Monday, 17 June 2013

Talk by Tom Hunter March 2013

This year I have been really lucky to hear two photographers give talks, Don McCullin at the Photographers Gallery and Tom Hunter at The Print House Gallery.

Tom Hunter is a photographer of whom I was made aware several years ago, although admitting to not know all of his work, his photographs influenced by Vermeer do come to the forefront of my mind when he is mentioned; those and the Unheralded Stories set.

Although I enjoyed both the contrast in the two talks could not be more different. Whereas Don McCullin sat, suited and booted, on a high stool, introduced by one person, interviewed by another with answers that seemed to be too "pat" Tom Hunter wandered in, casually attired, adjusted his own overhead projector with no regards to health and safety and addressed us as if we we all mates down the pub together! It made for a very relaxed and humorous atmosphere.

Born and bred in Dorset Tom didn't move to Hackney until 1986, he spent time working as a tree surgeon both here and in the USA. He began his talk by telling us how he was influenced by his father and the darkroom they had in the garden, the magic of seeing an image appear as if from nothing. Despite this early introduction it wasn't until he was older, and running a market stall in East London, that he started to take photographs of his customers. He found it easy to take photographs under these circumstances as he described it "my space, my stall."

Brick Lane

His main way of working seems to be photograph what you know, explore your own surroundings. Or at least that's what came across from listening to him and looking at the work he produces. Thinking about how this applies to my own work, I'm still not happy with my assignment one really and have come to the conclusion that in part that is because my current neighbourhood isn't where I grew up. I moved here when I married and despite that being some time ago I still don't feel that this is "my" neighbourhood. Something to investigate further I feel.

Tom decided to learn the art and craft of photography by taking up an A Level evening class at Kingsway College London. At the time he was living in a squat in Ellingfort Road which was known as The Ghetto. Whilst working on his Bachelors from the London College of Printing he took inspiration from the media representation of his friends from this area and how they lived. The council attitude was that they were "scum" and the area "crime ridden" when the facts of the matter were many were improving the homes, keeping the area thriving and many of the occupants were doctors or architects.

The initial plan was to destroy all the homes and replace it with a frozen chicken warehouse! Once again using his intimate knowledge of the area and it's occupants Tom photographed the houses and the people. Using mixed media he created a scale model of the streets which was originally meant to last for the degree show but has found its way to permanent display at The Museum of London.

Tom Hunter and 'The Ghetto'

From The Ghetto Series

His campaign attracted interest with articles being written about him and this eventually paid off.

He continued his studies doing an MA with the RCA and returned to the streets influenced by Dorothea Lange's representation of the poor and dispossessed. Throughout his talk Tom flicks through a chronological slideshow of his work and at this point we encounter probably one of his better known images from the series Persons Unknown.

Woman Reading a Possession Order from Persons Unknown

He was living in Hackney still, having spent two years travelling around Europe in a double-decker bus. Everyone got a letter addressed to "persons unknown". Taken in 1997, for his master's degree show at the Royal College of Art the 17th-century golden age of Dutch painting had had a massive impact; the way they dealt with ordinary people. Hunter "borrowed their style for squatters and travellers" to "elevate their status". In this shot, inspired by Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, his next-door neighbour is reading the possession order. Using a large format camera he captured the late winter sun coming in through the window, a fairly long exposure meant the girl had to stand still giving it more of a painterly feel.

Hunter freely admits to taking inspiration from everywhere; Life and Death in Hackney takes its references from pre-Raphaelite paintings, Dublin Bay Bathing Places series quotes a James Joyce poem, Unheralded Stories mixes myths and stories from his local area with traditional myths and legends and Living in Hell and Other Stories was inspired by Thomas Hardy and the way he interwove newspaper articles from his local paper into his novels. Similarly Hunter took headlines from the Hackney Gazette and cleverly interlaced them with classical paintings to produce a lasting social commentary. He makes us laugh, calling Hardy a "sad sicko." Just one of the examples of how straight taking he is.

The Way Home from Life and Death in Hackney

Dublin Bay Bathing Places

“A great sweet mother? The snot green sea. The scrotum tightening sea… Our mighty mother!”
— James Joyce, Ulysses

Hackney Cut from Unheralded Stories

 Painting by Andrew Wyeth "Christinas World"

 Anchor and Hope from Unheralded Stories

Murder Two Men Wanted from Living in Hell and Other Stories

It is frequently remarked upon how he tries to capture the beauty within the ugliness of his surroundings, incorporating nature in full glory with the industrial landscape not far behind. Sometimes he has faced criticism that he takes serious social issues and presents them more the manner of Fine Art rather than social documentary, however I don't think it matters how you get your message across as long as your voice is being heard and the issues are being discussed. There can be doubt that in this Hunter succeeds. He has often invoked controversy over the reality and partial nudity in some of his images. However, Hunter argues that many of the classical paintings on display show contain more nudity and controversial situations than his. The problem probably lies within the differences between reality versus a painting, but why should one be deemed more acceptable?

