People & Place Part Two : Projects and Exercises

People & Place : Part 2

People Unaware : Projects and Exercises

The ‘street’ camera was born  around 1890 when the first multi-shot, hand-held cameras were produced with short enough exposure times to capture moving object. Paul Martin was an amateur who pioneered candid street photography when he began using a camera disguised as a parcel. “His photographs were derided at the time for being ‘inartistic’ but he persevered ……and went on to become one of the first London press photographers” (M. Seaborne, in London Street Photography 1860-2010 [2011]). There are three evocative images taken by him in the book (pp 2—22) and you can see the clear image of his subject in each against the slightly motion-blurred background.  This was a big change from subjects having to stand there for minutes whilst the exposure was made.

There’s another point worth noting which hadn’t really occurred to me before and that is the contrast between black and white photography of the time and paintings. Clarke (1997), in commenting on the city in photography in New York and Walker Evans’s photographs , writes:-

The black-and-white images suggest an unrelenting greyness quite at odds with some of the more dynamic images produced by New York painters in the same period. Collectively they create an image of urban loneliness and separation (p. 86)

From there to now with all the many strategies to capture people unwarily going about their day to day lives – shooting from the hip; telescopic lenses; pretending to be looking elsewhere; sitting there for a while (even sometimes with camera on tripod) until people get so used to you that they then don’t realise that you’re actually taking a photograph of them etc.  The slightly different aspect is when people actually know you’re going to be taking a photograph of them but then ‘forget’ when they become involved in an activity.  To my mind this is the best kind of shot – you have their permission to take a photograph but can capture them when they’re less stiff through knowing the camera lens is peering at them.

The exercises in Part 2 are all designed to provide practice in many of the different strategies for photographing people who are mostly ‘unaware’. The emphasis is to be on being unobtrusive, spotting potential pictures in advance and shooting quickly. My challenge will be to do this without drawing attention to myself by seeming flustered. It would, of course, be much easier if I just put the camera on auto settings – in fact the exercise guidelines actually mention that automated settings but I just didn’t absorb that – probably because I’ve now got so focused on setting everything myself.

I carried out the exercise over several different days and locations and so what follows is a summary of my experience

Project – A comfortable situation : Developing confidence








I took a series of photographs in Brittany, through morning to early evening,  on the first day I arrived (56 in all).  I did feel rather conspicuous standing there with a larger DSLR (Canon 500D). As can be seen from the information above I was tending to use a fairly long focal length to enable me to get closer to the subjects, whilst standing a fair distance away. The first two were taken at an open-air Brocante fair where there was quite a throng of people. I felt I was ‘snatching’ shots and decided that the next day I would use my smaller G12 with the hope that this would increase my confidence level.

Project – The moment : Capturing the moment

It’s been interesting to read Charlotte Cotton’s The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2004) where she describes how photographers are now challenging the traditional stereotype of ‘the decisive moment’ by preconceiving focus and also creating narrative content, ‘through the composition of props, gestures and the style of the work of art’.  If you’re aiming to create, ‘a picture of great visual charge or intrigue’ though, rather than wait for it to come along for you, there is a risk that the created image will look staged/artificial – at least when you’re a photography student.   Having said that though, it now transpires that the famous photograph of the soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima was actually re-staged after the event. P&P Handbook refers to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘Man jumping over Puddle’ often being used as the prime example.  Actually I’ve lately read that Cartier-Bresson asked the man to jump over the puddle several times before he got the right decisive moment! I’m now starting to think of Hannah Starkey and how she waits for the right person to come along.

The challenge for me has also been recognizing it when it happens naturally. I thought I had a perfect opportunity when we were having a tree cut down in our garden not so long ago.  I took 44 shots during the process – being careful though to keep sufficient distance so as not to create a possible accident with the lethal saw. The bathroom window was opposite the scene of the action and so I leaned out to take the shots.

In the first two shots I was endeavouring to capture the moment when the blade sliced into the tree, using a longer focal length (85mm) to get in closer at a distance of 5.6m. The last one shows the moment when the tree surgeon was moving in closer to another branch – 35mm focal length here to gain a wider perspective to show how potentially dangerous the whole manoeuvre is.

