Banal Art, Robert Adams, and his influence

My friend, Neil Patton, has questioned my use of the term “Banal Art”. This was bothering me too, as it feels more likely to be read as “art that is banal” whereas I mean “art of the banal”.

I started to research the word banal by looking at other photography related uses of the word. One of the first references I found was a paper by Cecile Whiting called “The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West”. In this paper, the book, “The New West” by Robert Adams, is discussed at length. This was a useful lead, as Robert Adams was an early and key influencer of my own photographic style and choice of subject matter. In the paper Whiting describes Adams’ work as the “aesthetic of the banal” (p58).

Adams’ images in The New West are of urban development in the prairies, West of the Colorado Rockies, and show a sprawl of monotonous, flimsily built “tract houses” with the occasional views of the distant mountains. Talking about the chapters of the book Whiting says:

“These sections catalogue the ways in which human-made things – utility poles, power lines, strip malls, billboards, trailers, tract houses, commercial buildings – overwhelm the entire region of The New West.” (p59)

To see images from the book, go to:

https://trequartieri.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/robert_adams_the-new-west_01.pdf

Similarly, many of my photographic subjects are also of ordinary, functional, practical things, constructed by humans, but that appear idiosyncratic, out of place when set in the remote, sparsely populated and sometimes sublime landscapes, I choose to photograph.

My choice of subjects, and the way I present them, may be highly influenced by Robert Adams but until recently, there have been significant differences in our motivations. In Adams’ images, the “banal even seems to spread beyond the photographic frame” (p59). He is emphasising the scale of the impact of human constructs upon the landscape whereas I tend to focus on how small the human influence is within my chosen landscapes. Whilst Adams is raising awareness of the effects of too many humans I am typically trying to celebrate the pioneer spirit of the few people trying to make a living in remote landscapes.

“Adams either approached his motifs at such close range that he captured only parts of a house, car, or commercial building, or he remained at such a distance that the suburban development sprawls laterally beyond the photographic borders.” (p60)

Either way, it is the banal elements of the composition that dominate the “natural” landscape. I put “natural” in quotes because, today, it is virtually impossible to find any landscape, anywhere, that has not been modified in some way by human activity. Whiting makes the same point in the following quote, summing up Adams’ work:

“Sublime wilderness may be nothing but a fantasy, but the banal, by coexisting with nature, may be more than banal: transforming a natural setting that has never been timeless or pristine, the banal is, in a sense, naturalised.”

This quote strongly resonates with my own attitudes towards human activity and the environment.

These two images, from Iceland, are examples from my work where I am attempting to show the banal human constructs as insignificant impositions within a large, powerful, and empty landscape.

Here “nature” is not overwhelmed.

My most recent images have taken a new turn. Instead of showing insignificant human constructs, that barely impinge on their environment, with the Lammermuir Windfarm, I was now following Adams’ motivations and techniques. Here I allowed the subjects to flow out of the image frame to imply their endlessness. Like Adams, I have used a strong, banal, foreground element, plus other distant turbines in order to have the windfarm appear to overwhelm the landscape, even beyond the frame.

The message here is of an environment being taken over by humans, rather than my usual message of humans pioneering against the far more powerful landscape.

Here again, the turbines and their service roads appear to spread beyond the edges of the frame, implying their domination of the environment.

Conclusions – Neil Patton’s questioning of my use of the words “banal art” have led me down a very fruitful research path. I have been influenced by Robert Adams for many years but finding this paper has really helped me to understand the ways he has directly influenced my practice.

This exercise has also helped me understand how I can better use scale, quantity and placement of my subject(s) to actively guide (I could never control) the meanings I would like viewers to find.

Regarding subject matter, it is reassuring to read Adams’ quote:

“Many have asked, pointing incredulously towards a sweep of tract homes and billboards, why picture that? The question sounds simple, but implies a difficult issue – why open our eyes anywhere but in undamaged places like national parks?”

As a landscape photographer who focuses on apparently banal subjects, I have often been asked similar questions.

