What is the attraction of New Topographic aesthetics?

Up to now I thought I was attracted to the New Topographics photographers, such as Robert Adam’s and Frank Gohlke, because I enjoyed the aesthetic of their tract house images. Perhaps it is the bright but flat light, the quietness, the geometry if the human constructs set against the natural landscape that form a kind of accidental beauty. However, I am now having second thoughts. The following images come to mind.

New Housing Development, Benbrook, Texas 1963 by Frank Gohlke
Colorado Springs, 1968 by Robert Adams

The more I delve into my photographic inspirations, and having discovered the ubiquity of metaphors for Power, Subordination, Pathos and Monumentality in my images, I am not so sure about the attraction being purely visual. The images above actually reflect my memories of childhood. Moving towns several times and always to a brand-new house, on an incomplete estate with no infrastructure of shops or schools nearby, Frank Gohlke’s image of a sterile, but perfect (in the eyes of 1960’s aspirational adults) really strikes home as an impression of my childhood.

The Robert Adams image of a woman in a house reminds me of my mother at that time. The hairstyle is exactly right but the impression of her being trapped in this cage of an “ideal home” is also very familiar.

The use of Black and White (B&W) photography, whilst the norm in the 1960’s, is also quite appropriate to the lack of colour in life on such an estate and to the binary of B&W, right or wrong, being the only possible conditions and uniformity is a given.

These are not warm, welcoming homes. They are more “Space” than “Place” (Heidegger 1971)

The next 2 images are both by Robert Adams, from his book “Prairie” (Adams, 1978)

Genoa 1970 by Robert Adams                                      
Thurman 1969 by Robert Adams

Such scenes above are far more attractive, to me, as locations to live. Whereas Golke’s “New Housing Estate” appears to be an endless repetition of the same clinical scheme, “Genoa” entices you to go beyond the end of the street. There is a world out there to be explored. The street itself is a little chaotic with its well established but untrimmed trees and randomly parked cars, so Genoa has humanity and looks like a “Place” not just a “Space”.

Then there is “Thurman” by Adams. This is not a clinical, sterile house. It is a practical but messy arrangement of utilities for living. It feels like a home.

Both these images give the impression of being warm, welcoming places to live where shades of grey may be possible, not just black and white.

Bibliography

Adams R. Prairie, The Denver Art Museum, 1978

Heidegger M. Building Dwelling Thinking, from Poetry, Language, Thought, (translated by Hofstadter A.) Harper Colophon Book, New York, 1971

     

Field Trip Review – Granton & Newhaven

Date created – 12/03/2019

Starting intentions. I knew the possibilities of finding many “quirky juxtapositions” in this area of new build set against decaying and abandoned constructions, often separated by fences. These features appeal to my liking of quirkiness and my objections to anything that tries to restrict the “right to roam”.

This example shows, what I presume are drainage pipes, with rather amateurish protective covers, that reminded me of judges’ caps. Perhaps these judges had been buried for committing some crime themselves?

The new flats look down upon them, disapprovingly.

In the same area were these sad, abandoned Christmas trees surrounded by rubbish. Again, the flats appear to be looking down upon the scene.

More ironical juxtapositioning!

I had 2 cameras with me, one set to record in colour but with a B&W viewfinder. I found this an interesting and useful tool as, since moving to digital 16 years ago, I have lost the ability to perceive how a colour scene will render in B&W.

This image is another following my “parallel lives” and “right to roam, denied” themes.

Next, I’m not sure whether the geometry of this image would have struck me quite so strongly if it hadn’t been for the B&W viewfinder. The colour version is far more confusing.

I wanted the central post to split the screen but the slight bend to the right is disconcerting. I fixed that in Photoshop as, I believe, 3 perfect verticals will make for a stronger image than the reality.

Yes, this may not be reality, but it does now represent what I wanted to convey about the geometry of the scene.

Moving further away looking for more of a narrative than just geometry this scene resulted.

Now the lighthouse has become a character. It is looking out, searching for a better future, away from its derelict environment.

