The way they look

Dialogues with Solitudes – Dave Heath


I came across Dave Heath’s work when I was reading The Photographer’s Gallery newsletter about images and wellbeing. To me, photography and heath has always been closely linked as many artists and photographers I know have used photography as a channel to release their emotional turmoil, and to use it a a therapy to make sense of the world. Dave Heath, an American photographer who was abandoned by his parents at the age of four, had a difficult childhood and spent his years in orphanages and foster homes. At fifteen, a photo essay in Life on a young orphan in Seattle, “Bad Boy’s Story” by Ralph Crane, was to have a decisive impact on his future: “I immediately recognised myself in this story and photography as my means of expression.” Photography became a way for him to enter the world, it was not a matter of choice, but a necessity.

His work “Dialogues with Solitudes” captures moments of individuals in their solitudes and vulnerabilities. Although photographs are taken at a distance, the work has an opposing effect of tenderness and sensitivity as if the photographer was standing next to the subject hugging each and every one of them. “There is a range of care within the frames. What is further striking about this viewpoint of alienation is that not only that Heath took portraits of extreme empathy, but that when doing so, he nearly always managed to avoid eye contact with his subject. What could be construed as voyeuristic is instead in the very rare case of Heath about the empathy needed to let his subjects be themselves without his intervention.”

A lot of the photographs were crops of the original frame, all of which was done afterwards in the darkroom, plus editing to low key visual forms showing the isolation and loneliness of individuals, magnifying each and everyone’s emotions and expressions.  It was his intention that “almost all of his photographs give no indication of location, date, or action – Dave Heath sought to translate an intimate experience of the world, something lived and felt: tension, in the city streets, between the constrained proximity of bodies and the isolation of individuals, as if they had lost their sense of self. He focused on isolated figures in crowds, and filled his frame with their “absent to the world” presences.”

His work reminds me of the recently published work by Christopher Anderson’s APPROXIMATE JOY, which is also capturing portraits of people from Shenzhen and Shanghai and their China dream. Similar approach but giving off totally different vibe. One is sensitivity and care, the other is ethereal and fantasy.


The way they look

Martha – Sian Davey; Sasha – Claudine Doury

I put these two work together to discuss because both are about the transitional period from one identity to another. Sasha is about the transformation from childhood to adolescence; Martha is about the transformation from adolescence to adulthood. Both work were shot by their mothers who happens to be great photographers, and the work both talks about identity, the internal process for Martha and Sasha of reconstructing their identity and their relationship with others and the world.

Sasha – Claudine Doury (member of the VU agency and winner of a host of awards including the “Leica Oskar Barnack Award” in 1999, the “World Press” in 2000 and the “Prix Niépce” in 2004)

“Sasha is a series taken over 3 years time where Claudine Doury has caught the shifting from childhood to adulthood. With this young girl (her daughter, as a mirror her own adolescence) Doury witnesses the loss of childhood and questions the construction of identity, through secret games, intimate rites, fears and dreams of adolescence.”

I love this series, and also “Artek”, but this series grew on me even more. Both talk about the fine line between childhood and adolescence, the youthful metamorphosis. In “Artek”, her language was candid and genuine. She was capturing rather than making images. In “Sasha”, she used a totally different approach. Even though images are staged and created, they feel very natural. Her sensitive touch with the soft colour she used accentuate the feelings of tenderness and sensitivity. The ritual of the cut hair strike me the most. The symbolic meaning behind about growing up and leaving behind the childhood memories was striking for me. The other photograph I love was the image of her sister lying on top of Sasha on the bed. Sasha’s eyes were closed and gave me a feeling of some sort of a spiritual transformation from childhood to adolescent, visually presented literally.

Martha – Sian Davey (artist represented by Michael Hoppen Gallery, winners of several awards including PDN Book Award ‘Looking for Alice’)

This series is about Martha who was 16 years old transforming from adolescence to adulthood. Again the series talks about changes and how Martha reconstructed her identity and gained a deeper sense of self as a woman. The series of photographs included a lot of Martha’s portraits with different type of gazes, ranging from firm, questioning, doubts, blanked, playful, longing etc and her relationships with the nature, her sister and her friends. The images at the beginning suggests to me that she was at the edge of this bubble where she was blocked from the societal norms and expectations, that she could still be her free self as she wanted to be. Slowly the series moves towards how she grew to become a woman e.g. Martha as a role of a maid, dressing up and attending social events etc, suggesting how we, as women, all needed to act in the society – reserved, articulated, elegant etc. Towards the middle of the series, I love the photograph of Martha smoking a cigarette at night. If the series were progressing the way I thought it was, this image to me suggested that this is the time, if there is one, that she would turn from a caterpillar into a butterfly. And then after series shots of her friends got drunk, the first portraits of Martha comes up was of her wearing a pink sweater. Her posture and gaze speaks so differently to the ones before – her eyes were somehow suggesting to me that the transformation is confirmed. She is now a woman. While she still had some doubts (indicating by the few images of her and her friends during their swimming times), the last image of her in the kitchen wearing a sporty bra suggested a reconfirmation of her identity as a grown woman.

