Archive for the Photography: subjective documentary Category

Robert Polidori on his work

Posted in Artists that inspire me, Photography, Photography: subjective documentary with tags on March 6, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

In a book surveying his career ‘Points between… up till now’, Robert Polidori discusses interesting issues in the introduction.

His interest in interiors started in 1987 when he photographed several New York flats whose owners had recently died and that had been looted. He says ‘On one hand, I came to consider the remaining objects as exteriorizing the personal identity and ideals of the dead individuals, yet on the other hand, these same objects, carefully accumulated over a lifetime, had now become a valueless heap of trace detritus for all the rest of us to wilfully discard (or vandalize). […] I perceived the rooms and their objects as some sort of sociological/psychological Rorschach test. I was convinced that there was something intrinsically historic and psychic about the subject matter that should be captured for posterity. Upon further reflection I came to regard the implications of the scene as being evocative of the human condition in general.’

In 1994, he photographed buildings destroyed by the Lebanese Civil War. An old lady guided him through ruins and asked him ‘Do you feel able to take beautiful and pretty pictures of all this?’ He places this lady’s ‘dare’ (his own word) at the heart of the controversy surrounding his work. ‘My work has often been criticized as somehow lacking integrity because I transgress ethical principles by rendering tragic or violent situations as artificially “beautiful”. This “aestheticizing” is considered to be conceptually disturbing since, some argue, it brings a viewer to an experience by which realities and their causes are ultimately trivialised and misrepresented.’ On the particular reproach that his New Orleans pictures did not capture explicitly enough the government’s failure to properly maintain the levees, he says ‘a photographer cannot, after-the-fact, visually capture the long expired preceding moments, causal links or the far remote spatial tangent of a scene.’

He states his favourite subject is ‘the psychological implications of the human habitat (the room)’ and links this to his ‘phenomenological interest in wanting to know what makes something or somebody tick’. He explains: ‘though most of my photographs are devoid of the human form, I have actively sought out rooms where the interiors were substantially and meaningfully filled with traces of human interventions. I consider these traces as being imbued with iconic references to what Carl Jung called the human psyche’s Super-Ego.How one wants to be perceived by oneself and others is infinitely more interesting to me than how one might happen to look.’

He explains that, while he had long ago abandoned the ‘intellectual notion of the existence of God’, the experience of photographing Chernobyl caused him to contemplate ‘the futility of Hope as a certainty’, and ‘the eventuality of foregoing the emotional crutch of brighter possibilities was infinitely more painful’.

About his feelings while photographing painful places, he explains ‘whenever the question comes up, I always answer that I feel nothing when I make these types of photographs. I feel before and after, but while executing them it is my belief there is only time to accurately act and react. I try to preload my emotions ahead of time but I don’t readily call upon them when I shoot. I want them to be instinctual yet non-conscious. Like surgeons in the operating room, the technical imperatives of photography demand complete mental acuity and a concentration that should not be disrupted by any background noise.’ I found this statement fascinating because it perfectly describes how I feel when I take my own photographs: you have to be completely focused on the act of seeing things, and you have to do the work not only well but quick because there is only a limited amount of time during which you can sustain the required depth of concentration.

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Photographers of post Katrina New Orleans

Posted in Photography, Photography: subjective documentary with tags , on March 6, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

After being so fascinated by how Robert Polidori photographed ravaged interiors in his ‘After the flood’ series, I looked into other photographers of post Katrina New Orleans in order to find out how they each approached the subject, dealt with the ethical implications, and what aesthetic choices they made.

Seesaw magazine presented ‘Remnants’ by Wyatt Gallery and ‘After the Cry’ by Will Steacy.

I like the colours, depth and shadows in Wyatt Gallery’s photographs.

'Remnants' by Wyatt Gallery

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Will Steacy adopts a more documentary perspective, focusing on heaps of debris and a near scientific study of molds. He is interested in environmental concerns.