In this example I did not spend long enough thinking about depth of field whilst on-location. The foreground fence is slightly blurred. Does this help with the message about the lighthouse wanting to escape? Or would the fence being sharp have emphasised its ties to the current location and the impossibility of escape? I have not decided yet.

The next composition was to look at the possibilities of the square format. For me, here, the B&W version has neither the strength of geometry nor of narrative to make it work. However, the muted reds and greens of the colour image do provide an attractive combination and a calm mood.

Such a picture is far more reflective of my own emotions whilst on location than delivering a narrative or an abstraction of shapes.

Did moving further back enhance the effect? Possibly. The wider view certainly increases the sense of isolation, with the empty foreground. Again, this is reflective of my own mood at the time.

Note – such “isolation” is, for me, associated with a sense freedom rather than being a negative term, implying being alone.

Moving on to Newhaven.

This is a scene I have taken before and is inspired by a Robert Adams style of banal, new build, “tract houses”. Hence the B&W, as per Adams’ images.

It works as a copy of that style.

However, I find this, muted colour, version better at capturing my own mood at the time.

The colour seems to make Fife, in the distance, recede and become far less important. Therefore, the image is more centred in the foreground and the viewer’s own location. The colours of the vegetation also emphasise the winter timing, which is much less noticeable in the B&W image.

The final image of the day was taken as another comment upon man-made restrictions to movement. Here it is caused by the razor wire and the fences around the lighthouse. I was aware at the time of trying to deduce the depth of field so as to focus on the nearby razor wire and thus emphasise the inaccessibility of the lighthouse beyond.

However, the depth of field was still too great to achieve my intentions. I should have checked more thoroughly at the time.

Ironically, I did take a second image with a very large depth of field. This did not work at all as it focuses attention on the details of the constructs and not the intended narrative. If the lighthouse had been further out of focus its inaccessibility would have been enhanced.

Conclusions

  • I’m still not spending enough time, on-location, thinking about what I am trying to do – reviewing and getting it right. For example:
    •  final image, I should have gone for much less DoF to emphasise the razor wire but not the lighthouse. To be honest narrow DoF is not a tool I use often, and I need much more practice with it. This will only be achieved by understanding exactly my intentions, at the time, reviewing my images more closely and thinking about how to achieve them.
    • These images were all hand held or with a monopod. I should have used a tripod. This would have slowed me down and freed up my hands for changing lenses and to spend more time reviewing images.
  • Tried B&W in viewfinder – useful!
    • Helped confirm the first lighthouse and its geometric potential.
    • It did not stop me capturing colour images that also worked, sometimes better!
  • One-location, one subject, and just a few minutes apart, yet 3 quite different types of image at Granton lighthouse!
    • Narrative, Geometrical and Reflective images
    • I need to recognise these differences, at the time, if I am to use the knowledge to improve my images. Again, more time thinking.
  • Overall – I do need to spend more time thinking but NOT ahead of making the first, intuitive, images. My intuition for a composition is a strength. Therefore I should make the first images quickly, with the minimum of thought, then review, determine my intents and attempt to strengthen the image.

Field trip – Gran Canaria

I have just returned from a short trip to Gran Canaria, my first visit to this island. It was not designed as a photographic trip, but I did make some images and this report is about the results and my thoughts.

From previous visits to Colorado, California, Tenerife, etc., I already knew the combination of the light qualities, the bright colours and the geometric architectural shapes, are very appealing.

The location for the trip was Puerto Rico, a holiday ghetto, and I did not have a car so had little opportunity to escape or to find specific photo opportunities. However, a few subjects were found.

This image sums up my feelings about Puerto Rico. Pete Seeger’s song about “Little Boxes” comes to mind. This is typical, except that the trees in pots add some welcome variety to the identical white boxes all with blue accessories.

However, I found I was attracted to the blue/white themes as close-up, graphical arrangements.

Or, as here above, a collection of differently coloured geometrical shapes.

These next few images are more typical of my mixing human constructs in the landscape, their narratives and the geometrical shapes formed by the elements.

This final image was inspired by perceiving a confrontation between the army of trees and the powerline. The trees appear hesitant, all bunched up in the face of the single power pole.