The two texts in between this series help readers like me a lot in understanding the work and having resonation with the work. It did lead me to go back again and again to experience Martha’s change, bringing memories of my adolescence and how I transformed.

The way they look

Sian Davey

Something about Sian’s images intrigue me deeply and leaves me a punch in my stomach that is subtle and long-lasting. Maybe it’s because her work is about family, community and self which is also the topics that I love to investigate on.

Didn’t learn that she was a psychotherapist before, the first work I was exposed to was “Looking for Alice”, a documentary series about her Down Syndrome daughter, Alice. Her images of Alice are intimate, honest, proud, and with lots of love. The light on these images are phenomenal, showcasing the daily lives of Alice and the family. There are a range of emotions displayed by Alice which touches me as these are also what we as humans and individuals would go through. The work reminds me of my childhood somehow, and those glimpse of moments somewhat match with my own versions of my memories.  The tenderness in these photographs make my heart aches in a loving way. I’m also particularly drawn to this work because of my background with SEN children. Maybe my understanding of them leads me to have a deeper understanding of these images. But even without such knowledge in a professional way, one would feel the sentimental touches in this work. My favourite image by far is the image of Alice sticking her tongue out (I’m guessing involuntarily) and touching grandma’s face, while grandpa is holding her and stroking her hair with tenderness. There is so much love in this image.

“Martha” was another piece of work that I was exposed to, which talks about her elder sister and her transitions during puberty. This is also a piece of stunning work which I relate it with Claudine Doury’s “Sasha” (I’ll write about this next 🙂 ).

Now the work “Together” which isn’t as well-recognised as the two above strikes me as well. It’s about family and what family means. People say if you want to learn about someone, see what books they read. I say, if you want to learn about a family, look at their homes and their dining etiquette. I’ve always love to see image of family eating together. In Chinese, dining etiquette is very important and it represents a lot about the Chinese culture and its association with the importance of family. Here, this series of work show so much about British families and its culture. How families are together, what sort of races there are, how each ethnic group come together as a family etc. The images show so much about freedom and roles in each family, the nature of Britain plays an important part of the family culture, TVs and food is also a trend in UK, mums are no longer the only care takers, there’s a mix culture of other ethnicities e.g. Indians, South Africans?, Italians? etc. The work for me is breathtaking and it makes me reminisce the time when I was living in the UK.

The way they look

Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra – a portrait photographer. Her work didn’t catch my eye in the beginning. I mean – when you first look at her work, they are just portraits of people – at the beach, after birth etc. Unlike Sally Mann nor Cindy Sherman, the aesthetics or the emotions on these people she photographed are, you can say, just ordinary.

And here’s the controversy. That’s the challenge she wanted to make with portraitures. She asked, why are we and when do we idealised photography as glamorous? Why do we have to exaggerate in photographs like those celebrities or the famous? Why do we stage such dramatic scenes and that’s the way to be photographed?

What she wanted to photograph was the opposite – the ordinary, the daily lives of people. And with her 4×5 camera, she wanted to capture the split second of truth – that collaboration with the subject of which is natural and authentic, yet posing or holding it for 2 minutes while she captures it in her frames. She wanted her work to feel like a snapshot. She stripped away all the unnecessary background that add context, and just wanted the reader to look closely and spend more time to read and understand the character, by little things like their posture, their skin colour, the frowns etc. Her work, is about being empathetic to the people she photographed, creating that space where she allows different circumstances to happen and with the right moment, she clicks.

A video of her talk:

I have to say, I’m learning to read more ordinary photographs. The micro-details in those photographs and what they bring to the whole piece. To appreciate them. And to acknowledge them. To break free from what I’ve learned from the society before, or actually more like what they have implanted in me and re-learn what I believe is important.

The way they look

Robert Mapplethorpe

Another legend, who’s work has brought up debates and discussions especially about what art is, whether his provocative type of work can be considered as art, and of course, his art work and the topics of LGBTQ and Aids. The documentary of him,

describes quite well about him as a person and his work throughout his career life. How and what has inspired him and his chronicle biography. Starting at 48:00mins, The documentary shows his work “X Portfolio” which includes all prints that he considered the most controversial ones.

If Sally Mann was challenging the fine line of art and child pornography, Robert Mapplethorpe was challenging art and sexuality. I don’t really have a depth of knowledge in this area, at least not about sexuality of men. If we are just talking about pictures, sexual content aside, his pictures are beautifully formed. They don’t evoke the sense of pornography that people have critiqued in Sally Mann’s work in “Immediate Family”. Even though the act itself is provocative, the images are in fact elegant and extremely well composed. Take Man in a Polyester Suit for example, he is showing his embracement for men’s sexuality and presented it gracefully with images. These photographs show how beautiful human forms are, including the penis, and I admire how these are often juxtaposed with his images of flowers. You can really feel how Robert idolises the human form, especially black penis.

