Friday, 29 June 2012

Julian Germain - For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness

My final book to research for assignment 3 is:

For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness, by Julian Germain
ISBN 3-86521-077-5

The cover is fabric with a colourful floral design. The first images inside are a double page set of an opened photograph album laid flat. One side of the set is the blank inside cover of the album with its turned corners. The facing page contains small photographs stuck into the album, the kind that would have been taken with a film camera from before digital. They are mostly snapshots of plants on tables or growing in a heavily stocked garden. One single image is of a smartly dressed woman sitting in a deckchair. It is hard to tell the era - somewhere from the 60s -70s at a guess.

My first impressions are that the book's fabric cover now makes sense. It has been chosen to echo the photo album format like the one photographed inside and that we all used to have pre-digital. The snapshots inside hint at an unfolding story about the woman and the flowers and I am already intrigued by the original format. Turning the page and there is another double page set of a different photo album (the corners of the covers are different colours.) There is a postcard of a trip to Devon and more snapshots of flowers. There is a table with even more of them by a window overlooking a street of terraced houses. For so many to be photographed and placed into a treasured album they must have formed a significant part of someones (the woman's?) life. Again, in this set amongst the flora, she appears, standing in her garden and dressed in a floral dress.

I am in love with the format of this book. The photographed yellowing pages of the "photo albums," with their plastic spiral bindings are a clue that as a viewer I will be delving into an intriguing personal story - I am already hooked.

The next page has the title and description, "Portrait of an elderly gentleman. Photographs by Julian Germain with the photo albums of Charles Snelling." I realise that the woman in the photos (Charles's wife) has died and that the elderly gentleman and his photo albums will be the focus of the book.

The first portrait of Charles Snelling is wonderful. Not only is the detail beautiful (all portraits shot with a medium format camera apparently) but the house is a faded time capsule with yellow painted wooden panels half covering a floral design wallpaper. The man is holding aloft two flowers. To me they represent himself and his wife and his continuation of his life without her - never to be forgotten.

There is graphical image of an upright broom against a wall. Above it, perched on the panelling is a row of post-it notes with varying "be back soon" messages. Juxtaposed with the broom the repeat of the word, "gone" on the messages resonated with me and I took to refer to the fact that his wife had now "gone" too, with the broom put away for the last time. Possibly an over-sentimental reading of the image but that's how I read it.

One of my favourite images is of Charles Snelling in his kitchen preparing food at the cooker. He has his back to the camera and is thrown out of focus. In the foreground, on a table, is a plate of steaming food. The steam curls up in wisps and is highlighted against the dark area of Mr Snelling's jacket. It is a beautiful image.

Another poignant shot is of Mr Snelling's hand resting on a table covered by a floral cloth. On the table and almost as if he is reaching out to it is a single photograph of his wife. Likewise, a detail shot of a ornamental dogs head attached to a floral papered wall is covered in a film of dust. Did Mrs Snelling mostly do the cleaning? Judging by her smartly dressed appearance she would not have tolerated dust! Maybe Mr Snelling does not notice and from experience I know that with my elderly mother's failing eyesight she does not notice the gradual encroachment of this type of thing in her own house.

There are numerous portraits and detail shots like this. Too many to mention here. As the book's story unfolds the viewer becomes drawn further and further into the narrative. The photo albums continue, interspersed with the portraits of Charles Snelling coping with life on his own (taking the dogs to the beach, sitting outside his greenhouse and in his Reliant Robin car,) and they tell a very powerful story. I have learnt so much from this book.


The influence that Germain's book had on me can be seen in some of my images for assignment 3 - buildings in use. I found the relationship that the book portrayed between the man, his deceased wife, and the passage of time a fascinating concept and I wanted to attempt something similar.

I have included a sample of my images below.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Wolfgang Muller: Karat - Sky over St Petersburgh

My second book to research for assignment 3 is:

Karat - Sky Over St Petersburgh, by Wolfgang Muller
ISBN 1-59005-076-2

I purchased this via Amazon as the interlibrary loan system could not locate me a copy. Luckily this book is the cheapest of the three recommended. For other students attempting to purchase a copy it is worth noting that the book is sometimes listed with its Russian title and inside an english translation is shown beside the original text. The English only version appears to be rather elusive.

The cover image of a very young girl smoking is quite shocking. The flyleaf explains that the book is about homeless children living on the rooftops and attic spaces of an area of St Petersburgh just streets away from urban re-generation. To survive the children are involved in drug taking, prostitution and various illegal street activities and are at constant risk of sexual and physical abuse. The word "Karat" in the title pertains to a brand of shoe polish that the children sniff to get high.

After reading the preface it almost feels crass to review the photographers work from an artistic perspective. But the first few images are sky-scapes - views from the rooftop dwellings high above street level. Even in a book such as this design elements can be noted and compositional decisions have been made by the photographer. For instance a brick has been strategically placed in one shot (the book does not have page numbering) to break up a diagonal and lead the eye over a chimney to a row of satellite dishes that make another implied diagonal line.