The one thing that would persuade me to return to Gran Canaria would be the possibility of a project documenting the banana plantations and farming communities, well away from tourist towns.

What is Power/Subordination in images?

I developed the concept of Power/Subordination as a description for a key property (or output) of my images. It describes the relationship of power implicit in one or more image elements towards other elements (or the viewer) making them appear subordinate or somehow weaker. This feature is present in 27% of my “top 50” images and 22% of the “top 200” images. Therefore, it is a significant trope.

Here are examples:

Above the tall, powerful, new, turbines with their science fiction appearance seem to be marching across the high ground of the landscape. In contrast the old, worn fences look weak, low down in the scene and unable to stop the “progress”. This effect is enhanced as the turbines appear to be looking into the distance and to be unaware of the fences.

In the next image the turbines, whilst a similar size in the frame to those in the above image, do not appear dominant relative, this time, to the viewer. They are at a distance, looking at the viewer, almost hiding behind the shed, as if in a stand-off with, but not threatening the viewer. Somehow the viewer seems to be in control of the scene.

Both images are examples of a Power/Subordinate relationship within the image but demonstrate how changes in the composition can result in opposing relationships and narratives.

In narrative and relationship terms this image is a combination of the two above. The stone cross is looking powerful and, perhaps defiant in the face of the viewer. The ring of the Celtic cross appears to form the hands-on hips stance of a confident leader confronting the viewer. By contrast the power-pole in the background is timid, hiding behind the hill, not wanting to be involved. Its construction, being almost an inverse of the stone cross, lacks the confident stance. The third pole, on the left, is like a bystander present (to balance the composition) but not involved in the story.

This image was created because I saw the pleasing triangular shape formed by the rock and the 4 posts. However, once seen, I started to perceive a power/subordinate relationship between the confrontational looking poles and the small rock that seems to be shrinking into the ground. The cut-outs near the tops of the front two poles adds to the impression that these are in some way human. This image only works the way I describe because there is little sense of depth and the rock looks to be almost on the same plane as the posts.

Here the solid, concrete, WWII lookout post is high and looking out to sea, oblivious of the viewer. It is dominant and immovable. In contrast the viewer is low down looking up towards the lookout. Even although the lookout is not acknowledging the viewer’s presence this particular viewer feels the weaker but not necessarily threatened.

Here are 2 further examples:

Conclusions

This is a very anthropomorphic way to view images, but it comes very naturally and unbidden to me. The exercise has demonstrated how viewpoint, position in the frame, size, construction materials and the juxtapositions of elements and viewers can result in very different perceptions and meanings in an image.

Perceiving potential Narratives as a source of composition

This title  describes a situation where my initial impressions of a scene result (usually) in anthropomorphic narratives being applied to inanimate objects and their relationships within a scene. I then compose the image to emphasise the narratives I have seen. I emphasise these are almost instantaneous visions of relationships and potential narratives. These are compositions that I used to consider wholly intuitive until I started this research and began to unravel my motivations image by image.

In this image I had perceived a relationship between the power pole and the children’s slide. The pole appears powerful, upright and, with a high viewpoint, it appears attentive, as if scanning for threats.

The pole’s juxtaposition, relative to the slide (representing a child) made this scene appear to be of a metaphorical parent and child. The parent protective and observant whilst the child slide is bright, curved (stress-free) and enjoying itself.

This next image, taken at the same time as the Slide and Pole above, is all about the violence inflicted upon the hedge.

It was photographed head on, to give the impression of our facing a soldiers’ advance, as on a WW1 battlefield. The soldiers in the foreground have been mown down whilst the tall, strong trees behind (generals perhaps?) are untouched and focused above and beyond the ranks towards a higher purpose.

This is another image seen and very quickly taken because I knew (intuitively?) that there was a story here, in this composition. It was part of my BA (hons) final degree exhibition in 2011.

The painting is of an early, Lord Wraxall, creator of the 600 acre, Tyntesfield House Estate, near Bristol. His wealth and the building of the estate was funded by the import and sales of guano from South America. The house and estate are now owned by the National Trust.