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In his photo essay In the Wake of Katrina, Larry Towell adopts the trademark Magnum B&W documentary style. Some pictures devoid of people have a strong haunting quality, particularly long branches and debris near the Mississippi shoreline, a stuffed fox in a glass tank escaped from a museum or collection and a flooded cemetery with the trees and tombs reflected in the water (You need to watch the whole essay on the provided link, I cannot embed particular photos from a flash presentation).

In In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster, Chris Jordan mostly adopt a documentary ‘outdoor’ perspective but a few pictures convey a more aesthecized and disturbing perspective.

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I found this ‘Baptist Church, Lower Ninth Ward’ particularly amazing.

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Jane Fulton Alt is both a photographer and a social worker. Her photograph series ‘Look and leave’ was taken while she accompanied displaced Lower ninth Ward residents revisit the ruins of their former home as a volunteer worker on the ‘Look and leave’ program. The photographs are accompanied by narrative about the reactions of the people who visited their destroyed homes, but these people do not appear on the photographs. Only empty homes and personal belongings are shown. She comments ‘As a photographer, I prefer to let pictures speak for themselves. But as a social worker, I know that there are some images that stories can illuminate.’ She makes a point that the pictures were not taken while the residents visited their destroyed homes, but on her own after her social worker shift has ended. It is interesting how her perspective as a social worker influence her vision as a photographer, yet the two activities are kept formally distinct. (Again follow the link, the pictures don’t embed.)

John Woodin was raised in New Orleans. A year before Katrina, he photographed his childhood neighborhood and the interior of the homes of his family, focusing on the architecture of the ‘working poor’. After Katrina, he came back and took pictures of the exact same locations. (follow link for portfolios ‘City of memory’ and ‘After the flood’, I cannot embed pictures from a flash presentation.)

In ‘Color of Loss’, Dan Burholder uses HDR (High Dynamic Range) to picture interiors devastated by Katrina in great details despite the darkness. The photographs are supposed to look like paintings. However I find them rather disappointing because I feel the HDR process is taken too far. Moderate HDR enhancement can look striking, but here, the shadows are completely obliterated and most pictures have a completely even lightness on their full surface. To me, the colours appear both saturated and washed out because of this even bright quality to them. The total absence of shadows combined with a choice of lens giving a distorted perspective in some of the pictures cause the feeling of a total loss of the sense of space, at least to me as a viewer. It is possible that the HDR process was taken a bit too far due to over enthusiasm for a back then new technique.

Portrait of Neglect by Debbie Fleming Caffery consist in B&W photographs of displaced residents and ravaged places. There is a striking picture of plaster hands from a statue in front of a wall with peeling pain, but again, I can’t embed from a flash essay.

There are more close up portraits in Debbie Fleming Caffery’s series than in any other work considered. I find it darkly ironic that the work of Robert Polidori has been attacked as immoral for being too anaesthetized, and the documentary work of other people, for example Alec Soth, is sometimes judged dubious for having a too ‘poetic’ perspective. Documentary photography is never neutral, it always shows as much the photographer’s perspective as the events depicted, and it is even clearer when comparing the work of several photographers on a same subject.

As a viewer, Debbie Fleming Caffery’s close up portraits are the only Katrina pictures that made me feel uneasy. Though I’ve never done portraits myself, I’m always fascinated with portraits where the subject is given the opportunity to try and show themselves as they wish to be seen, such as Diane Arbus. Of course, they most of the time will project a different image as intended, or let something slip, but that’s the interest of it, the subject cannot fully control the photograph any more than they can fully control their life, any more than the photographer themselves can fully control the picture they’re taking. But at least the subject is given an opportunity, they’re given power, and the photographer takes some kind of risk than their subject may subvert the picture. I find it exciting that, because there are different inputs to the picture, the result is uncertain. With ‘candid’ portraits showing expressions with a lot of pathos, I don’t think I’m so much made uneasy by looking at people suffering, than by being presented with a picture carrying a label of ‘raw emotion’. It’s almost like the picture carries a label ‘this a truth! this person is not performing for the camera!’. But I only see the finished picture, I cannot see how it was taken, and it is still possible that the subject performs. It’s only my subjective experience as a viewer, but I think what makes me most uneasy with ‘candid’ pictures, is that they give me the impression that the photographer is denying presenting a viewpoint.