Bibliography

Adams R. The New West, Aperture; New Ed edition, 2008

Whiting C. The Sublime and the Banal in Post-war Photography of the American West, American Art published by The Smithsonian Institution, Vol27, Number2, 2013

Silence

“Silence is not just an absence of noise. It opens dimensions of experience everyone can take sensual pleasure from.”

This is a paraphrase taken from the trailer for the film In Pursuit of Silence.

I recently read a description of Edward Hopper’s paintings as being “metaphors of silence” and that they are about “tension and isolation” (Renner 2002, p85).

My own photography has long been influenced by Hopper, also Andrew Wyeth and, more recently, by the work of Hale Johnson. All American Realists who have created landscapes where the silence is profound and, even when people are included, they are images of isolation and loneliness. I do not consider these to be negative attributes, rather I find them comforting. Their paintings induce a tranquillity within me of a sort that I also want to convey through my photography.

Here are two images by Hale Johnson who specialised in paintings of New England.

Like Wyeth, and to a lesser extent, Hopper, Johnson uses a muted colour palette. This, along with his simple, austere compositions, helps evoke the silence in his paintings.

The isolation and loneliness come from the positioning of the houses on a hill, above the viewer, the empty space around the subject and the blank windows and open doors.

I have started to realise that I also use these techniques in my photography, albeit intuitively rather than as a conscious tactic.

The following painting is by Andrew Wyeth. I include it because it is a contradiction. Despite the obvious, stormy wind being implied (after all, the painting is called “Squall”), to me, it is a silent, comforting image.

The rain coats and binoculars seem so peaceful and calming, hanging there that the whites-horses seen through the window can be ignored. Even the open door does not evoke any sense of noise or even disturbance.

Wyeth wrote about this painting, in his autobiography. “…that strange quality reflected inside the white kitchen became more luminous as the squalls grew stronger”. (Wyeth 2002, p129). Perhaps it is that warm light, against the dark exterior, that creates the comforting calm.

In the Outdoor Photography magazine, issue 217, May 2017, page 104, there is a selection of 13 images on the subject of “Quiet Landscapes”. All of these images have muted, or B&W colours, a very simple composition with a single focal point that has a lot of space around it. Most images are further simplified by mist.

Conclusions – A muted colour palette and an austere composition are strong drivers in the creation of silence. Isolation and loneliness are helped by having a simple main subject and giving space around it. Blank windows and open doors give an impression of the buildings being unoccupied and so even more isolated.

I finish with one of my own “silent” images.

 

 

 

 

 

New Topographics?

I have long been inspired by the “New Topographics” photography. In particular the photographers, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Frank Gohlke with their ability to conjure beautiful images out of banal subjects.

When I saw the following scene at Laugarbakki, Iceland I immediately thought it was something that might have been taken by Adams.  The new lamp post, the part-made road and the emptiness of a landscape rolling into the distance all reference his critique of urban expansion into the prairies around Denver, Colorado.

This is NOT an intuitive composition! I saw the potential for an image and then it was a case of trying several different compositions until I achieved something I felt was appropriate for an homage to Adams. I will show the initial attempts further on in the blog.

Adams always used B&W film and so I felt the need to convert my image to B&W as well.

Far from being an Icelandic scene this looks much more like the baking hot prairie as the grasses are so light in tone. The sky is heavily overcast and would never be the same as Adams, Coloradan, wall to wall, clear blue skies, which added to the emptiness of his images.

Here are 3 earlier compositions that did not work.

There is no shape to this image and the tyre tracks, far from adding interest, just appear confusing.

This is better as I now have the triangle of grass on the left providing something of a zig-zag shape to the foreground. The single lamp on the right, appearing to look into the image, is OK but feels too comfortable an arrangement. The distant hedge touching the lamp post is just wrong.

The foreground shape is now more powerful but the composition still lacks something. It feels flat, too symmetrical.