My narrative for this image is founded upon Tyntesfield House no longer being the private home of a wealthy aristocratic family but having been turned, by the National Trust, into a zoo of objects for the general public to gaze upon. Instead of Lord Wraxall’s image being displayed prominently, in a way he might consider appropriate to his standing, it is behind a cord with his face is covered. Not perhaps a dignified situation for the former owner of the house. His image has been reduced to that of just another stately home object with its meaning removed for all except those few who take a direct interest in the history. For me this is an image about mortality, the triviality of our existences, whoever we are, and the world moving on regardless.

Another image where the composition was quickly formulated after perceiving some key factors about the location. First, the rock colours and the conical piles reminded me of treasure. This idea was reinforced by the aggressive looking bulldozer, not looking at us, but appearing attentive, cowering behind its own little gravel pile. Is it protecting the treasure? The final elements that formulated the narrative were the tracks appearing from the bottom left. A few have ventured passed the “teeth” of the bulldozer but more have turned around, not risking annoying the guard.

Conclusions

These are fanciful, anthropomorphic narratives that work for me. I am explaining them here as part of my research, but I have learned that I should not normally provide viewers with such stories as this limits their own creation of narratives. Additionally, if the viewer rejects my interpretation, they may not go on to develop their own.

I have now learned to have confidence in my images. If I can develop such complicated, metaphorical narratives from my photographs, then others can also do it for themselves.

Same location, similar content but very different origins

I have noticed that some of my images, whilst superficially very similar, have quite different origins for their compositions. For example, these images, were both taken at Skaw on Unst on the same day:

This image followed a pattern I have seen and used before. I instantly saw its potential as a piece of “Public Art” and arranged the composition to make it look far more like I am celebrating an artist’s installation rather than a mundane concrete support for an antenna – its actual purpose. The positioning of the clouds was also deliberate so as to give the impression that the steel girders are chimneys. Overall, this image was deliberately contrived and composed to achieve a quirky, mildly humorous photograph.

This image, whilst superficially, very similar, had a quite different origin. I did not initially perceive this brick construct as an independent element within the scene. Rather I saw it, halved, as shown here, with the pool of water cradling its base, and the clouds plus the horizons of the land and the sea pointing towards it. In other words, I saw the whole picture as a series of interrelated shapes rather than as individual elements of a composition.

The next diagrammatic version explains what I perceived more clearly.

Was my seeing this a moment of “visual indeterminacy”? It was certainly a fleeting moment of initial perception that was soon replaced by an understanding of the various parts as discrete elements.

From then on, I used my memory of my initial perceptions to compose the final image.

The following image was conceived quite differently to either of the ones discussed above.

I saw this as a pleasing arrangement and alignment of the lines that connected the foundations to the derelict shed and the horizon. It is a consciously composed image where the reality of independent elements has been challenged by moving the camera until the separate components were forced to connect.

The next image has no narrative perceived by me and was seen as no more than a nicely balanced arrangement of disparate elements, in particular the tracks, block houses and the rocks.

It is a conscious design that leaves everything except the stability of the image unexplained.

Here are further examples, from different locations, where I had an initial, short, almost two-dimensional perception of the scene that was then used to construct a final image from my memory of it:

Initial (indeterminate) 2D perceptions

This instantaneous visualisation of the whole and or relationships between elements that exist visually but not in reality is not a new phenomena for me. However, having recognised, in 2018, and understood they way it works for me, I am now deliberately following that path and not trying to over-think the compositions.

Images from the same locations as those above but that were more “traditionally” seen and composed follow: 

 

By “traditionally” composed I mean that I saw what looked like a pleasing arrangement of elements and moved around to achieve the final composition. There was no instant visualisation and usually little “potential narrative” to be developed.

Of course there is narrative potential in this image below. However, at the time I only saw it a an interesting arrangement of the building, the man-hole and the fence. Unlike the earlier scene from this location this is easily perceived as a three-dimensional image rather than being seen in just two-dimensions.

“Potential narratives” as a source of composition will be discussed in a later blog.

Conclusion

The above demonstrates that even at a single location, on the same day, my motivations for making individual images can vary significantly. There are at least 4 different sources of inspiration from my day at Skaw on Unst!