When asked about he approach to photography he admits that some of that is down to the equipment he uses and some of it a possible rebellion against the likes of Martin Parr. He feels there is nothing wrong in staging shots for a subject that could be classified as social documentary, that there is no "true documentary style" and that staging photographs is something that documentary photographers have always done to a lesser extent.

Hunter also discussed his commercial work, that gaining access to buildings can be difficult but persevere; asking in person and explaining your situation is often a better approach.Sometimes he has gained access where an assistant takes no for an answer! It was refreshing to hear that he feels that now he has "made it" there is more pressure on him to  work harder, to come up with the next set of images and worries about if they will be well received.

All in all it was an entertaining and enlightening visit, Tom Hunter should be glad there wasn't a swear box in the room ;o) I think I gained a lot from his talk and the examination of his work. Although the majority of his work is set within a small area every set is different and has a different approach, he uses different equipment, even employing pin-hole cameras, self doubt is normal, grab inspiration from everything!

Thanks again to the OCA for organising this trip.

Tom Hunter

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Burtynsky: Oil The Photographers Gallery May 2012

I was introduced to Burtynsky's photographs (note photographs not the man) a few years ago so when the opportunity came to attend this exhibition I jumped at it. Not only for the exhibition visit objectives but also to see the photography up close n personal like. It always amazed me that Burtynsky could take photographs of polluted rivers and raped landscapes and make them look so stunningly beautiful. to quote weareoca-

Edward Burtynsky’s exhibition Oil proved once more that the tension between aesthetics and subject matter is still an unresolved conflict in photography. In that tension lies the ability of photographs to visually compel and at the same time trigger emotions in the viewer. And if there is a photographer who has managed to find a perfect symbiosis between aesthetics and subject matter, that is Burtynsky.

The man himself has said about this body of work -

"In 1997 I had what I refer to as my oil epiphany. It occurred to me that the vast, human-altered landscapes that I pursued and photographed for over twenty years were only made possible by the discovery of oil…”

Looking once more at hurriedly scribbled notes, which meant something at the time, I think I can decipher them enough to provide a coherent account of what I saw and felt.

Arranged over 2 floors there is a distinct separation between the uses of and then the effects of oil production. The body of work is actually split into 3 sections Extraction and Refinement, Transportation and Motor Culture and The End of Oil. The curation of the exhibition has obviously been very carefully thought out, the images mounted in black frames with gaps intentionally left between the images and frames themselves. I wonder if this is to add yet more grandeur to the already hugely impressive photographs, being 6 to 8 feet across. Or I think we discussed between ourselves at the time was it to suggest the oil itself, or to not "end" the image but have a suggestion the the photograph could carry on beyond the frame? This is one exhibition where I truly believe that the images could not have been displayed in a smaller format. So much detail would have been lost.

Even the lighting seems to reflect the mood of the images with artificial spotlights in the areas depicting waste and decay and the natural light, which floods in upon the upper floor, providing a more positive feel where we enthusiastically embrace all that oil has to offer us.

On closer inspection of the images themselves I kept asking myself how each was produced. An awful lot were taken from a high vantage point, was this from helicopters? Planes? Taller buildings? Cranes? The low horizon provides for the vast sweeping landscapes were the inclusion of smaller objects and people give perspective to the vast swathes of landscape being affected. Burtynsky is a master of using light, even if you think his work is digitally manipulated, or manipulated too much, the time of day at which he shoots has more impact on the feel of the final image. He uses "the golden hour" to great effect.

We walked to the top floor and worked our way down, from the celebratory to the final decline and "dark side" of the industry. Much is made of the conflict people feel about his imagery. Does he make them too beautiful? Is the need to sell and make a profit behind how he constructs them? Does it matter? If the image gets across the message of the environmental problems we face to some, whilst titillating others does it ultimately matter? Photography or fine art, the interpretation of an image always has been and always will be open. In some ways it makes a refreshing change to have something horrific made to look attractive, surely the fact that we have heated discussions over it helps to highlight the issues more? We get inundated with the horrific portrayed in an horrific fashion, why not go "wow that is gorgeous" followed by "wow is that really an oil spill" or "jeez have we really turned that river orange?"

My notes then seem to be sparse jottings about a Kiss concert, images appearing to be nature v man, comments on highways and pipelines, that you can both get close to the images to inspect tiny details as well as stand back to appreciate the full vista, rust and decay...see I told you they rambled.....

Looking online for images has jogged my memory about what I wanted to say about some...

Kiss Concert Parking Area

Burtynsky seems to be a slave to photographic rules, leading lines, rule of thirds perspectives all helping the "beautifying" of the topic. But he also gets his message across, how else would we manage to stage a concert in such a place without transportation, without oil. The contrast of the man made machines and the mountains in the background. They are there for millennia, oil and man less so.

Bonneville Flats

Again the sweeping line of cars, the vibrant red against the white salt flats all a celebration of the motor industry and fun.

