Photography Reviews

The beauty of deadpan

I never believe in a certain style of photography that artists or photographers should work towards. Photography is photography and that they just reflect a certain stage of who you are at that moment in time or the story you want to tell requires this form of visual language. There was a phase when I really enjoyed the gritty, high contrast, emotional photographs e.g. Jacob Au Sobol, Trent Parke, Hajime Kimura etc. And somehow this is dying out and I start to appreciate the ordinary, deadpan aesthetics of photographs. Actually, more like I can now see their difference in purposes.

John Myers‘ recently published book Looking at the Overlooked speaks to me this way. It describes a way of encountering the world. The images, all taken within walking distance of Myers’s home in Stourbridge are scenes encountered without narrative or emotion, as if Myers were the first person to come across the places he turned his lens upon. The work is sequenced as a journey through a town, generic and not site-specific, a backdrop to the mundane and everyday that is too often seen and yet not considered as part of our visual landscape.

© John Myers, from the book ‘Looking at the Overlooked’; Source @ RRB photobooks

He explained to BJP, “I think one of kind of great problems in a lot of photography is that photographers think they’re creating a story,” he added. “For me, too many photographs are full of chatter and noise and movement – newspapers are sold on the basis of noise, the more noise you can generate the better, and photographers go down that route. But what I enjoy is work that is silent. August Sander, Eugene Atget, even Walker Evans, the photographs are silent.”

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Photography Reviews

Hanafuda – Will Matsuda

Will Matsuda, grew up in Honolulu and now based in New York created a series called Hanafuda during an artist residency which reminds him of home and his Japanese Heritage. “Hanafuda” which translates as “flower cards” is a 200-year-old Japanese card game with roots in gambling. The game is a 48-card deck with a dozen suits. Each suit has its own flora that represents a month in the year. His grandmother taught him how to play the game when he was young, and when he found similarities of these flowers during his stay at the artist’s residency, he started to create this series as a way to connect to his family and his home.

© Will Matsuda, from the series ‘Hanafuda’; Source @ Will Matsuda

I love his diptychs. As he mentioned in an article published by NPR, “Some of the resulting photographs look nothing like the cards, and that’s okay. When immigrants can’t find ingredients from back home, they go to the local store and make familiar but entirely new dishes.”

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Photography Today

Photography = a piece of belonging?

“To the imagination, to memory, nothing is really lost if
it is experienced with affirmation. … In my photographs…,
I attempt to arrive at something poetic, something I can hold on to both as an image and as emotional sustenance…”

Taken From Memory published by Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg is the result of a 25-year long-time project by American photographer Sheron Rupp (b. 1943 in Mansfield, Ohio). Searching for connections to her own biographical past, Rupp took these photographs in rural America looking to find a piece of someone else’s life to give her a sense of “belonging”. Personal in nature, these photographs offer a stirring glimpse into the life in the commonly disregarded rural areas and small towns between the bustling metropolises of the East and West Coast. Without pretence or irony, without assertation or judgment, Rupp’s impressions from the past also work as a commentary on today’s US society.

To be honest, just judging from seeing the images on the screen, I like some of the images from the book, but I’m not in love with it. But what I really want to talk about from this book is what Rupp said, “these photographs were taken at a time when I felt desperate to find a piece of someone else’s life, which could give me a sense of ‘belonging.’” The question is, aren’t we all photographing something which gives us a sense of ‘belonging’? Isn’t that the reason why we take pictures? Because that’s the stuff we care so much about, which basically is really something that we truly want to be associated with? I belong to this community, I belong with this concept, I belong with this social issue. We are objectifying these feelings into images and prints so that we can hold onto and present them, so others who happen to want to ‘belong’ to the same space would resonate, would want to be part of it?

The notion of making pictures feels like a constant need to lead ourselves to be part of something, to belong somewhere, to associate with a moment in time. I don’t know for certain. It’s a theory I came up with. But what’s intriguing is the work by Dawn Parsonage which maybe is one of the outliers of this theory. Her “boring” series brilliantly highlights the private struggles we all face when bored – the struggle to find meaning, to find ways to occupy our restless minds. Do we want to be bored? Especially living in the 21st century when mass information can be loaded for you every second? I certainly don’t think that this is a concept that modern people would want to belong with, but it is no doubt a piece of us that we have and most often deny.

© Dawn Parsonage, from the work ‘Boring’; Source @ Dawn Parsonage

While some works remind us about what we care about, what we want to belong to; some remind us about what really belongs with us that we are constantly fighting to avoid or deny.

