Came across these on Tumblr. Sometimes it really is this (deceptively) simple. This feels like one of my basic design assignments—take a selection of colors and sort them in multiple ways—taken to another level via repetition.
In class, the common mistake was to rely on paint chips—a mistake since paint chips are all based on a white base so the palette is way more limited than anyone realized. The point of the assignment was to really get to know and understand color gamuts and how they interact. You had to sort by light to dark, warm to cool, and bright to dull. It’s not just about hues interacting.
Emily Blincoe’s work is more hue-based but because of the limited palette in each arrangement, does a similar thing since each sorting has to determine the distinguishing feature of the selected objects. They look neat. But they’re also a great exercise in thinking about color.
The Paul Strand show turned out to be the motivation I needed to finally make the trip to Philadelphia. I’m glad I went. Strand—like Weston was for a long time—is one of those photographers whose work I’ve absorbed but never really looked at in a specific, comprehensive way before. Sure, some of the images are extremely well-known, but many of the rest I’ve never seen before yet have sensibilities which feel just as familiar to me.
Needless to say, I really like his work—especially his precise framing and composition. He’s able to find the order within the type of scenes that often catch my eye but which challenge me when it comes to finding the photograph in them—door hardware, a clump of plants, items which I can’t abstract to pure texture or sculpture because they contain both an interesting structure as well as their real-world function.
Strand’s work is also very interesting because he was right there at the beginning of photography as an art form. From his early work consisting of “fuzzy” pictorial contact prints to portraits and street photography to urban abstractions and still lifes to contrasty enlargements to finally combining photos and text together in book form, his journey as an artist parallels a lot of the medium’s journey as he learns to embrace what the medium does well and address things it doesn’t. The result of this is that many of his photos remind me of other photographers’ work. Not in a rip off way, just that looking at Strand’s work made me realize how much of an influence he had on other photographers. He’s not someone to ape. He’s someone to study and learn from and take what he learned and apply it to whatever I’m interested in.
What most struck me was realizing that while Strand’s most-famous images—those that you’re supposed to knowand recognize—came from his early work, this doesn’t mean that that work is better. Instead it reflects on how his sensibilities shifted and he went from producing individually great photos to collections and books that, while consisting of great photos, are more about the way the photos work together to describe a place.
It’s his later work which has stuck with me after seeing this show. Strand would spend a long time in a location, photographing details, buildings, people, etc. all of which together form a portrait of the area. His images though don’t try and explain the area to us but rather provide a sense of how it was when Strand was there. They’re documentary without feeling anthropological or journalistic. They’re positive and empathic without being propaganda, Looking at them is like looking through an exceptionally high-quality photo album and offers a lot of food for thought as I think about making my own photo albums and books.
The exhibition itself is also noteworthy for having a lot of technical detail about the different printing methods Strand used. It does a great job at demonstrating how they differ—both on the production side and in the final product—but especially the final product. There are examples of copy negatives and interpositives and information about how they were modified before contact printing. There are also displays of the same images, or similar images from the same shoot, reproduced as platinum, silver gelatin, and photogravure prints set up so we can compare the differences in detail and contrast each method allows for. Mixed with these comparisons are discussions about how his cameras impacted his working methods and different printing methods impacted distribution.
It was nice to see an exhibition which realized and explained how much the tools of photographic capture and print production impact the art. It’s even nicer to see an exhibition discuss issues of distribution and display. While his prints are great, that Strand eventually settled on books as the ideal form for his photography puts a very different frame regarding the intended audience of the artwork. Most things we see in museums are elite objects for elite people. Strand’s work is more populist. It’s only fitting that I’ll be aware of his influence everywhere I look now.
Something interesting which came across tumblr and caused me to click through to his papers at the Smithsonian. These are too much fun. The signs are great in a vernacular hand-drawn way that we’re not used to seeing anymore. And the polaroids—direct flash and all—are perfect.
Yes, these are hipstagram before hipstagram. But what I love about these is how the camera is placed so as to crop out everything unnecessary and any keystoning or other “issues” are accepted. The only things in these prints are what needs to be there.
Steichen began to value photography’s capacity to transmit and encode information, and he soon proved his savvy as a collaborator and producer rather than a solitary auteur—new skills that enabled his subsequent groundbreaking career in magazines.
These have been sitting in the write-somthing-about-this queue for a few months. Kukkurovaca’s most-recent Minor White post however reminded me of them. It’s not just that these are interesting technologically* and biographically,** they’re also worth thinking about as communication.
*Adding photography to the list of aerial advancements made during World War 1.
**Marking a key moment in Steichen’s development as a photographer
In their execution, they remind me of the scientific photographs—micrography, aerial surveys, etc.—that found their way into the early attempts at photographic abstraction, except that in White’s case, they are not valuable purely for their aesthetics but for their potential to transmit an understanding that could not be put into words.
This is especially interesting given how I was looking at Doc Edgerton last week and feeling like all those stop-motion photographs felt more gimmicky than anything else. I think the main difference here is that many of the stop motion photos don’t really communicate much beyond “this looks cool”* whereas aerial photos do. It’s not just “I can see my house from here” but the kind of thing that invites us to think about our interactions with the land from a different perspective.
*The best Edgerton photos actually tend to go beyond that and reveal interesting things about the way objects behave— e.g. how the milk coronet elegantly shows fluid dynamics.
We already know how maps are so different than directions in terms of explaining a place and how to navigate it. Aerial photos take the sense of a map but invite us to really think about the real world implications of what’s depicted. At the same time, like with maps (and any other kind of photography), they’re an obviously abstracted version of the world.
Nothing really new here. One of his photos came across Tumblr and reminded me of how often Doc Edgerton is on my mind nowadays. He’s one of those photographers whose name you’re supposed to know but, at the same time, feels like someone of technical rather than artistic importance. I’m not sure exactly where that line is but I’m pretty sure both Muybridge and Edgerton are straddling it.
In any case, he’s on my mind so much because every few months another photoseries goes viral* which is pretty much straight out of the Doc Edgerton handbook of using strobes to freeze action and capture the subject in a shape which we never see them in. I’m not knocking the concept. I’m just intrigued at how much interest it still holds.
Edgerton’s photos were pushing the limits of flash and strobes in their time. We didn’t know stuff like this could be done. Now? Besides the photoseries, we see these effects in sports broadcasts all the time. And they still fascinate us.
Part of me thinks this is because the frozen-in-motion effect helps us buy into the photography-as-truth thing in showing us things that are TRUE yet which we have never seen before.* This is still the goal that many photographers want to achieve.
*Even though it’s actually true that these ultra-short exposures are inherently unreal and nothing ever looks like these.
At the same time, I can’t help wondering how, despite the way we constantly get new viral series along these lines, this kind of thing doesn’t feel like art to me. Is it in the framing of the photos? So many of these are in the “look what happens when” camp where the content of the image is seemingly much more important than the photo itself. There’s obviously more to these photos than just the content but the framing suggests that we ignore that aspect. Or is it the fact that Edgerton’s work itself is held by MIT and feels more like evidence from science experiments rather an artist’s explorations.