Project – Medium telephoto : Standing back

With these next examples I was using longer focal length again (my zoom lens is 15-85mm at 1:6 crop ratio)

85mm @ 37.1m. Problem here was the variation in light. If I had been closer and used a shorter focal distance as well I could have focused more directly on the two ladies (but with just enough background for context) and adjusted exposure accordingly. As it was, I wanted to get the best of both worlds but achieved neither very satisfactorily. I could crop of course but then that affects quality. As you can see the longer focal length also compresses the scene and it makes shoppers look closer together than they actually were.

76mm @ 36.5m. I chose landscape format to get the context but got a lot of empty sky! It’s much more like a ‘snapshot’ – and with not a lot of interest.

An elderly lady contentedly reading her magazine in a small, enclosed garden just away from the busy shopping street.  78mm @ 36.6m. I needed to be much closer, and wider focal length I think because she was interesting in herself. Again I could crop but this would affect quality. I actually did move nearer but kept the same focal length 78mm @ 12.3m.

Actually, I really can’t see much difference here despite the differences in distance. I was very conscious of not wanting to disturb her quiet time and almost felt guilty.

Project – Wide-angle : Close and involved

Doing this exercises really showed me the difference between expanding the view and then moving right in on it.

With no. 1 I used my zoom lens at f/8 20mm and stood back (21.7m away). The man and dog look quite tiny. I think this focal length and distance could be utilized well for an image where I might want to show lone man against landscape. Not long afterwards I met up with this lovely lady who I sometimes have a chat with about dogs and their world. I took a chance, explained what I was doing and asked if I could experiment doing a close-up.  At 19mm f/5.6 I had to step so close to get her into the frame that I felt as if I really was invading her space, in fact right in her face (0.4, 0.5, 0.5 and 0.6 m). As you can see the full face views distort her face due to the wide angle but I thought  the profile ones were quite interesting and show of her quirky hairdo – certainly the first time I’ve taken that kind of shot and I think she was brave to let me come in so close.


Project – Standard focal length



People enjoying their evening in a public space. I used my Canon G12 here – it’s quite small and unobtrusive. Top left is at a focal length of 25mm the rest are 30.5mm. These are jpegs straight from the camera with no post processing.  I think that standard focal length is good for getting impressions of situations and can set the tone.

Project – Public events, public spaces

Here are images from an organised event – an Eco Fair in Derbyshire. I used a variety of focal lengths here from up to 7.8m distance.


One aspect which was a good reminder for me was the usefulness of a long focal length in close-ups of people and the interesting aspect given by a wide-angle lens in close-up.  Both of those techniques, to me, require subjects who are ‘aware’, otherwise you’re pushing your camera right into their faces.  I know some photographers (often press and paparazzi) feel quite happy doing that, taking the view that they’re in a public place, or these people are always in the news/seeking fame and attention,  so they have the right.  What is the line between ‘picturing eventfulnes’ as Angier terms it (ch 5, 2007) and voyeurism and surveillance? – concealing myself so that my gaze cannot be reciprocated or placing myself in plain sight yet behaving in such a way that I am not seen?

I think my own attitude is ambivalent as well. When I’m out and about, particularly in London, I’ll quite happily take photographs of strangers.  However, when I’m in my local area I’m much more hesitant even though they may be strangers anyway. Is this to do with propinquity/ them and us? Someone who lives within a certain radius of me automatically becomes less of a stranger, therefore I should ask their permission or at least let them know so they can refuse? Or is it that there’s more of a chance they’ll see me again sometime and remember I was that person who stood there and took a photograph of them. This is something I need to think more about.

28th August 2012


Angier, R (2007), Train Your Gaze, AVA Publishing, SA.

Clarke, G. (1997)  The Photograph, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Cotton, C (2004) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London

Museum of London (2011) London Street Photography 1860-2010, Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport


‘Out of Focus’ Exhibition July 2012, The Saatchi Gallery Part 2

Out of Focus’ Saatchi Gallery, OCA Study Visit  on 14th July 2012

Part 2 :   A twist of the kaleidoscope – making sense of that ‘bit of a mess of a show’

A reminder of the objectives of the study visit:-


Gain a personal perspective on the work of a wide range of photographers

Reflect on the experience of seeing photography in a gallery

Network with other OCA students

Moving from ‘depression’ to reflection

I wrote in the previous post of coming away feeling depressed because my immediate response had been that nothing resonated with me. Reflecting now I think this was more to do with not allowing anything to resonate with me once I had had that reaction to the portraits in the first gallery. Something was stirring beneath though and it grew strength once I was back home, and more able to reflect and read further with more objectivity.