The double page set, one side a boy beside a window in a tatty room using a slide viewer with the facing page a faded landscape (the contents of one of the slides,) were poignant. His attempt to escape from reality using whatever means are to hand (which is where I guess the drugs also come in) is something I can relate to having done the same thing myself as a child. Living in an environment that is not conducive to a healthy family relationship can make one look for other, safer, outlooks to escape to - in my case I soaked up books and TV shows about calm and stable family lives. As an early set of images in the sequence this one is well placed and helps ease the viewer in and to empathise with the dire situation - explaining the more graphic images that follow - cleverly done.

A series of portraits follow. Children shooting up on rooftops or sleeping in debris strewn spaces with broken glass and empty bottles. I write the word "sleeping" but I have to remind myself that they are probably high. Some of the images are dark and crisp but as I flip through the sequence there are also increasingly images blurred by movement - indicating a gradual and inevitable breakdown of their lives? In another double page a group of teenagers are shown sniffing glue in a stairwell. This image is fairly crisp. The facing image, much larger, has a colour cast (from flashlight?) and to me is attempting to indicate the drug induced haze that envelops them.

There is also a lot of blank spaces between the images. I think this is done to contain them and provide a breathing space for the viewer. The sequencing of the book introduces a small image of each building that the different groups inhabit and then moves on to each group in turn in larger more close-up detail.

Two of the most shocking sequences are the young couple living in a chaotic state with a young toddler with other addicts "sleeping" on the floor of a crowded room. The other set of a group of twenty children and teenagers living in an underground supply duct accessed only by an open manhole is grim.  From viewing the images I wonder how bad the childrens previous lives must have been for this kind of existence to be seen a a safer alternative. The back of the book provides the answers with some text to highlight the reality of their former lives.

The plight of these children and teenagers comes across loud and clear in this project. Their clothing and surroundings has at times a depth of colour to it that is juxtaposed against grey colourless skies making the people seem more real and vibrant. The book has an urban and gritty feel that is appropriate for the subject matter and makes me feel that the photographer is very close to this project.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Lewis's Fifth Floor - A Department Story - Stephen King

I was recommended this book by my tutor and although it was hard to source (interlibrary loan in the end) I am so glad I persevered.

Lewis's Fifth Floor- A Department Story, by Stephen King
ISBN 971-1-84631-246-5

The books preface describes how the photographer came to find out about an abandoned floor in a declining department store in Liverpool. The closed floor housed some restaurants, a cafe, and an old hair salon, all mothballed since the 1980s and with most of their 50s design elements intact. King talks about how he approached the project and tried to find a point of view in order to make sense of the vast empty spaces. He decided to bring together existing and ex employees and photographed them against the backdrop of the abandoned fifth floor and these images are interspersed with the more graphical interior shots. The employees also provide some cracking insights to everyday life at the store in its heyday and add a richness to the book that further enhances the images.

King had to clear spaces that had been used to store promotional merchandise, racking, and all sorts of detritus that had accumulated over the years to uncover stunning Festival of Britain style ceramic murals and booths of coloured leather seating in the restaurants. The hair salon still had most of its old fixed hair dryers in place with funky wallpaper and an air of peeling and decay pervades the images.

I was so impressed with the compositional elements of King's work. The image on page 66 for example, a long shot of a corridor. Not only does King light the doorway from the interior of the unseen room, the light spills into the corridor and is framed by a strategically placed stepladder leaning against the opposite wall. The eye is then led further down the hallway to the lit double doors at the back of the shot. Compositional decisions can be seen time and again in the images displaying a strong visual effect. Another example is a pile of broken tiles (page 72) that are used as a visual device (the wall that they are placed against do not have any tiles missing) and the pile helps to lead the eye further into the image. A small table and a christmas bauble lying on the floor give depth to a flat bank of seating and the wall of ceramic tiles behind it (page 47.) Strong diagonals are used throughout even as backdrops to the portraits.

The strong colours are slightly muted and enhance the images. Lighting has also been strategically placed in rooms or lifts to light other spaces to maximum effect.

I found this book a joy to peruse from a technical perspective as a student and also just to enjoy the fascinating narrative that unfolds with the delightful images.      


Monday, 25 June 2012

Project 16 - Exploring Function

I was going away to Antwerp for a week so took my exercise notes away with me. Whilst there I managed to set aside some time to study and take some images with the exercises in mind. I chose Antwerp Central Station for this exercise as the design encompasses both old and new elements. The station has been extended and has a very grand and ornate entrance hall juxtaposed against much more modern concourses.

I had to analyse an interior and decide how the space was used, who used it, and  how well it was designed. I focused on one particular area - where the train platforms are accessed in the modern part of the building.

I had to draw up a short list:

What I think is important.

  • To my mind the working areas of the station needed to be included in the image more than the fancy marble floor and columns of the entrance.
  • It was important to show the multi levelled element of the station to give an idea of height and depth to the building - also the use of natural light incorporated into the design.
  • I wanted to show people in the space so that the flow of movement as they interacted with the various levels could easily be seen.

What the space ought to be doing.

  • Allow the free flow of commuters, local travellers and employees, through the station in an efficient manner.