But of course not everyone thinks like that. North Carolina senator Jesse Helms attacked this image in 1989 for its graphic depictions of same-sex relationships and bondage. The Southern politician was offended that the racy photograph had originally received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

It’s this complex message about race and black men and black power and black sexuality that really got to Helms. The American people…are disgusted with the idea of giving the taxpayers’ money to artists who promote homosexuality insidiously and deliberately.

I mean of course, these pictures ain’t exactly the pretty eye-candy type of work. When I look at Robert’s work, I still have this “ich” feeling and personally I’m not in love with the photographs. But what I am in love with, is his way of pushing forward what he believes is true to him. He was just, following his passion. Just that his passion is quite unique compared with the rest of the world. And that he was not afraid of his own devil, but bringing that forward with him as well.

The way they look

Sally Mann

I’ve always loved her work – Immediate Family. Before knowing any news about the controversy of this work, I find this book very sensual, intimate and shows very primitive lives of children and family. I looked at the work and I felt like I was transported back to the primitive age, during the time when societal beliefs were different. I felt a great sense of innocence from looking at these photographs. Children that were photographed felt genuine and Mann was in my view point capturing the true essence of childhood. I actually admired that this is how they chose to live their lives. And through these photographs, I understood the essence of childhood if children were brought up that way. To me she was just documenting and displaying lives as how it was lived. Rather than just picking those that looked “great”, she also picked those that doesn’t seem so appealing e.g. bruises, wet beds, bloody noses to show that life isn’t just about the great stuff, there are also these imperfects and “wrongs”.

In my mind I never doubted anything about this piece of work other than whether the children consented to put their photographs on display, in the public. But Mann’s work was crucified by criticising her morals as a mother and as a photographer.

Then while I was studying this work in more depth, I found lots of discussion about whether this work is art or abuse. The main article came from NY Times “The Disturbing Photographs of Sally Mann” where it questioned whether some of the photographs, the way they were posed and made were art or children molestation. Some even said that if the subjects were adults, they could be pornography. Sally Mann replied and gave her side of the story, stating her position and how this work has started and ended. She actually went through tough times and was also worried about paedophiles too of the area.

For me this work can raise so many questions.

Standing on the viewpoint of an artist, I can’t agree more with what Mann said about her role as a mother should not be confused with her role as a photographer. And that her children’s roles were different too when they were in front of the camera. This doesn’t, in my point of view, change at all because they are children, and specifically her children.

Standing on the viewpoint of a critic, yes I do see some photographs that are borderline inappropriate, meaning, they can easily be misinterpreted based on most’s knowledge of culture and societal beliefs at modern days. And yes – that can lead to people questioning her motives, her morals and she as a person. And who knows? They may really do in fact attract paedophiles.

I guess my question is, whether Mann was putting her role as a mother above her role as a photographer. Everything is okay up until the point where these photographs are published. If she knew society was likely to think that way, would she have given up publishing the work to protect her children? Or would she think that there’s nothing wrong with this work (in her point of view) and that she did every possible moral and ethnical thing she could with her children for the work to be published?

I don’t know. It could be either way. She could have a strong belief that she needs to put this out just to make a statement that this is the way families should be documented and memorised. Or it could be that, even this statement isn’t as important as to protect her children. You know but then, she’s a photographer.

This work actually led me to learn, as viewers, how are we really judging and analysing photographs? And how should we? Do we take into account of the photographers’ personal life with the work they make? Or do we leave that out and just critique the photographs made by the artist objectively?

The way they look

Cindy Sherman

I figured. Well I figured a long time that – to really learn something, you have to use what you learned through looking, reading, writing, listening, talking or doing, and translate the method to another form. And the more the merrier so it really sticks to you through all your 5 senses. The one works most effectively for learning, is to teach what you learn. If you can explain it, you are half way there.

So, here – I am writing about the work I’m studying.

Cindy Sherman – I’ve know her work beforehand, but as I mentioned, I only knew about it, I didn’t get a chance to study it closely. And the reason I picked her work is because I was doing research on portraitures and self-portraits for inspirations and ideas for the work I’m doing myself.

Her work is mainly about her performance of being in different roles or characters, ranging from different classes of the Americans to re-interpreting historical classic paintings. She as a photographer stages herself into these different scenes and situations and she has drawers of different wigs, prosthetics and techniques to help her perform and act into characters. The most renowned work she has made is “Untitled: Film Stills” which are monographs of herself performing as film characters, and as a photographer, capturing that cinematic scene as a film still.

I personally love this work a lot. Being able to play the character and staging these photographs yet to not looked staged is quite a difficult task. I’m sure her work involves inspirations from classic American films.

Her work makes me question, in reality, how much of our lives are we performing? Are we also in reality being different characters in different sets? Is there one honest self? Or are we merely a collection of different selfs?