Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Understanding photographs - and books reviewed

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Since starting the course back in February I have accumulated a number of books that have been either specified course reading materials, tutor recommendations of suggestions from other students that have cropped up in the OCA student forum or on the flickr discussion site.  I have wanted to produce a short review of some of these for a while, but decided to wait until getting quite well through the course before assembling my notes into something more substantial as I generally read the books through and then dipped into them periodically as the course progressed.  There is no doubt that my opinions of some of the content and its meaning has changed over the last few months as has my view of the comparative utility of some of the material, so it seemed appropriate to wait until this juncture.  Much of the guidance for TAOP is derived from Freeman’s The Photographer’s Eye, but I’ll be saving final thoughts on that until I have finished Assignment 5 and submitted for assessment in March.
When I started the course I was very new to the study of photographic images as art and took a very narrow perspective on much of my early reading outside of the entirely technical material.   Although I would claim no expertise in this whatsoever after ten months study, going back into the books in the light of experiences gained, particularly on study days, has to an extent changed my view of some of the views expressed by ‘art writers’.

Grahame Clarke’s “The Photograph” initially provides a fairly standard introduction to the historical development of photography from the time of Niepce, through wet-plate photography to the present day, but then launches into  “rather than endorse Baudelaire’s disparaging remarks about its limited capacity for reflecting the superficial aspect of things, this Wordsworthian (even Ruskinian) perspective mythicizes the notion of insight over sight.” I think this makes assumptions about the reader and narrows the field of appeal somewhat, although I’m sure that many of my biochemical writings over the years would have been equally impenetrable to Mr Clarke ...  However, as the book progresses through developing knowledge of how to read a photograph to the sections on landscape, the city, the portrait, the body and documentary photography, the language becomes less obtuse, or maybe I got used to it, and the narrative appears to develop at a faster pace.  I have returned to the chapter on documentary photography a number of times in response to thoughts I have had following various gallery visits, especially Magnum62 and the Prix Pictet 2012 exhibitions. Clarke writes at some length about the importance of Magnum in defining the development of documentary photography and how it drove the development of the genre.
The final chapter, “The cabinet of infinite possibilities” contains an excellent review of the works of Cartier-Bresson and how he opens the world to the camera lens rather than the converse, which Clarke argues is also applicable to most other established ‘art’ photographers.  The book concludes with an enlightening timeline showing the key developments in photography plotted alongside the political and cultural events of the same time in history.

The most significant change for me between my reading of Clarke’s book at the start of the course and my perceptions of it during later visits, is certainly around the subject of how to read a photograph.  Although I think too much interpretation is placed by authors on the content and meaning of some photographs, I have certainly started to learn how to look at an image and see aspects that the photographer intended … or did they ….?
Charlotte Cotton’s “The photograph as contemporary art” was another book I read as part of my introduction to TAOP and commences with “ … the art world embraces the photograph as never before and photographers consider the art gallery or book as the natural home for their work .. “  The first chapter “If this is art” focusses on the act of orchestrating images directly for the camera and makes the point that the creation of  these pieces of art start a long time before the camera is involved in generating the final photographs.  Although I assume that many images have been selected for their somewhat extreme exemplification of the genre, I do find it hard to relate to the works of Edwin Wurm and Tatsumi Orimoto especially.  Orimoto’s photographs of people with bread tied round them are just bizarre.

The second chapter deals with storytelling and presents a good review of the photographers who specialise in the creation of tableaux for their art.  Jeff Walls’ Insomnia features here and this was recently the subject of debate on Weareoca following a post on the subject from Sharon Boothroyd.  Another chapter that resonated with me was Moments in History in which Cotton considers how photography contributes to the reporting and understanding of world events.  She points out that contemporary art photographers have generally taken an ‘anti-reportage stance’, consequently taking a more contemplative approach with medium and large format equipment.  Sophie Ristelhueber’s portrayals of Middle East conflicts and their aftermath produce some poignant images.

Overall, I thought Cotton’s book provided an excellent introduction to photography as a contemporary art form.  It was fast paced and easy to read and brought out the key points, and indeed the key images, to exemplify her points.
Another book I used for introductory reading was Mary Warner Marien’s “Photography: a cultural history”.  This is a mighty tome of a book and at 552 pages and larger than A4 in size, puts many phone directories to shame!  This was by far the best of the introductory texts and I found it immensely entertaining, and with its large format, had the benefit of big pictures which were printed at high quality compared to Cotton and Clarke.  She covers photography in art, science, sociology, travel, war and fashion as well as its development as a tool of the mass media.  The focus throughout is more on the key concepts than on specific individual photographers and it also contains what I thought was the best review of the history of the development of photography that I found, all accompanied by excellent illustrations.  There is even room for a short section on scientific photography which covers Eadweard Muybridge’s work on the science of animal locomotion and spares a few words for Rontgen and the discovery of the potential of x-rays.  It is the easiest of the three books to dip back into and I thought had by far the most attractive and appealing layout – not just due to the larger size, but due to the way in which the image panels were interspersed to break up the text, and the ‘Focus’ sections which cropped up now and again in most chapters to add detail in specific areas, but which were not essential to the casual reader.  All in all the best of the three and I would recommend it highly as long as you don’t need to travel with it!

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