References: http://theheavycollective.com/2019/05/05/qa-sheron-rupp-taken-from-memory/

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Photography Reviews

Summer Camp – Mark Steinmetz

American photographer, Mark Steinmetz, is known for his timeless photographs of “ordinary people in the ordinary landscapes they inhabit.” As Jorg Colberg says in one of his articles,

“If anything, what we really should be talking about when we use the word “timeless” is a photographer’s sensibility, a sensibility that in some form is translated into the pictures: what do the photographs make us feel (instead of: what do we see)? Are those feelings tied to specific eras, or do they connect to something that falls outside of the continuum of time? And what would that falling out of time mean?”

For the recent listed best photobook of the year 2019 by Chose Commune at BJP  ‘Summer Camp’, it is a book about youths during trips away at summer camp. Whether it is in the 60s or in the 90s, the feeling of leaving home and entering a space with other kids just before their teenage years can easily resonate with many of the viewers – the “timelessness” of this book. The photographer brilliantly captured the moments of the excitement, the pain, the friendships, the late games etc, just as they are, with a touch of tenderness and softnesses.  It marks the transition period from kids to adolescence, where as Steinmetz described, “when a little kid laughs or cries, it doesn’t have real resonance, whereas if someone has these emotions between eight and 12, there’s a poignancy to it. When they become adults, it’s just not the same. Many of these photos are about the predicament of being a kid put into a certain situation. In one picture, these girls who have been so horrible to each other all summer are now parting – and the depth of their love just gushes out. It’s almost excruciating…”

Summercamp-2© Mark Steinmetz, from the series ‘Summer Camp’ ; Source @ Mark Steinmetz

© Mark Steinmetz, from the series ‘Summer Camp’ ; Source @ Mark Steinmetz

Note: Also check out his most recent work ‘Terminus’, another brilliant series.

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Photography Today, The Art of Philosophy

Graffiti – a form of art or vandalism?

 

 

 

Graffiti isn’t something that we usually come across with in the walks of Hong Kong streets. Here the streets are almost always clean and free from street and public art. In these 4 months and counting of the political outburst from the anti-extradition bill, there’s been a blossom of graffitis, spray-paint wordings, sticker arts, poster arts, street installation arts etc in all 18 districts of Hong Kong.

Almost everyday I have to take a cross-harbour bus to work, and everyday I walk on this footbridge from where the bus stop was to the MTR station, a journey of less than 5 minutes. On that footbridge, each and every time I walked along it, I am surrounded by graffitis and poster arts about the current political movement, slightly different every week.

One day from almost a month ago, out of the blue, the footbridge was swiped clean. The graffitis were wiped out and the posters were torn down, as if nothing happened – life goes on and the footbridge walkway becomes just as how it was before. This change threw me,

why does the society (well government) wants these to be cleaned? Were they “not-clean” beforehand? If so, what is “not-clean” about these graffitis? Is it because of the content? If so, surely only people who have knowledge of Chinese can understand it, or else it’s just a bunch of symbols? Or, is it because it is damaging properties? That it is somehow destroying the artistic minimalism of the property? What is the intention behind wiping these out? Is it really just about “cleanness” or are there hidden agenda e.g. induce the idea of forgetting / erasing what happened? There are actually street arts in parts of Hong Kong e.g. the one on Hollywood road, what makes someone / a group of authorities to say this can be on the wall and that can’t? What values are they judging by for these types of “art”?

During the movement these 4 months, there were actually street installations of origami cranes e.g. outside Fortress Hill station, why were these being removed? If the phrase 「時代革命,光復香港」were spray-painted with a bit more artistic quality and aesthetics elements, would they be considered more art than vandalism?

So many questions popped up from the experience that day, which led me to read up and research about the history of graffitis, the type of graffitis there are, why and how graffitis came about and how it relates to culture and politics (which will be discussed in the next blog post).

 

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Photography Reviews

The Bare Life – Philippe Grandrieux

Empty Gallery – one of my go-to galleries in Hong Kong which displays edgy contemporary artworks that are not exclusive to visual arts but other forms of medium or even crossing boundaries to other forms and media.

Philippe Grandrieux “The Bare Life” is currently exhibited from end of Sept til end of November. The text from the gallery describes the work really well.

“The performance in The Scream resemble an uncanny mixture of religious rituals, and choreographic workshop.  The affective intensity of these performances has only been heightened by Grandrieux’s decision to both to completely surround the spectator with images, and to introduce a slight delay of video, producing an effect no unlike the temporal blurring of which accompanies accumulated sensation. A sequence of 11 staggered projections surround the viewer within a purpose-built chamber, confronting them with a quivering multitude of naked bodies….

Bodies convulse and flail in an object choreography which oscillates between moments of surprising tenderness – the nearly automatic self-soothing activity of a body humming, rocking and whispering to itself – and moments of brutality – manifested not only by the titular scream, but also clawing, twitching, groveling of a body in distress.”

