subject) as other exercises explore the effect of using different focal lengths on a subject.