The Exhibition book was very helpful.  Out of Focus : Saatchi Gallery (W.A. Ewing, 2012). It doesn’t have page numbers, an index or show the images in alphabetical order of photographer –  so not easy to navigate. The texture of the paper nowhere near does justice to the works and it also had a strongly unpleasant smell for me as well which still lingers – hard to describe but reminiscent of strong paint. That apart, it is very useful as a reference point and Ewing’s Essay, The Focal Point was helpful in assisting me to make some sense of it all. One thing I didn’t learn was why these particular photographs were acquired by the Saatchi Gallery – personal taste of the Saatchi’s/curators/benefactors etc. (see below in relation to is photography art?)

In writing of contemporary photography Ewing reminds us that,  “ …photography covers a much broader field than that what is found on museum or gallery walls” and acknowledging that, “… makes us more appreciative of the very special nature of that small niche called, rather awkwardly, ‘art photography’.   He refers to the World of Photography and describes its Nations: Commercia, Documentaria, Amateuria, Artistica (a small continent on top of the world), a republic envied for its liberties and under threat from an influx of migrants from the land of Artcontemporanea.  So far as Ewing is concerning this World, “amounts to a very dis-United Nations, which leads the young (!) image-maker to  ask, “Am I a photographer, or am I an artist? Or am I both? Well, that’s a debate which seems to have been going on since the dawn of photography! I’m minded as well of The Bauhaus where photography was seen as a science rather than an art. Whilst not addressing the question as to whether or not photography can be considered art, Ewing goes on to give examples of  ways in which image-makers describe themselves. Some photographers, like Hannah Starkey, describe themselves as just photographers. Others described themselves as using photography as a medium to express their art.

This leads Ewing to look for some common ground to find order in the chaos, and to propose looking at the ‘show’ through the lens of a kaleidoscope.  He gives various shakes of the kaleidoscope which brings up patterns such as ‘The Body Politic’ – the human body (Katy Grannan fits into that one of course). Then there is ‘The Face’, “Landscape’ – now human depredations breakdown the sublime, and Mitch Epstein straddles both positions.  Ewing then widens the aspect of ‘Landscape’ to ‘A Sense of Place’ which then extends to ‘Mind’ as a sense of place is a mental construct,  and some artists ‘turn away from observing and recording the material world to a mental remaking of it”. The final shake of Ewing’s kaleidoscope  brings up ‘Bonds’ – family/social order/disorder.

Overall, Ewing provides examples of the ways in which the various artists can move in, and out of  and straddle classifications (for want of a better word).   For example,  Pinar Yolacan’s female portraits may be supposed to be about women but they are about our unacknowledged animal nature rather than about gender. This can be hard to grasp for someone who is struggling to understand contemporary photography and put it into some kind of order but at least it provides a classification which we can then debate, discuss and argue about. I think I’m beginning to understand how landscape as ‘sense of place’ slowly moves over into social documentary.

I’m currently reading a couple of other books which address the categorisation of photography, both of which sidestep the photography/art issue – so far as I’ve read anyway.

The Photograph as Contemporary Art (Charlotte Cotton, 2004) divides contemporary art photography into seven categories which are concerned with, “ ..the ideas that underpin contemporary art photography rather than style or choice of subject matter (p. 7, 2004). Cotton points out that conceptual art emphasized the fact that it was the act depicted in the photograph that was  of artistic importance,  not craft or authorship and this circumvented the need to create a ‘good’ picture. I suppose this is where they idea stems from that ‘anyone can be a photographer/we are all photographers’ now’ which I think damages the concept of photography as art and downgrades the skills of photographers.

Cotton’s categories are photography as a record of actual reality; constructed stories (a preconceived focus}; objective views of the world; intimate details of private lives; documentary and a repository of personal, social and cultural values.