In the final version, shown again below, the base of the lamp is now at a fulcrum point around which the weights of the other image elements could rotate. The lamp itself is now looking out of the image and this feels like a tension point (imagine a rope from the lamp to the left edge of the image) which is supporting all the weight of all the image to the right.

 

 

Auchencorth Moss – An image Deconstructed using Savannah Theory & Jay Appleton’s “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”

I feel strongly that the composition of the following image works but cannot yet articulate why. Viewed traditionally the composition appears to break several “rules”. The horizon is almost exactly across the middle and a tree splits the image into two separate halves. The image also has multiple elements, none of which are on any of the “1/3rds”. Finally, what are we supposed to be looking at? The image appears to be a jumbled set of elements.

Yet the image works for me. I will use these notes to analyse the composition using two different but related methods to gain a better understanding of why this might be.

Auchencorth Moss by Neil McCoubrey

Viewed using Savannah Theory

Here is a scene where the two sides of the image have very different opportunities when considered using Savannah Theory (Mansfield 2014).

Both sides are being viewed from a high vantage point which should be beneficial for seeing any threats and or benefits (prey, for example) from a great distance. This is true on the right side of the image. However, this side also has relatively little cover (refuge from threats). It also has several horizons beyond which there may be invisible threats.

There are parallel tracks, mid ground, just left of the dead tree stump. Being parallel tracks they are likely to be human, not animal constructs and so indicate that people have travelled towards the horizon on a regular basis.

On the left side, there is water, one of the basic requirements for survival and so an attractive prospect. However, the water is in a narrow valley and once someone is in this valley to collect water threats could approach quite closely without being seen.

There are tracks made by either humans or animals heading along the fence towards the mid ground trees and, presumably, onwards to the wooded area in the distance. So, this side has lots of refuge opportunities but these refuges could also be hiding threats and the fence would impede any escape out of the image to the left.

Due to the difference in the colours of grass to the left of the fence, this area looks less fertile than the rest of the image. That may be an illusion but, emotionally, it would drive the viewer towards staying on the right of the fence. It is a strong inner frame.

There are two light coloured rectangular constructions at the centre of the image. Being geometric these are most likely to be human constructs and therefor attract the eye. There is also some form of derelict brick construction between the stream and tracks in the foreground. Both, evidence of human presence and, presumably, survival in this landscape.

Viewed using the “Imagery and Symbolism of the Prospect”

Jay Appleton’s techniques look at the scene in terms of the paths made by the light towards the viewer’s eye and classifies the different elements around the:

“…relationship between the observer and the observed landscape in so far as his view is encouraged or impeded by the content of the intervening environment.”

(Appleton, 1975, p.85)

Note – a panorama is wide view from a good “vantage point”, typically with a 360o view, whereas a “vista” is a view bounded by a frame.

In this image, we have a high vantage point of an “interrupted panorama”. Interrupted implies an object is hiding a portion of the view but not so much as to destroy the overall impression.

The fence, a path and stream form strong regular and irregular “vistal axes”, which guide the eye towards the mid-ground woods. However, progression is blocked by several scrubby trees and the derelict brick construction. Our eyes will not, naturally get to the woods from here. On the left side of the fence there is also space to move but once in there we are visually trapped in a triangle formed by the edge of the image, the fence, and the distant trees. The colours on the left of this fence are cooler than those in the rest of the image which would be less attractive to the eye.

If, instead, we follow the stream it forms a “deflected vista” guiding us passed the near trees and towards the mid-ground woods and the light coloured, geometrical constructions.

The two central trees effectively split the image into two different vistal themes, the left relatively close and contained and the right open and distant. The strong sunlight on the reddish bark of the central tree accentuates it role as a dividing line between the two sides of the image.

To the right of the trees we have several “magnetic lines”. These are the 2 horizon lines, without trees, which attract the eye because they are “secondary vantage points” from where we could also view the scene from a high place. The third horizon appears heavily wooded and, as such, will only work as a vantage point when viewing outwards, from the trees. It is less attractive as it cannot provide a 360o panorama.