“The 3 single-channel work deals with the theme of anxiety – also explore the enigma of the human body and our relationship to our own materiality. Installed as life-size projections within the architecture of the gallery, each work present a human figure(s) enveloped by cover of darkness, moving according to an obscure logic beyond our comprehension.”

The works definitely confronts the viewers of their relationship with their sensations by being enfolded within the performer’s act. That confrontation sort of led us to awake our bodies as well and become extremely aware of how they respond to different stimuli. Visually striking and enigmatic, somehow disturbing too with the performer’s body almost felt as if she was not present, only with bones and skins moving according to the choreography. There were moments of her body postures which felt as if she was an alien, especially when the light source is not a warm but a fluorescent tone.  All in all, a mind-bending piece of work.

 

 

Snapshots of the single 3-channel projections @ Empty Gallery

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Photography Theories

Ways of Seeing – John Berger

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this BAFTA award winning documentary series about art and images. But every time I re-watch this again, something new inspires me. This is the magic of really great work.

Episode 1 – John Berger talks about the reproduction of images due to the invention of photography and new media e.g. television. How this has an impact on how we appreciate art from the past.

In summary, he talks about how art was appreciated within context – the frame, the place displayed which creates the whole aesthetic experience subject to that piece of art. And art was unique in that sense – one piece one place one time. With the invention of photography, art becomes trasmittable – we no longer need to go to a particular place or travel to a certain country to have this experience. The art pieces can be delivered on prints, on television, in the context of our home. But will this experience be the same?

Berger argues that how we see the original art piece is entirely different to how it is being transmitted and displayed in front of our eyes. In some way, you are able respond to the original art piece by choosing how to see and appreciating the authenticity of it; in contrast, with the transmitted work, how the art work is arranged (e.g. zoom in or out, panning left or right, what music to play in background) is entirely coded to what the presenter wants us to see. The art can become easily manipulated and diverge from its original meaning. It has become like words rather than holy relics. He emphasised at the end that we need to be sceptical of how these images and meanings are arranged.

 

Episode 2 – he talks about the differences between being naked and nude – where the former is about being seen as oneself, whereas the latter is presenting oneself as an object, being on display without clothing. This refers to the portrayal of the female nude, an important part of the tradition of European art. Berger examines these paintings and asks whether they celebrate women as they really are or only as men would like them to be. Photography has elevated this issue to raising beauty in the public image of women and how this influences how women see themselves today.

 

Episode 3 – in this episode Berger examines where the value of art comes from. Before photography, art was somehow raised above life, turning it into a kind of religion. He said that when you buy a painting you also buys the look of the thing it represents. Early paintings were representations of private possessions, and some how possessing these paintings deduce a form of pride – because the sense of what you can put your hands on became closely connected with the sense of ownership. The celebration of merchandise began.

 

Episode 4 – the last episode he talks about the publicity of images. Where traditional art shows private possessions that consolidates the owner’s sense and value, the public images share a message of what we don’t have. The sight of it makes us want to possess it so to be envied. Publicity is a way of manufacturing glamour. It plays upon fear. Objects themselves are neutral, only publicity and images that raises or demolishes their values.

“In the urban world, we are surrounded by images of an alternative way of life. We may remember or forget these images – but briefly we take them in. And for a moment they stimulate our imagination, either by way of memory or by anticipation. But where is this other way of life?”

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Photography Theories

Rhetoric of the Image – Roland Barthes

Barthes, has clearly demonstrated that there are signs in photographs. In his theory,

Signs (anything that convey a meaning) = signifier (things that give meaning) / signified (the mental concept of the things presented)

Here, is the famous advertisement that Barthes uses in his text “Rhetoric of the Image” to explain his theory of how to read photographs.

panzani-preview

According to Barthes, there are 4 signs here that can be read from this image:

  • the half opened bag and the unpackness signifies returned from the market
  • the tomatoes, pepper and pasta signify Italianicity – the food themselves as well as the colours, constituting to the Italian flag – green, red and white
  • the collection of the objects signifies a dinner to be prepared, the tin of product surrounded by fresh and natural food signifies its equivalence to them
  • the image composed is with relevance to painting categories of “still life”

There are also denoted message here, meaning the signifier is same as the signified. E.g. the image of tomatoes signifies tomatoes, the image of pasta signifies pasta. We still need to acquire these anthropological knowledge to be able to read these messages.