Seesaw Photography magazine

Posted in Photography, Photography: subjective documentary on March 6, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

I found an interesting online photography magazine Seesaw magazine created by Aaron Schuman, Photographer and researcher at Brighton University. It contained more information on my favourite photographers and interesting new projects.

Alec Soth describes his Sleeping by the Mississipi series and his work in general as ‘more lyrical than documentary’ and reflects of the difficulty to tell a story with pictures. The iconic pictures from the series were taken in the Midwest, which is a kind of a photographic black hole, with most photographers attracter to the mythical West of the exotic and eccentric Deep South. The whole interview centers around the theme of making pictures that are somehow between documentary and poetry, ‘objective’ yet infused with the photographer’s vision and empathy.

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Stephen Shore recently published an extended edition of his famous series ‘Uncommon Places’. It includes more portraits and interiors, whereas the original series became iconic for its images of suburban landscape and intersections. He explains how the use of large format came to him gradually while working, and how it ended up making him look into different aesthetic choices, such as abandoning the hand held in favour of a tripod to give the pictures a richness of details that forced to viewer to really stop and look. He also discuss two interesting problems: how photography that is contemporary when made may be seen as ‘nostalgic’ or ‘retro’ by viewers a few decades later, and the depth of understanding of the sense of place a photographer has for places he is familiar with, compared to a place where he’s just moved to (something he experienced after moving from NY to Monana, where he felt his pictures could only be picturesque calendar pictures at first.)

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In The Stage: Raw theatres Colin Miller photographs empty theatre stages, aiming the capture the feeling of charged energy on the verge of explosion that permeates them before a performance.

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In The Balkans: architecture wounded Richard Mosse photographs post-was Balkans, including derelict buildings.

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Robert Polidori: photographing interiors as ‘metaphors for states of being’

Posted in Artists that inspire me, Photography, Photography: subjective documentary, Urban Exploration with tags , , , , , on January 21, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

Via 2010 MA graduate Esmeralda Munoz Torrero, I was introduced to the concept of ‘late photography’ as coined by David Campany in his book ‘Safety in Numbness: Some Remarks on the Problems of “Late Photography”’ (2003). ‘Late photography’ record the consequences of events after they have happened, their aftermath.

Of particular interest to me was the work of Canadian photographer Robert Polidori who photographed houses devastated by flood waters in his series ‘New Orleans after the flood’.He also took photographs of the abandoned buildings in the no man’s land around Chernobyl/Pripyat, the Chateau de Versailles under renovation and grand buildings of La Havana left to slowly decay.

I was first drawn to his visual style, with very vivid yet slightly faded colours, with a kind of ‘technicolor’ feel to them, not the type of strong colours you get in commercial photography. His pictures are both very sharp and detailed, yet they contained ambiguous shadows. This is exactly the type of visual feel I try to achieve myself, a feel I describe as cinematic. Indeed, Polidori works exclusively with natural light and long exposures, the way I do. He says that ‘the grammar of [his] pictorialism comes from pre-Renaissance and Renaissance perspective’. As a joke, Polidori compares his use of long exposure to spirit photography because he too aims to ‘reveal an inner truth’.

In an interview with artinfo, Polidori explains how the visual style of his images, including their high level of details, is crafted to emotionally involve the viewer:

‘ When images are soft, they just remain evocative, or in your imagination. You get a mood, and it remains on the emotional level. The viewer has to put more of him or herself into it. When there is more detail, it’s like that old expression: There’s no fiction stranger than reality. Reality will compose the most extreme paradoxes and contradictions and adjacencies, which can’t be understood.
So detail gives you more mental work to do. There are more things to look at, which suggest more and more questions. All that mood is still there anyway, so it’s like the double-punch effect. It’s a question of keeping the mind occupied while the emotions are being silently manipulated on the back burner.’