On this side of the image there is also a vistal axis, resulting from an imaginary line starting at the base of the central tree going through the fallen tree, its stump and then on to the horizons.

Appleton also notes how “clear light”, as in this image, aids our ability to see everything, even at distance, and this helps when perceiving hazards or threats.

Triangles & Balance

The two previous methods have allowed some interesting analysis of the image content but not of the composition. In fact, Appleton’s analysis suggests that the composition may not work because of the visual blockages that do not allow the eye to flow around the scene. Instead I will try a less analytical and more graphical approach.

I have converted the image to B&W in order to focus upon shape and tone and remove the complexities of colour.

I see two primary, visual triangles in the scene. Both are roughly the same size. They are shown in white and are connected by a secondary triangle, shown in red.

Triangles are always an appealing arrangement in an image.

The left triangle is very solidly sitting on the base line. Being such a firm base and connected by the foliage (red triangle) to the central tree. It appears to act as a support for a mast (the central tree) with the right-hand triangle (being lighter in tone) seeming like a sail.

For me the three triangles together form a delicately balanced structure, with the red triangle as the fulcrum. Whilst, at first glance, the central tree appears to divide the image, it is actually these triangles that hold it together. I believe it is this imaginary structure that is the foundation of the image’s compositional appeal to me.

Conclusions

Savannah Theory suggests that, for a human, this scene has a good balance between potential resources, open views and refuge and any areas of risk are fairly obvious. Therefore, as a scene, it appeals to our basic human instincts as somewhere we can exploit. We like the content of the scene but what of its arrangement?

Appleton’s analysis techniques don’t talk about our likes and dislikes, the threat versus benefits, but about the processes we use to survey and evaluate the scene. These techniques show how our eyes move around to capture and so enable analysis of what we are seeing.

In using Appleton’s techniques it is clear that, in some directions, the route our eyes take around the scene is blocked and we have to jump over visual barriers, from one area to another. Such discontinuities are not generally considered to be a sign of good composition. So, there must be some other factor that makes the composition appealing to me.

I believe my enjoyment of this image is largely driven by the delicate structure formed from the three imaginary triangles and how this structure links the two halves of the image across the apparent dividing element of the central tree.

Bibliography

Appleton J. The Experience of Landscape Wiley & Sons, London, 1975

Mansfield J. Landscape and Evolutionary Psychology, 2014. viewed at https://www.jordanmansfield.com/landscape-photography-evolutionary-psychology/ on  19/01/17.

Why I am a tourist – Issues around being a photographer in a remote environment. Part 2

Dereliction has become a popular subject for photographers. I will not discuss why, but I will talk about the ethics and my personal positioning. To quote from Alice Mah’s paper on “The Dereliction Tourist”:

“Dereliction tourism is the act of seeking out abandoned industrial sites as sites of aesthetic pleasure, leisure or adventure”

“Ethical problems….. including voyeurism, romanticisation, and reproduction of negative stereotypes about marginal people and places.”

“to call the ruins aesthetically beautiful is already to put oneself at a distance. It is a privileged position”

My photography does include elements of dereliction in the form of abandoned farms and other constructions that have become impossible to operate or have lost their usefulness. From my position they are evidence of past success (rather than current failure) and should be included, along with modern, currently functional constructions, for example; Geo-thermal power stations, Hydro-electric dams, Harbours, etc.

The derelict farm at Vidburdssél , shown below, is a substantial structure with a double width, two-storey main building. This was not a short term project, that failed quickly but a family, perhaps more than one, lived here and built the farm over many years. The tyre tracks show that the farm land is still in use but perhaps the main farm buildings are now located elsewhere. I see this as evidence of past success in overcoming a remote location, relatively poor land and a harsh climate.

So, am I a “dereliction tourist”? Probably!

I admit to my photographic experiences being sometimes “voyeuristic”. I always build a narrative around my images and that is so much easier when the subject is a derelict construction that has obviously been the site of human experiences and emotions. I do feel a sense of presence when I enter such a location and that I am invading someone else’s privacy, especially when there are personal objects still lying around.