  • The degree to which focus has been preconceived by the photographer (p.8).
  • Narrative distilled in a single image: similar to C18th and C19th Western figurative painting.  Hannah Starkey’s photography is referred to here by Cotton. I also thought of Noemie Goudal and her man-made Cascade.
  • Deadpan: neutral in the sense that the subject is paramount and, to feel their impact, clarity and large print size are needed. Normally I would think of photographers such as Thomas Struth here, but I also started to wonder about Katy Grannan’s portraits.
  • The transformation of even the slightest subject into, “an imaginative trigger of great import”.  I don’t recall anything here in the ‘Out of Focus’ Exhibition – maybe Anders Clausen’s Picture 35 .
  • Human Intimacy : This seems missing in ‘Out of Focus’. The works of Elina Brotherus and J.H. Engstrom might hint of this but they are more about loneliness, self and vulnerability.
  • Utilisation of the documentary capacity of photography “to present allegories of the consequences of political and human upheaval” or “to counter or aggravate our perception of the boundaries of documentary-led photographic conventions”.  Michael Subotzky and Mitch Epstein’s work.
  • Photographic practice that centres on and exploits our pre-existing knowledge of imagery. There were a lot of examples of this in the Exhibition in terms of photomontage etc but someone else who came to mind  is Yumiko Utsu who I have referred to already. An old painting of a woman has had its head replaced by a pearly octopus. I thought it was cleverly done. An initial glance makes it look like a beautiful portrait until a closer look reveals the shock of the head.  Ewing cites Utsu’s influences as being from the mad fantasies of Western artists and he writes also of octopuses having a long tradition of union with women.  Actually, my mind started to wander upon older stories – the Gorgon with her writhing snake hair and the goddess Kali. I also thought of something more modern – Pirates of the Caribbean and Davy Jones.

Cotton points out that many of the photographers and works in the book can fit into other categories than those in which they appear and, “the pinpointing of one project from a photographer’s oeuvre belies the full range of his or her expressions”. I think this latter point is very important to remember when going to an Exhibition. I could be completely wrong concerning the categories in which I place some of the artists in ‘Out of Focus’.  However, doing so has really helped me to increase my understanding and examine some of the idea which underlie the work.

I was going to go on to write about Geoff Dyer (The Ongoing Moment 2006) and his description of attempts to order  photographic variety – going way back to  Walker Evans and the FSA.  However, as this book covers a much wider spectrum of photography than just ‘contemporary’, I’ve decided to leave it to another time.

What have I learned overall, so far?

I still have a tendency to take an immediate like/dislike to photographs and react like an ‘ordinary woman in the street’ rather than ‘a photographer’.

It’s easy to get quickly swamped with too many different images. I need to remember to allow the impact to sink in and then have another look with a more analytical eye.

There are many different ways to classify/categorise artistic work. If we use the same categories then, at least, this gives us a platform for discussion and debate.

The use of categories (whatever they might be), help us to make sense of what we see.

This Exhibition was more like a review of contemporary photographers than an in-depth look at the work of individuals. Another Gallery might well have shown a different selection.

Images on a monitor can look very different from in real life, on a wall, in a Gallery.  I know this really but I keep forgetting and equates to ’be aware of my audience when I’m presenting my photographs’ and ‘pictures as I imagine them can also be different from their actuality’.

Questions for me to consider

  • How do I argue whether or not photography is/can be Art?
  • Is art a social construct? If we say that photography is art enough times then does it make it so and so that becomes a social construct too.
  • Who decides whether a work is art or not? Interestingly, W. Ewing refers to sending in scouts, “…  (first curators, then critics) to get the lay of the land….. As for the artists, they can’t wait around for that map: they have to forge ahead,” I looked up Ewing and found that he is a well known curator and writer on photography, I couldn’t discover whether or not he is an actual photographer. Charlotte Cotton is also a curator and Geoff Dyer is a writer.
  • Leading on from the above why is it that those who are more observers of photographers/photography than practitioners are the arbiters of quality?
  • Does giving yourself a different description as an artist lead you to create in a different way?
  • If I want to tell stories with my photographs then do I describe myself as a narrative photographer or a photographic narrator? Does this give the ‘telling’ more prominence?
  • Narrating goes with writing. Does this mean I have to be a skilled writer as well? Do I have to write anyway or can I just let the images tell the story for me. The cave artists didn’t write but they must have had a story in their heads when they made their paintings.
  • Is an ‘insider’ view different from an ‘outsider’ view in terms of informing me more about a subject.
  • Some people say that you should be able to read a photograph just by looking at it.  Others say that you need to understand the intent of the photographer first before you can appreciate it. The issue there is that often the intent they mean is the one they think that the photographer intended (rather than that written or otherwise stated by the photographer) and then that becomes a matter for discussion and dispute. The meaning of a photograph then becomes the possession of the viewer.  Does this change it in some way so that instead of one unique photograph there are thousands, like identical siblings scattered in a universal consciousness. Like Ewing’s photographic kaleidoscope.