In his text, he claims that there are 3 messages from a photograph:

  • linguistic message
    • anchorage – this is the text which acts as an anchoring point for viewers to derive information from the image. For press photographs especially, the text often directs what information to focus and what information to ignore in an image, “remotely controlling the viewer towards a meaning chosen in advance.”
    • relay – this is text which complements and works alongside with the images in e.g. comic strips or films. Creating a dialogue. The meaning is found in the sequence rather than the image itself.
  • denoted message
    • He said that the denoted and connoted message is relational, not having one without the other. At least, there is no such image of representing just the denoted message.
  • connoted message
    • With connoted message, it truly depends on the knowledge of the person, as the reading of these signs are not fixed but varied – practical, national, cultural, aesthetics etc. And the language of the image is not just the total utterance emitted but also received

All in all, he claims that the denoted message counterbalances or neutralises the connoted message, and while the connoted message refers to culture, denoted message refers to nature. It is what both exists that makes the rhetoric of an image.

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Photography Theories

The Photographic Message – Roland Barthes

What is a photographic message? Is there a structural analysis into what a photograph transmits?

A lot of the philosophers have been saying how closely photography is related to realism (Walton, 1983). Even Barthes is saying that it is a literal transformation of the reality onto light sensitive photographic paper (what he later calls – the denoted message). Making a photograph does not rely on the beliefs of the creator, as Walton says, unlike a piece of artwork. A photograph, although still depends on the choices of the framing and technical skills of the creator, it in itself is something recorded from what’s in the world. Whereas with art, the creator can create and put onto the canvas of anything that he imagines or hallucinates.

But Barthes argues that there is a second message that photography transmit – known as the connoted message – which derives from the decisions of the creator e.g. frame, composition, style to the extend of how the society receives it i.e. inputting the cultural context into the composition of the photograph. Even with press photographs there are connoted messages – from composition, treatment, words attached to it plus the newspaper company itself are symbols to how the public reads these signs (note: this is especially transparent with the image consumption during the midst of Hong Kong protests). Barthes says that the connotation is realised at the different levels of production of the photograph – trick effects, pose, objects to photogenia, asetheticism and syntax.

Trick effects are often used in propagandas e.g. the American press 1951 photo of Senator Millard Tydings and Communist leader Earl Browder. The heavily connoted message in this photograph is really a sign only for certain society and people with certain values. Without understanding the history or the cultural context of what was happening in USA during 1951, this image is merely an image of two people conversing.

Objects are inducers of association of ideas e.g. a bookself = intellectual. So are people (but the associations are more complex e.g. Mother Teresa = compassion). In a photograph, objects and people are the vocabulary of the visual image, and how they are composed and posed turn this lexicon into syntax. “E.g. a window opening on to vineyards and tiled roofs; in front of the window a photograph album, a magnifying glass, a vase of flowers. Consequently, we are in the country, south of the Loire (vines and tiles), in a bourgeois house (flowers on the table) whose owner, advanced in years (the magnifying glass), is reliving his memories (the photograph album) – Francois Mauriac in Malagar (photo in Paris-Match).” (Barthes, 1971).

With photogenia, it relates to the technology of photographic production (lighting, exposure, printing) through which certain effects (motion blur, double exposure etc) create connotations in the photograph; aestheticism is about connotation based on classical paintings e..g classical rules of compositions and syntax, is about the connotation created by viewing a sequence of images and which emerges from the photographs in relation to each other rather than singly.

What Barthes also mentioned in this chapter from Image, Music, Text (1971) book is the relationship between text and images. Formerly, images illustrates the words but when text are attached to an image, it has a parasitic nature to quicken the understanding of the image and it affects how the image is being read. As Barthes says,

“The relationship is not the image which comes to elucidate or realise the text, but the latter comes to sublimate, patheticise or rationalised the image.”

Sometimes the text accompanied can invent a totally new message or contradict the image to produce a different message to the reader. So the big question is, do we read photographs based entirely on its entity, or the message is eluted or deluded by the surrounding text?

 

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Blog

A brand new start

1st October.

This day marks the brand new direction of this photoblog. I’m going to be working and writing about photography and contemporary visual arts, in hope to motivate self-learning, as well as sharing my love of visual arts with those who share similar sensibilities in art.

These topics will include:

  • The Origin of Photography – mostly about theories and philosophy of photography (back from where it all started)
  • Photo Critiques – discuss and comment on contemporary image-based works worldwide
  • Exhibition Reviews – this will mostly be exhibitions based in Hong Kong or wherever I get a chance to travel to photo festivals and exhibitions in other countries
  • Photobook Wishes – works that are made into photobooks which I feel are not just books but are totally different art objects will be discussed here
  • Artists Inspirations – interviews and inspiring words from masters of visual arts and contemporary artists
  • Photography Today – this will be about the controversy topics and issues relating to photography today and the future

I hope this new direction will aid both you and me, in sharing, discussing and exchanging the love of visual arts.

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