 

 

 

Ansel Adams leaves me cold!

I have admired the landscape photography of Ansel Adams for about 30 years. However, it has never excited me. His photography is always technically superb, but I have rarely found his landscapes images stirring me emotionally. This may sound heretical but, for me, Adam’s images are little more than stunning records of sublime landscapes. The subject is beautiful, but the photograph has little to add to it. What am I missing?

Please note that I am particularly discussing Adam’s large vista landscape photographs and not his intimate floral, tree or architectural images which I do find engaging both artistically and emotionally.  Ansel Adams – El Capitan

Perhaps, like the landscape painters of the Hudson River School who invented, overly dramatized scenes, such as below, Adam’s photographs are somehow unbelievable. Adams maybe making photographs, but their reality feels questionable.Thomas Cole – Scenes from the Last of the Mohicans

In part I believe this lack of credibility is due to Adam’s images not having any signs of human presence. Without such evidence, human constructs or traces, such scenes might as well be invented. Personally, I need to see that other humans have been to a location to believe in it. I am more interested in, and find it easier to engage with, a landscape when there is evidence that humans have interacted with the location. A pristine, “natural landscape” was in Adam’s time and is still a rare if not impossible location.

Thomas Cole’s painting does include humans. But it is a painting and therefore cannot be a wholly accurate portrayal of reality. For photographs, there is a long-held misconception that they do accurately record reality, but this has never been true. Since as long ago as the 1840’s photographs have been manipulated and, anyway, every photograph is inherently the photographer’s edit of the world and time, not a whole reality.

Conversely, from the first time I became aware of the New Topographic photographers, especially Robert Adams, and Lewis Baltz, I was excited and felt emotionally connected with their rendering of banal subjects as something worthy of being appreciated and investigated. Somehow, their ability to depict the mundane as (albeit accidentally) beautiful resonates with me. I am interested in understanding what it is they are trying to say about a scene. When I feel they have created beauty out of the banal then I am drawn into the image to try and understand why and to create my own meanings.

However, going back to my original argument, at a recent conference on landscape photography I saw 2 very successful and highly considered landscape photographers showing and discussing their work. They were Charlie Waite and Colin Prior. This was interesting because, like with Ansel Adams, I admire the craft of these photographers, but I often fail to be engaged by their images. Again, what am I missing?

Charlie Waite showed the following image: https://goo.gl/images/amYhtP

My immediate reaction was that the sky was too visually noisy, and this conflicted strongly with the calm, soft beauty of the sand dunes. The two elements seem to be fighting with one another and this had a negative effect on me. Charlie Waite said that his sister had surprised him when she described the sky as “too chaotic”. So, I am not alone! Was Charlie Waite only aware of the drama in the scene and overlooking the emotional conflict?

https://goo.gl/images/KFf4ox  This image by Colin Prior (Liathach and Beinn Eighe) captures a sublime, dawn scene in difficult winter conditions that took real effort and skills to make. It is beautiful but, after a few seconds of viewing, I am left wondering what it is trying to say. There does not, for me, appear to be any meaning, message or alternative way of seeing the world being proposed by such an image. Perhaps my wish for images to convey more than just (accepted) beauty is limiting my appreciation.

Both these photographers, and their success, seems to be predicated upon being able to access and record moments and locations in dramatic ways that most of their viewers could not hope to emulate. Are they selling a dream, an overly romantic view of the world, that I consider to be an unachievable fiction, for most people, most of the time. Are they selling their visions of heaven?

On the few occasions when I have been in such dramatic places and experienced the light, the solitude, the moment then I have felt spiritually uplifted. Note, I am not a spiritual person, so these occasions are rare. However, a photograph of such a time (as shown below) will rekindle those emotions within me but someone else’s images of the same or similar places and moments will still leave me cold. For this image I have a personal connection and knowledge that I cannot achieve by looking at others’ photographs.Krafla, Iceland.

Usually, and perhaps contrarily, when I am in such moments, I will take a single picture then put the camera away in order to fully concentrate on the moment, the experience. For me, enjoying the experience itself is far more important than the recording of it which can never be more than a trigger for an inadequate memory.