I absolutely loved this concept of camouflaging emotional manipulation aimed at the viewer behind an apparently straightforward, documentary style, making it all the more efficient that it is surreptitious.

Polidori also explains his interest in photographing interiors:

‘I’m interested in interiors, and I have been for a long time, simply because they’re indices of individuals’ personal values. They tell you a lot about the individual. Like I’ve said before, to me interiors are both metaphors and catalysts for states of being. You can take a portrait of somebody, and you might have a feeling looking at their face, but you know less things about them by looking at their face than you do when you look at the way that they compose their own interior space. What interests me are their values.’ He compares his work to that of ‘collecting evidence, like a detective looking to solve a case’.

That’s exactly how I feel about my Ghost House series: what fascinates me is trying to put back together the lives of their former inhabitants, gues who they were based on the belongings they left behind.

In an interview with Bombsite Polidori explains that he first became interested in rooms after reading a book about the Pythagorean School, where students would memorize empty rooms as a mnemonic aid to memorize events: rooms were turned into ‘a locus for memory’. Polidori himself views rooms as ‘ metaphors for states of being’.

He is particularly interested in derelict buildings because they hold more memories: ‘the rooms that are devastated by time are the ones that have the most traces. The brand-new, fabricated rooms only have graphic qualities. They don’t really have any soul to them.’

What interested him in his photographs of Versailles under restoration was the concept of ‘historical revisionism’: ‘when you choose to restore a certain room as it was in a certain period, the period you choose is based on your contemporary worldview. Each point of view of the present has its harmonics in the past.’ The Palace told as much about France of the Mitterrand years as it did about the times when it was built. He explains ‘what we are looking at in these museum restorations is the society’s superego, what a society thinks of itself, and how it thinks it should be seen by itself’.

He then widens the concept to relate it to the rest of his work: ‘this is what individuals do to a room. Again this same theme. It’s the exteriorization of the soul life or of personal values. What we have affixed on these walls is the superego, in the Jungian sense.’

I found this idea that a room reflects the philosophical values of its inhabitants fascinating. I think this is a similar concern that draws me to the religious imagery found in the Ghost Houses, what they say about the world-view of their former inhabitants. In the context of the Magdalene laundries, this religious imagery takes a darker undertone, when one contrasts the message of Jesus with the arbitrary imprisonment of innocent girls. Here indeed, we find society’s Superego, the values it claims to follow, clashing with the actual actions.

In an interview where he defends his New Orleans series, Polidori states in conclusion ‘it is an unforgiving fact that we are all born and die alone in this world. I consider it as the definition of the human condition.’

All in all, I think Robert Polidori is the photographer I feel closest to among all the artists I discovered in my research, both on the visual and philosophical levels.

Link to Photo Gallery: http://www.life.com/image/first/in-gallery/51801/robert-polidori-points-between

Versailles

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Velours Frappé, Salles Du XVIIème, Versailles 1985. All images courtesy of the artist.

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Marat De David, RDC, Aile Du Midi, Versailles 1985.

New Orleans: After the Flood

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Robert Polidori, “2732 Orleans Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, September 2005”

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Robert Polidori, “5000 Cartier Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, September 2005”

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“Industrial Canal breach, Reynes Street, New Orleans, September 2005”

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“2520 Deslondes, New Orleans, March 2006”

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“1923 Lamanche Street, New Orleans, March 2006”

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“5417 Marigny Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, March 2006”

Cuba

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Calle Cardenas 27, Cantro Habana, Havana (2002)

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Sala Alejo Carpentier, Gran Teatro de la Habana, Habana Vieja, Havana (2000)

Chernobyl and Pripyat

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Unit 4 Control Room (June 6-9, 2001)