I am, in effect, using these “found” objects to build a story about the building and its former occupants. This story is unlikely to contain much truth as it will be based solely upon my own experiences and limited knowledge rather than the reality of the people who actually lived there. I will be “romanticising”.

And finally, I do find such sites “aesthetically beautiful”. It is about how nature begins to take over, lines soften, colours mute and the structures start to be absorbed back into the earth. That process is beautiful and I find it comforting that nature will erase all human signs, eventually.

When photographers visit places of dereliction, like the heavy industrial sites in the former Soviet bloc, their images can (possibly accidentally) reinforce negative stereotypes about industrial backwardness and its (assumed) contribution to the collapse of Eastern European structures. Photography of similar sites in the US and Western European “Rust Belts” may be intended by the photographer to garner sympathy but can also be seen to imply Luddite tendencies in the local communities.

Reinforcing, even suggesting, such negative stereotypes is something I want to avoid.

Conclusions

I am a “tourist” with baggage.

I could never put myself into the mind-set of a local, which is an advantage as, per Tuan, as this will give me a clarity of vision greater than a local could achieve.

My “baggage” is that I am not neutral. I do hold the position of regarding the locals with great respect and I want to celebrate their tenacity and self-reliance. This baggage is not a disadvantage as I am not trying to be dispassionate about what I see.

It would be easy to make images that can be interpreted negatively. I cannot control all interpretations but I need to direct viewers away from negative conclusions about my subjects or the local communities.

References

Mah A. The Dereliction Tourist. Sociological Research Online, 19 (4), 13 viewed at http://www.socresonline.org.uk/19/4/13.html on 28/02/2017

Tuan Y F. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota, 1977.

Why I am a tourist – Issues around being a photographer in a remote environment. Part 1

 

My research is about why photographers (and other tourists) find human constructions to be attractive focal points in remote and otherwise “natural” environments. In particular derelict structures appear to be favoured. This essay will position myself and my approaches to photography relative to these locations, other photographers and the locals. I will focus on Northern Iceland as my primary research location.

In part 1 I discuss my own relationship to such locations and their people. In part 2 I will look at “dereliction” and the issues around its popularity as a photographic subject.

Part 1 – I am an urban, Western European, white male and so I bring my associated, conditioned responses to any location I am photographing. Therefore, what I see and how I interpret it will not be neutral and will be different to that of a local.

Considering my responses, relative to Northern Icelanders and their small communities, the greatest differences will be between my urban life experiences and expectations of structure and comfort versus their social and physical self-sufficiencies. I do not believe I could live in a small, remote community for any significant time as I would miss the ease of access to services and to the wider variety of people and social activities available in a large city. I think it would feel quite claustrophobic. As a consequence, I have a respect for those who can and do live in small, remote communities, whether by choice or not. They must have types of self-reliance, tenacity and stoicism to survive and even thrive that I have never been required to develop. This probably make me less critical in my approaches to photographing their environments.

My view is likely to be quite different to the way a resident of the area would interpret their own, vernacular landscape as describe below by Yi Fu Tuan:

“In our mobile society the fleeting impressions of people passing through cannot be neglected. Generally speaking, we may say that only the visitor (and particularly the tourist) has a viewpoint; his perception is often a matter of using his eyes to compose pictures. The native, by contrast, has a complex attitude derived from his immersion in the totality of his environment. The visitor’s viewpoint, being simple, is easily stated.. The complex attitude of the native, on the other hand, can be expressed by him only with difficulty.”

The image below is typical of the “sublime” that many photographers expect to find in Iceland.

However, and characteristic of my personal interests, I have included the functional gravel road and the snow markers to show this is not a wilderness. This is a vernacular landscape.

If you move to the other end of this gravel road a very different scene appears as shown below.