 

 

Glen Coe & Ullapool field trips

Please note words such a Spectacular and Juxtaposition where the first letter is capitalised indicates it is a word whose use I have specifically defined elsewhere in my researches.

In late October I had a total of 10 days photography, first leading a group of photographers on a holiday around Glen Coe and Ardgour, then with friends around Ullapool. Both trips were focused on general landscape photography rather than my usual subject, “human constructs in the landscape”.

Weather conditions and the autumnal colours resulted in many more Spectacular images than I would usually make. These encouraged me to be more adventurous in my subject matter and my approach to the lighting. Another significant factor for the changes was the new knowledge that ~75% of my Successful images are driven far more by Shapes and the Juxtaposition of shapes than any other factor. Formerly I had believed the narrative potential implicit in the Juxtapositions of human constructs and the landscape was always the primary driver.

Fallen Pines

The 2 factors initiating this image were the Spectacular light (colours) and the straight lines of the fallen trunks forming triangles against the vertical, parallel trunks behind. In other words, geometry.

So, this image has Juxtaposition (leading to a Conscious Design) and Spectacle (Colours) as the triggers for its making.

It is a plantation of trees, hence a human construct, but it would be over-stretching my concept to suggest that was in a factor in my making of this image. It was not!

Autumn Glade

Again, the Spectacular colours were a trigger for this imager as they beckon the viewer into the scene. There is also strong Narrative potential with the narrow path formed by the trees leading towards a darker, unknowable destination. This effect is enhanced by the fallen truck appearing to block access and the branch above framing the entrance.

These contradictory factors led me into Recognizing a “Little Red Riding Hood” type of Narrative where the colours encourage adventure, but the narrowing, darker, overhung path does not. The image was Consciously Designed to enhance these effects.

There is no obvious human construct in this image. Any human connotations are created by the imagination and do not exist in reality.

Reeds

Again, no human construct but the stark shapes are geometric, especially when emphasised by the reflections.

The calm water, soft light and the (almost Oriental) simplicity of the composition create an ambiance that reflected my own zen mood at the time of taking.

A friend, Muriel Robertson, compares this image to written characters, again, perhaps, Oriental.

This was a Conscious Design based upon the Juxtaposition of Shapes and reflections.

Lochailort junction

Shapes and Colours drove this piece of Conscious Design. The inclusion of Armco barrier and the bushes was an after-thought designed to give scale and to indicate that this is not a natural cliff but is actually a roadside cutting.

This is an unusual case of my conscious compositional enhancements having a very positive impact on the success of the final image. Without these extra elements there is no context and the image becomes little more than a pattern picture.

Glen Etive

This image is purely driven by Spectacle. It is all about the dramatic lighting, colours and composition. There is a human construct present, the road, but it does not create any significant Narrative Potential as there is very little ambiguity in the scene. It is a Successful document of a moment, however the image has little long-term interest for me.

Connel Bridge viewpoint.

This final image was taken on a day where the light was flat and the autumnal colours quite weak. Consequently, I reverted to type and looked for the humour in the Juxtapositions of human constructs and the natural landscape.

Conclusions

  1. Human constructs contain geometric shapes that attract attention and have narrative potential when set against the landscape. However, tree trunks, especially those of pine trees, and reeds in water can also form geometric shapes that attract, even although they may not encourage a narrative.
  2. Banality, like Narrative has been a constant presence in my images to-date. However, in this set of images there is no banality when the human construct is missing or only appears in the imagination. That is, the first 3 images.
  3. I don’t see these images as a change of direction but as an expansion of my willingness to experiment as I learn more about my practice and motivations.

How to define a “Successful” image

In order to understand the conscious and unconscious motivations behind my landscape practice I first needed to decide which images were “successful” and which were not. The thinking here is that an unsuccessful image can be a failure for any number of reasons whereas the successful image probably only has a few contributing characteristics. Therefore, it is the study of successful images that will be most effective as a strategy for uncovering what drives my image making processes. Later, I will need to test these findings against a set of unsuccessful images to look for any inconsistencies of thought or process.