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Classroom in Kindergarten #7, “Golden Key.” Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

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Operating Room in Hospital #126, Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

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Cafeteria in School #5, Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

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Waiting room in hospital #126, Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

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Hallway in School #5, Pripyat. (June 6-9, 2001)

Myth, Manners and Memory: Photographers of the American South

Posted in Artists that inspire me, Photography, Photography: subjective documentary with tags , , , , , , on January 17, 2011 by melaniemenardarts

Myth, Manners and Memory: Photographers of the American South presented the work of several American photographers who photographed aspects of the American South, a place sometimes described as the ‘dark underbellyof a nation’.

Critic Richard Gray, referring to Faulkner’s ‘implacable and brooding image of the South’, considers that while the American West ‘is all about optimism, the future, mobility’, ‘the South is all about the opposite: shame and guilt, the burden of the past, the dreadful suspicion that you can never escape from where you came from and who your family were’, ‘a brooding sense of guilt or wrong – the burden of shame if you white or trauma if you are black.’

I present here my favourite photographs from the show. Once more, I realize I am drawn to photographs with a cinematic feel about them.

Walker Evans took many documentary photographs commissioned by official government organisations.

Walker Evans - Fish Market Near Birmingham, Ala. 1936

Walker Evans – Fish Market Near Birmingham, Ala. 1936

This image was not in the show but I like it.

Walker Evans, untitled, [Genesee Valley Gorge] n.d

Walker Evans, untitled, [Genesee Valley Gorge] n.d

I could not find this image on the internet: ‘Walker Evans, View taken from train between Memphis, Tennessee and Forest City, Arkansas.’ Though rather unspectacular, this photograph grabbed me because it evoked newspaper photographs of the Katrina floods when I first looked at it.

William Christenberry, who worked with Evans, takes interesting photographs of derelict buildings.

William Christenberry - Green Warehouse, 1978

William Christenberry – Green Warehouse, 1978.

William Christenberry - Palmist Building (Winter), Havana Junction, Alabama 1981

William Christenberry – Palmist Building (Winter), Havana Junction, Alabama 1981

Susan Lipper shot her ‘From the Grapevines’ series in the remote villages and rural communities of the Appalachian mountains. The people and places are real, but the scenes are stages, giving an ambiguous edge to the photographs: is it documentary or scornful stereotypes imported by the outsider visitor?

Susan Lipper - Untitled, from the Grapevine series, 1988-1992

Susan Lipper – Untitled, from the Grapevine series, 1988-1992

William Eggleston’s takes photographs while on long road trips. His photographs often look like outtakes from a road movies, and have a distinct ‘Southern Gothic’ edge about them.

William Eggleston, Red Ceiling, Greenwood, Mississippi.

William Eggleston, Red Ceiling, Greenwood, Mississippi.

William Eggleston, Untitled (Morton, Mississippi), 1970.

William Eggleston, Untitled (Morton, Mississippi), 1970.

Alec Soth also shoot his ‘Sleeping by the Mississippi’ series on a road trip southwards along the Mississippi.

Alec Soth - Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002

Alec Soth – Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002

Alec Soth - Jimmie's Apartment , Memphis, Tennessee, 2002

Alec Soth – Jimmie’s Apartment , Memphis, Tennessee, 2002

Alec Soth - Bonnie (with a photograph of an angel), Port Gibson, Mississippi, 2000

Alec Soth – Bonnie (with a photograph of an angel), Port Gibson, Mississippi, 2000

Alec Soth – Bible study book (Prophet in the Wilderness), Vicksburg, Mississipi, 2002

Alec Soth – Bible study book (Prophet in the Wilderness), Vicksburg, Mississipi, 2002.

Alec Soth - Johnny Cash's boyhood home, Dyess, Arkansas 2002

Alec Soth – Johnny Cash’s boyhood home, Dyess, Arkansas 2002

While looking for iconography, I found this brilliant website with many of my favourite American photographers: http://www.americansuburbx.com/