Such a scene is typical of remote, sparsely inhabited areas I have visited in both North America and Europe. Tourists (and many photographers) may consider this jumble of wood and metal to be a “blight on the landscape” and wonder why it is allowed. They might ask; do the locals not care that they are disfiguring the sublime scenery that the tourist seeks? Do they not appreciate the privilege of living with such scenery?

I would suggest, as noted by Tuan, that the locals are too engrossed trying to make a living in this environment to be overly worried about or even aware of touristic perceptions.

A related response that I bring to such situations is my dislike of the sanitisation and monetarisation that organisations, like the National trust, impose upon “areas of natural beauty” within the UK. Rather than protecting such areas they turn them into easily accessible theme parks which destroys the sublime and seriously distorts the local economies through over-crowding and the influx of capital. Thus, I am far more aligned with remote communities living their lives the way they need to than with urban and business values being imposed upon them.

Consequently, I am a “tourist” but my personal position identifies with the “native” rather than the “visitor”. I want my photography to celebrate the activities of people who survive and make communities in harsh environments, far from urban amenities. I certainly would not want my photography to be seen as a criticism of these communities.

Part 2 to follow.

Reference

Tuan Y F. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. University of Minnesota, 1977.

Iona – St Martin’s Cross

This image is partly about design – the 3 vertical elements – but primarily it is about the juxtaposition of St Martin’s cross (9th century) against the modern, almost hiding, power transformer. There is definitely a feeling of superiority and inferiority between these 2 elements.

The 3rd element, the power pole on the left, is far more about design as it contributes to the balance of the image rather than adding to the meaning.

Is it the “Sublime”?

My research is about constructions, built by man for survival (or for a small improvement in quality of life) in remote landscapes. Why and how do these become attractive focal points in the landscape?

And now I’m wondering whether size is a factor. The small farmstead in a remote valley looks insignificant and vulnerable. Are we attracted to it because of the history, the social significance of people managing to survive here or is it the sublime. By this I mean the overwhelming power of nature that makes the farmstead’s existence look fragile. Is it the possibility of disaster that attracts the photographer’s eye?

Now looking at a construction at the opposite extreme.

This image, by Olaf Otto Becker is of the slipway for the Karahnjukur Dam, one of the biggest in Europe. Unlike the farm, the slipway does not look fragile in any way. It looks like a giant children’s slide with a deadly drop at the end. So here the construction has become an integral element of the sublime rather than apart from it. Both the cliffs and the slipway look threatening and overwhelming to the human viewer.

Both the above images evoke the emotions of the sublime in the viewer but in one the human construction is the subject of the threat (the farm) and in the other it is the source of the threat (the slipway).

Another aspect of this construction and the way it has been photographed is the possibility that it could be an art installation rather than purely functional. Is that really concrete or could it be the work of Christo?

Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California by Christo and Jeanne-Claude

 

 

Design to Narrative to Meaning

On reviewing my recent and past images I am starting to see different paths towards my compositions.

My “intuitive” compositions appear to come from my seeing a “design” within the scene, an arrangement of elements with a balance of light, dark, size and weight.

road-to-nowhere-copy

dscf3181-copy

There is little or no active thought required for these compositions. However, they are often triggered by memories of other photographers’ work. The top image here definitely owes a lot to Robert Adam’s Prairie book.

A second route is when something within the scene triggers a narrative within me. Here my composition is more deliberate and is aimed at helping viewers to also see the narrative.

Almost invariably this “something” is man-made and may look quirky or out of place. Below is an example of a house near Uig, on Lewis, which, when seen from this distance, remote, over water and with its obvious large size reminded me of an Agatha Christie murder mystery location. This was helped by the vaguely Cornish look to the landscape and the lighting. Hence I arranged the composition to emphasize those attributes and hopefully to convey the kind of narrative I had seen.

uig-house-copy

Sometimes, when the object is very much “out of place” I go further and look for ways of making it appear as if it is actually a deliberate “installation” that might have been placed there by an artist like Gerry Barry or Cornelia Konrad. This is the only time when I am really using composition to give a “meaning” to the scene. Below are 2 examples.

sticks-e-copy

11eds