5th August 2012


Cotton, C (2004), the Photograph as Contemporary Art, Thames & Hudson Ltd., London.

Dyer, G (2005), The Ongoing Moment, Abacus, London

Ewing, W.A. 2012 The Focal Point, in Out of Focus : Photography, Saatchi Gallery, London


‘Out of Focus’ July 2012 Saatchi Gallery : Part 1

‘Out of Focus’ Saatchi Gallery, OCA Study  Visit on 14th July 2012 (Part 1)

(1) Preparation for the Exhibition

This was a large exhibition showing a wide range of photographic practice. As preparation it was suggested that we choose a photographer who appealed to us and see what we could find out about the work. The Saatchi Gallery Website has a list of reviews of the Exhibition that are as wide in their likes and dislikes as the photography on show and worth a read for that alone. It was also suggested that once we visited the exhibition we think about whether we had been taken to a ‘bit of a mess of a show’ and whether that made for a useful visit.

I found thirteen photographers who appealed to me at first glance; had queries on four others and made brief notes on two of them –  Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Chris Levine. I linked them together due to particular similarities and differences, which I noted from the information that Saatchi Gallery provided about them.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou 

I could not find a website as such for him but the Saatchi information informed me that he is a photographer in Benin, Nigeria, son of Joseph Moise Agbodjélou (1912-2000), and is now running what was his father’s studio. His father is noted as an ‘illustrious photographer’ and I wondered what it might be like for Leonce to be following in his father’s footsteps. The images on show are of  Egungun masqueraders, spiritual guides for the Yoruba, who first began to appear 1000 years ago at Yoruba funerals to guide the passage of the deceased to the spirit world; amongst other multiple functions. W. Ewings’s text states that  a century or more ago the photographer would have been a white man set out , ‘to document the ‘primitive, superstitious practices’ of people still back in ‘the childhood of Mankind’” who would have seen but not understood , whereas Leonce is a black man, citizen of Benin who has seen and has understood. The query for me was whether I would notice the difference between these two types of photographers and whether a spiritual aspect might be more noticeable in the work of Agbodjélou.

Chris Levine 

Levine was born in Canada and is now working in London.  The portrait on show is that of Queen Elizabeth II. Levine  had a commission  to produce a holographic portrait for the Isle of Jersey’s 800th year of allegiance to the crown. Highly technical equipment was used (see here), with the queen required to sit still for 8 seconds at a time and the portrait on show at the Saatchi was taken when, between the ‘passes’  the queen closed her eyes to rest.  Ewings’s text here states that such a picture “would have been inconceivable even 20 years ago … Closed eyes were reserved for great singers and musicians, who were in tune with another world; Kings, Queens and statesmen had to have their eyes open and fixed firmly on the here and now” ’In this sense she was ‘unaware’ whereas the Egungun Masqueraders were ‘aware’ when their portraits were taken.

I looked at Chris Levine’s website. His ethos  is, “the pursuit of sensory experience through image and form. All objects and imagery are interacted with through the sensorial input of light energy and physical sensation.” There are suggestions I read elsewhere that his work, and use of light, including LED, has a spiritual effect.

Going back to similarities and differences which interested me:-

  • The Egungun masqueraders are ‘aware’ subjects whereas the Queen in this particular instance is ‘unaware’
  • The suggestion of a spiritual aspect in both sets of portraits
  • A photographer who ‘knows’ and experiences the world of his subjects and one who observes his subject.
  • We cannot see the faces of the masqueraders and this is part of their mystique. We rarely see the Queen with a relaxed face. In this sense both sets of subjects are ‘wearing masks’ to the outside world and we know little of their true identities. They also wear ceremonial dress which sets them apart from the rest of the people.
  • Both sets of subjects are revered by their followers/subjects.
  • We have one photographer who works in the old, traditional style and another who uses highly technological approaches.