As this is an autoethnographic study aimed at understanding my own practice and my own perceptions, this has to be measured against my personal criteria, not that of other viewers. Initially, the only criterium that I could articulate was that a successful image is, one that excited me at the time of making, a day later, a month later, etc. This, purely emotional, test proved to be a good tactic for sorting the successful from the rest but failed to tell me anything about why one image was good and another just average.

Using this methodology, I initially tested ~2500 landscape images taken over the last 10 years and rated just 186 as being successful images. Note, these 2500 images were images already deemed to be anything from excellent to acceptable. Any failures or unacceptable images had already been eliminated from the ~20,000 taken during that 10 year period. Over the next months I added a few recent images and started analysing the successful ones for which characteristics of the scene had “triggered”1 me to make the image and for their different types of “content”2. This was an iterative process which caused me to upgrade some additional images to the successful category and to reject others as my understanding and definitions of the various triggers and contents was clarified. The number of successful images was now 204. However, this process also revealed that not all successful images are equal. I was prompted to further segment the successful group into A, B & C categories based upon the degree of excitement that I felt about an image. Again, this is useful as a working model but is still an emotional, unquantifiable characteristic that needs to be further understood and defined.

There are now just 104 images classified as “A”, my very best images. Re-evaluating these images, I have tried to articulate why they excite me.

First, every one of these 104 images has captured and now evokes the feelings of calm, silence, isolation and insignificance that I felt at the time I made the photograph. These are not negative experiences but a recreation of previous moments in life when I have felt most joyful and free. Like Robert Adams, I too have lived in the prairies of Colorado and can perfectly relate to his comment in the Forward to his book “Prairie” (1978):

“There is everywhere silence – a silence in thunder, in wind, in the call of doves, even a silence in the closing of a pickup door.”  Robert Adams

If I consider one of my images has captured such emotions in the way Robert Adam’s images have done, then I am excited.

Secondly, I am excited when I have perceived something I believe is unique, that I am seeing and interpreting the scene in ways no-one else has ever done before. Often this is where the image reveals to me an “accidental beauty”3 in the arrangements of its man-made and the natural elements or a new perspective that encourages the viewer to ask why, to look for metaphor, to create narratives. As stated by Sean O’Hagan in the Guardian, talking about Robert Adams, I also want to be an:

“artist whose work demands close attention – and a degree of patient attentiveness – from the viewer.” Sean O’Hagan

To do this the image must not just be new but also obviously different so that a reaction, even if it is one of dismissal, is caused. Just like the New Topographic photographers (Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz, in particular) I aim to depict the banal4 as accidentally beautiful. Adams used the qualities of light, Baltz uses the geometrical shapes of buildings, my trope is the juxta-positioning5 of human constructs against apparently natural landscapes.

Definitions

Trigger – my trigger words describe what had catalysed my pressing of the shutter. They are: Design (conscious), Design (unconscious), Intuition, Belief, Recognition and Spectacle.  How these were derived, and their definitions are explained in other essays.

Content – words that describe the content of my images, when later reviewed are: Narrative Potential, Incongruity, Light, Shapes, Isolation and Power/Subordinate. These words describe the dominant elements of the content. Most images have at least 2 appropriate content words. How these were derived, and their definitions are explained in other essays.

Accidental Beauty – is when the unplanned positioning of unrelated objects and elements in a scene cause a pleasing, a humorous or an intriguing arrangement. This is “found art” and not the deliberately constructed compositions of the Still Life artist. The expressionist sculptor, David Smith, described his triggers for accidental beauty as follows:

“They can begin with any idea. They can begin with a found object. They can begin with no object. They can begin, sometimes, even when I’m sweeping the floor and I stumble and kick a few parts that happen to form an alignment that sets me off thinking, sets off a vision”. Smith, D.

Or as described by photographer, Andy Wohl, on his website:

“I do not look for typically “beautiful” scenes; landscapes, flowers, animals but find more potential in the random and accidental arrangements of chairs in a courtyard, a pile of cardboard boxes or the still life arrangement of common, mundane and even homely objects found at hardware stores, grocers, garden supply stores, bait and tackle shops and antique shops.”  Andy Wohl.