The final section, although possibly more disturbing as it looks directly at the impact of the oil industry, to me in some ways was more satisfying. It felt that this was the real message behind the exhibition, not the story of how it is produced, not this is how we use it, not the debate of the aesthetics of the photographs themselves but the mess we leave behind and how yet again, on the whole, we seem to leave third world countries in a worse state than us.

Burning Tire Pile # 1 Near Stockton, California 1999

Recycling #10 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001

Recycling #2 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001

Shipbreaking #23 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000

Shipbreaking #13 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2000

No matter your opinion of the photographer himself I think what cannot be disputed is he has produced a stunning body of work which raises huge discussions which can only be a good thing. Personally I still walked away having loved it, and his work, no matter how traditional some aspects appear to be or how much he is criticised for making his work commercial.

Edward Burtynsky

Sony World Photography Awards 2012 and 2013

I have been so remiss in writing up the exhibitions I visited over the last 12 months that I could do both at once! However part of the problem in doing this is is translating my hastily scribbled notes from way back then! However I did write a list of photographers whose work obviously caught my eye for one reason or another and they were as follows:

Mitch Dubrowner
Irina Werning
Andrew McConnell
Carleton Watkins
Palani Mohan
Rona Chang

Mitch Dubrowner

The Winner of the L’Iris d’Or - the 2012 Sony World Photography Awards Photographer of the Year was American photographer Mitch Dobrowner. He took images of sweeping horizons and the weather in Storms. He is quoted as stating what he likes about landscape photography is the one moment that will never be the same again and gives Ansel Adams a nod as his inspiration. I love the strength of the black and white images which all give a very low horizon and huge emphasis on the glowering skies.

Mitch Dubrowner

Irina Werning

Her series Back to the Future concentrated on portraiture and examining family snapshots from people's past. Described as whimsical she then dressed adults as they had been as children and placed them in the exact same spot/situations. This appealed to my sense of fun and also a different take on portraiture. I was also impressed at the amount of research some must have taken to track down similar fabrics or props, and the post processing done to complete the body of work.

Irina Werning

Andrew McConnell

Images on display were from his series Leaving Gaza which oddly combined Sports with Politics but not in the usual way one would assume. 

Andrew McConnell reports on Gaza Surf Club. Under Israeli blockade, the Gaza Strip is regularly referred as 'the largest open-air prison on earth'. With no recreational space to speak of, the Mediterranean, alluring in spite of the sewage, is an immense source of release for the local population. Surf is still a fledging sport, numbers being kept low by a dearth of equipment.



Andrew McConnell

Carleton Watkins

I jotted him down because the 2012 Kraszna-Karusz Best Photography Book Award was given to Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (Getty Publications, $195.00, hardcover) at the Sony Photo Awards in London. Apparently this body of work produced by photographer Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) between 1858 and 1891 constitutes one of the longest and most productive careers in nineteenth-century American photography. What amazed me was I had never heard of him before yet he seems to have loved Yosemite as much as Ansel Adams, taken shots of practically the same places all which goes to prove there is not a lot of new stuff about ;oD.

Carleton Watkins

Palani Mohan

Palani Mohan won third place in the Wildlife and Nature section. I think what struck me about these images were that they were again shot in black and white and followed Kazk Eagle Hunters. These days most wildlife photography wants to document "realism" so we get the saturated colours and depiction of wildlife in their natural habitat rather than working with man. The contrasting textures and sharp details I found mesmerising.

Palani Mohan

Rona Chang

Photographer Rona Chang photographed her home borough of Queens in New York as part of a series called Moving Forward, Stand Still. Incorporating images captured in the neighbourhoods of Astoria, Corona, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst and Flushing, the photographs capture the cultural diversity crammed side by side in this small pocket of America.

Settling into Eid

Concrete Bathers

Rona Chang

2013 Awards

I must admit I was a bit naughty and forgot to take my notebook and jot anything down this year. Looking through the online information has jogged my memory and I'll mention again some of the images that caught my eye.

Fire Dragons of “Fung shun” by Gilbert Yu

Yi Peng Lantern Festival 2012 by Justin Ng

Nguyen Hoang Hiep, 1st Place, Vietnam National Award, 2013 Sony World Photography Awards

There are so many categories and entries it is just so hard to talk about them all. With a lot I couldn't understand why some were voted for as winners over the others. I accept that a fair few images these days are manipulated and I have no issue with this, I manipulate my own, but some come across as over worked and not pleasing to my eye. But that's just me :o)

Felix Baumgartner: Faster than the speed of sound by Balazs Gardi has some amazing shots but some seem HDR'd too far.

Back to straight forward portraits One Day in History by Andrea Gjestvang shows portraits of children and youths who survived the massacre on the island of Utoeya outside Oslo (NO) on 22nd of July 2011. Brilliantly done.

To see all the others follow the link........very short review and not much in depth analysis but that's what happens when you don't quite have your head on straight!

Sony WPO