How well does it succeed.

  • I think the building does succeed in its intended aim very well. The ability to see the trains and platforms from a great distance enables the traveller to know exactly where they should be in relation to their destination. The levels are also joined up centrally with staircases and banks of escalators so that they can be traversed very quickly.

With this information in mind I then proceeded to make an image to show these characteristics. I adopted a high viewpoint to show the different levels, the flow of people up and down via the linking stairs and escalators and also the train at a platform to indicate the buildings overall function. There is also a vendor with a food booth at the bottom of the first set of stairs indicating the multi use aspect of the station.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Tracey Emin: She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea - Turner Contemporary, Margate

Recently I spent the morning at the Turner Contemporary, Margate. I wanted to see the new Tracey Emin exhibit, "She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea." I feel that it is important to visit galleries and see exhibitions even though they may not be photography related. Living in Kent it is fairly easy to travel to London and also the other outlying galleries like the Turner, the De La Warr and the new Jerwood at Hastings.

I have not studied art outside of the photography course modules so come to drawing, painting, sculpture and textiles with little knowledge of the techniques involved or the weight of art history behind them. My first impression of Emin's paintings is that they appeared to done with a free flowing style. The brush strokes were broad and just a few of them was all that was needed to produce an interesting female nude figure. I think that all the figures are self-portraits and the opening statement at the exhibition talked about a time of crisis in Emin's life (the impending death of her father) and how the weight of that knowledge affected her. I much preferred the nudes and simple shapes to the room interiors. Personally, I felt the simple style did not lend itself to the more complicated interior drawings and I found them hard to interpret.

Virtually all of the paintings use the same colour blue and they look fresh and dynamic on the clean white gallery walls. Some of the smaller images are grouped and others set in rows or large ones placed higher on the wall. Text is also frequently used in the drawings too. Sometimes the text is in direct contrast to the vibrant and dynamic images - at least that is how they seemed to me. "I Didn't Say I Couldn't Love You" for an example.

As well as paintings Emin has created textiles for the exhibition. I was very impressed with three large tapestries in one of the rooms. Again, they depicted reclining nudes and woven with a very effective colour set using rose, reds, greens, grey and black. This use of different media reminded me of the installations of Wolfgang Tillmans that I have read about recently. There was also a few bronze sculptures and a trademark stained mattress with a bronze branch placed in the centre. The branch with its curving forms reminded me of a sleeping figure embraced by the mattress - stained with the everyday marks of a life lived.

In one corner a small photographic print showing a lake at Emins home in Italy that dries up in the summer. The print was quite small and looked to be taken with film. It certainly had a feel of a polaroid or slightly underexposed image with slightly blurred greens and browns. To me the sculptures and print set a more sombre tone against the blue paintings.

In one of the rooms some Turner and Rodin nude drawings were hung to provide a reference to the tradition of nude figure painting in art history. It appeared to my untrained eye that they were similar in style although of course, they were painted by men looking at models, and not self portraits like Emin's work.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans

My first thoughts on Tillman's photography was how varied it was. He seemed to operate in many different genres (still life, portrait, landscape, and abstract.) To try and understand the work I got a book from the library that was part catalogue (for his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago) and also contained a number of interesting and useful essays that attempted to critique and define the images and body of work as a whole.

Wolfgang Tillmans - ISBN 0-300-12022-2

I made a number of notes and my conclusions are listed below:

It is clear that Tillmans likes to use various sizes of prints that are venue specific when creating an exhibition. Not only that but he uses different media too -  sometimes oversized inkjet prints alongside re-photographed copies of newspaper clipped or taped to the gallery walls and framed prints. Tillmans retains control not only of his work but also the way it is exhibited and he likes to mix it up changing the layout according to the size of the venue but also his current thinking and interests at any given time. From what I understand this is a conceptual view of art and reminds me somewhat of a recent Tracey Emin exhibition, "She Lay Down Deep Beneath the Sea" at the Turner Contemporary, Margate. What I mean by this is that both artists like to move between different mediums to explore their themes (Emin, painting, installation art, tapestry, embroidery and Tillmans, photography, photocopy, re-photographing and experimenting with the film process without a camera.)

His portraits are of the social narrative type where the background (usually a living environment or a place frequented by the subject) is casual and non formal in presentation. These are definitely not studio type portraits with fancy lighting and theatrical or dramatic poses. Tillmans use of lighting is interesting. The images appear flat and without shadow but that does not make them dull in this respect. Tillmans apparently uses a simple lighting technique with a single off camera flash, bouncing the light off white walls or card. I would like to experiment with this technique myself and have made a note to do this at some point.

I like the work for its uniqueness. Tillmans output is so varied I find some of the images harder to get into than others. The abstracts for example, made using solely darkroom techniques and chemicals, are supposed to be seen on a larger scale and would have more effect on a gallery wall. This is always the case with some artists work. I remember the powerful draw of Thomas Struth's jungle images at the Whitechapel Gallery. To me they hardly got a second glance when I first saw them reproduced in a book.

I have two more books about Tillmans requested on interlibrary loan. I will update this post when I have read them.