The other photographers I noted were  Mikhael Subotzky, Hannah Starkey, Mariah Robertson, David Noonan, Katy GrannanMitch Epstein, J.H. Engstrom, Matt Collishaw, Elina Brotherus, Jonny Briggs, and Olaf Breuning. I had queries on Sara Van Der Beek, Ryan Mcginley, Matt Lipps and Noemie Goudal. I’m mentioning all the names so that even if I don’t write about them here their names will stick in my head for the future (I hope!).

(2) Stated Visit Objectives


Gain a personal perspective on the work of a wide range of photographers

Reflect on the experience of seeing photography in a gallery

Network with other OCA students

(3) The Visit

A rainy day saw a large group of us gathering together at the Gallery. As ever it was good to meet with staff, catch up with other students, and say ‘hello’ to newcomers. Again, it was suggested that we walk around the Gallery and concentrate on photographs which resonated with us. I also decided to buy the book of the Exhibition Out of Focus (2012), despite my previous decision that I wouldn’t because I already had too many unread books. My rationale was that looking through it afterwards would help me to make sense of what I was seeing and the essay within by William Ewing had also been recommended as very useful reading . The book also came with a free copy of the Exhibition Guide which was very useful as I walked round.

“Let’s begin then, by zooming out, and letting the entire world of photography swim into focus” (W. A Ewing 2012). Well – it was more like being in a flood! I’ll confess now that I felt increasingly depressed as I walked around the different galleries because, at first sight, none of the photographs really called to me. However, I made a real effort to lift myself above this by going back to look again and also read more around particular photographers afterwards. Here I will only write about some of those images which struck me strongly.

Katy Grannan

In Gallery 1 – “Caught in the glare of the California sun, the figures stand, shift, turn, look away – resigned to the next throw of the dice while not holding out much hope that it will go their way” (Exhibition Guide).  White walls, bright sunlight shining a broad spotlight on sun damage, lipstick runs, vein-corded legs etc. Magnified at size approx 139.7 x 104.1 cm.  My first strong, emotional reaction was, “I can see that in the mirror every morning when I first wake up, so why should I want to look at it in a Gallery”. They had a powerful impact but I didn’t want to see!

The information states that all these subjects agreed to be photographed and , “… she has tipped her hand, relinquishing the power of the candid shot of the street photographer for a risky collaborative portrait session”.  I haven’t yet managed to find any statement from Grannan which explains why she wanted to make these portraits in that particular way.  I can only guess – but then I would be creating my own narrative. Grannan is young and attractive at this moment in time. Does she wish to be reminded of her eventual fate (that of all of us)? Does she wish to find the inner beauty that is there if only you will look? Is she searching for the young spirit which still lies within these subjects who are now the sum total of all their experiences, thoughts and feelings so far?

I have to say that the more I have looked, indeed allowed myself to look, the more compelling I have found these images to be. They are all aware of the gaze of the lens and it’s as if they are allowing themselves to be explored by it in minute detail.

Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Chris Levine

I’m putting them together because that’s what I did in my head before I saw them in situ.  However, once I looked I couldn’t see any similarities so I had led myself up a wrong path.  On-screen the Egungun Masqueraders had looked large. In the gallery the portraits look small (57 x 40 cm) old-fashioned somehow and with a rawness about them. A comment was made to the effect of ‘National Geographic”. Well – yes, I could see that link.  Reminds me though of my previous thoughts concerning the person of the photographer. Is an insider view different from an outsider view in informing me more about the nature of a subject? The reviews I’ve read give a lot of information about the Egungun but the portraits themselves remain enigmatic for me.

Co-incidentally, there was a recent post on the Travel Photographer blog  linking to Dan Kitwood’s Gallery of a Benin Voodoo festival in the Guardian . Dan Kitwood is a UK photojournalist.   Voodoo is the state religion of Benin and yet there’s a belittling of it in the language used – well to me at least. These images are glossy and colourful but they do look like ‘travel photography’. What do I mean by that? Well, photography which invites/attracts me to want to know more about a country and/or culture by using the most attractive images of it. In this particular instance the photographs do look like those typical ones where you’re on a cruise for example and the locals put on a show for you.  Surely, these images can’t convey the deep traditions of a country.  It’s words that are needed here I think and also with Agbodjélou’s images as I’m still left with questions concerning the real function and meaning of the Egungun Masqueraders in the lives of the people of Benin. What I’m looking for is  is social documentary photography/film.