Banal – “So lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.” Oxford Living Dictionaries, viewed at https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/banal on 08/10/18

Juxtaposition – everyone one of my images, other than those triggered by Spectacle, have the juxta-positioning of a human construct or traces against its environment as the key (although, not necessarily the largest) element of the composition.

Bibliography

O’Hagan, S. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/feb/16/robert-adams-photographer-sense-place  viewed on 7/10/18

Smith D. The Search for Accidental Beauty, a video published by SFMOMA, viewed at https://www.sfmoma.org/david-smith-and-the-search-for-accidental-beauty/ on 08/10/18

Wohl A. Accidental Beauty, viewed at https://accidentalbeauty.smugmug.com/ on 08/10/18

 

Artworks that have long influenced my photography 

These images all had an immediate, emotional impact on me when I first saw them. However, I did not understand and could not articulate why, at the time.

Rene Magritte, The Empire of Lights

I first saw Magritte’s paintings in my late teens and found his strange juxtapositions interesting and often humorous. However, this painting and its composition is a lasting influence. The 2-dimensional, theatre set feeling of the street scene is comforting but also a barrier to the brightness beyond.

Today, this is a compositional trope that I regularly employ.

Andre Kertesz, Martinique

Since first seeing this image in the 1980’s it has been continuously influential in two ways.

First, that sense of mystery and narrative created by the shadowy figure which became the primary inspiration for, and the subsequent direction of my BA final degree project after I came across this scene at Tyntesfield House in Bristol.

Secondly, Kertesz’s seeing and using such strong geometrical shapes results, like in the Magritte painting, in a 2-dimensional impression. There seems to be almost no depth between the handrail and the horizon.

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea

The attraction of this painting is a mixture of the strange, perhaps impossible juxtaposition of the sea and the rooms, plus the 2-dimensional geometric shapes.

Although it is possible to see depth in the image when looking into the second room, most of the majority of the picture is easily be viewed as being 2-dimensional, without any depth. I was so inspired by this painting that trying to reproduce such a strange, inside/ outside, impression was the first thing I tried when I acquired Photoshop in 2003.

Hopper’s works all have a quiet, stillness to them where the viewer can feel like they are being invasive, as if we shouldn’t be looking at the scene. When Hopper’s paintings include people, they are always in private, reflective moments and so the viewer is inevitably a voyeur. Yet, for me, even when there are no people, as above, it still feels like I, the viewer, am an intruder and should not be there. I find that an interesting effect as that is often how I react when I am on-location for my own images. I am always a visitor who is not wholly sure they are welcome.

The next artist who started to influence my work is Andrew Wyeth. His landscapes are very much the landscapes that appeal to me, often wide open, remote and sparsely populated. His works also capture a quiet, stillness, a sense of solitude, even loneliness, especially so in this painting of “Christina’s World”.

The refuge of the house and barn are far off for Christina and she appears to be pleading with them to be noticed. However, the barn has no windows and so is blind and the house has all its windows facing the other way. Neither can see her. Wyeth’s apparently simple compositions are capable of evoking extensive narratives as shown in the next two of his paintings. Unlike Christina’s World, these painting have very little depth to them. They are quite 2-dimensional in appearance.

Without knowing even, the titles of these paintings the viewer is encouraged to make up stories about who, why and how they came to be.

It was the colours, shapes and flat perspective of this scene in Puglia that reminded me of the Wyeth painting and encouraged me to press the shutter. And, like the Wyeth picture there is a lot of narrative potential in the scene.

Although I enjoy much of the work by both Magritte and Kertesz not all excites to the same degree at the images shown above. For images where my primary response has been humour, I am less likely to be inspired by them, even when the narrative potential is significant. As when spectacle (visual drama) is my primary response, humour also tends to be a block to my further investigation into the image’s meanings.

These below, from Kertesz and Magritte, respectively, are such examples.

 Conclusions

The juxtapositions of man-made objects and their landscape that encourage narratives and or create a surreal 2-dimensional visual effect have been key drivers for my enjoyment of paintings and photographs for over 40 years but only now am I starting to understand their significance.