Chris Levine

From looking at various websites I had expected to see a series of his photographs of the Queen but I had obviously misunderstood. There is only the ‘unaware’ portrait taken whilst she was resting momentarily. The print is 76.2 x 61 cm and I was disappointed that, firstly, there was just this one image and not the hologram portraits and, secondly, that it seemed small. However, after only a few moments it shone out for me in gallery 9. The silvery tones,  silver hair and diadem tiara, white pearls, white fur –  with that flash of red lipstick and some colour in her skin, the stillness of the image. Looking at it again now it reminds me of one of those marble statues in a cathedral slowly coming to life because you can see the living person there even though her face is still rather masklike. Is it spiritual?  Well it doesn’t lift me into a transpersonal sphere really but it does have a trandescent quality about it. Is it subversive?  It is in the sense that Ewing writes about I suppose with eyes closed rather than open.  What’s also just flashed into my mind as I write this are a comparison with the Katy Grannan portraits which are earthy,  raw and grounded in the here and now.

Other Photographers

Well, now I’ve started I just want to keep on writing but I’m going to confine myself to mentioning just two more photographers – Mitch Epstein and Hannah Starkey.

Mitch Epstein

Two works from the American Power  large  scale to the extent that we could stand, contemplate and discuss in detail. It took me a while to comprehend the scale and the immensity of the BP Carson Refinery as it dwarfs the regimented trees which line the fence.  I was imagining that if I were driving along the road, with concentration, then I would probably only see the trees and ordered landscaping.  What was incongruous to me was the massive US flag affixed at the top of the scaffolding. Pride in such an edifice which is consuming a natural resource at a great rate. In the guide, Ewing writes, “Behind the bluster of American power, Epstein seems to be saying, is great frailty”.  My problem is that I can’t see that frailty there.

The other image is the Chalmette refinery.  This time the perspective is of a ‘majestic’ avenue of trees and mown grass leading to a view of something in the distance which, at first sight, looks like a fairy tale castle until one realises that it is another refinery. We had some debate as to whether the perspective is wrong and there should be less vista and more refinery. I don’t agree because I think Epstein is pointing out to us that this is how we are sold the American dream. Actually I had a similar experience in the UK last year when driving over Bradwell Edge in the Peak District.

Bleak landscape, howling wind, dusk falling

and suddenly to my right, as I came over the crest,  I saw what looked like the towers of a fairytale castle until I realised, as it came more into view,

that it was a cement works – said to bring much needed employment into the area and a part of Lafarge UK   which ‘is committed to sourcing its materials and managing its supply chain in the most responsible and sustainable way possible.

Hannah Starkey

Starkey grew up in Belfast and one of her earlier influences was the work of Don McCullin. She describes her work with street photography as, “I tend to observe, wait for all the elements of the picture to come together and then wait for the right person to come along. It is at this point that I say, ‘Excuse me, would you mind being in my picture?’”. In this sense her photography is less ‘in the moment’ and more constructed.  What she doesn’t say is how she knows it’s ‘the right person’.  Despite being ‘constructed’ her images do look ‘in the moment’ – young women in various locations and hinting at stories yet untold.

Thoughts so far

I’m aware that I’ve concentrated on images which had a positive resonance for whatever reason.  There were others which I either couldn’t understand or which I found unpleasant (such as Pinar Yolacan and her British matrons kitted out in animal flesh – each garment,  “made expressly to complement her physiognomy” and to remind us that we are what we eat). I need at some point to have another look at those images where I had a more negative reaction.  I’m also aware that the Photographers I’ve discussed above work in a more traditional manner in the sense of straight images as opposed to one which have been collaged, cut about or constructed in more complex ways.

I began by stating that I came away feeling depressed, which I did, but I think a part of that was experiencing that ‘bit of a mess of a show’ which I now translate into, ‘a sample of the myriad ways in which photographers views, create and construct their own realities’. The psychology of perception comes into play here in terms of the sum of the parts proving too overwhelming for me to make sense of – hence the ‘depression’.  I dealt with this by allowing the experience to settle for a couple for weeks and reading the book of the Exhibition and other books which have provided me with a way to better understand both my reaction and the photography itself. I have also started to view the videos on the Saatchi Site concerning Photography and the Art World.

In Part 2 I will reflect  further on my reading.


Ewing, W.A. 2012 The Focal Point, in Out of Focus : Photography, Saatchi Gallery, London 

Websites .

4th August 2012