Mona Kuhn and Saul Leiter

Shallow Depth of Field in Photography.

Project 2: Lenswork

Mona Kuhn was born in 1969 in Brazil of German parents. She was given her first camera age 12 and has been taking photographs ever since.  She is a well-known photographer whose main interest lies in images of people, often nude. In an interview related to her exhibition Acido Dorado, Kuhn says ‘I see the body as a residence to our emotions, our soul, our inner selves. Gauguin has a wonderful painting titled “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” from 1897. I think it summarises a question we all have, but one that I decided to use as basis to my source of inspiration. I photograph the human in us, without shame, without regret, free and timeless………I start my creative process by imagining colors. I don’t know why, but coloration comes to me first. From there I tie in emotion, then location and last the people’ (Arciniegas, 2014).

David Campany (Campany, 2014) says, when talking about a later body of work – Private ‘At times Mona Kuhn takes the challenge head on, making views of crystal clarity in which light and land are one.  At other times she prefers a wide aperture and a shallow depth of field for her photographs…… Early mornings, early evenings and the moments of respite offered by shadows and sequestered interiors.’

Balthazar

Balthazar © Mona Kuhn

Evidence is a series that portrays nudes taken in a naturist camp in France. There are 55 images, mainly of young, beautiful people (Balthazar) where much, or sometimes all of the image is taken at a shallow depth of field, forcing the eye to initially concentrate on a single person or a small detail. The people are often glancing sideways, looking out of the page or across it. Few seem to be engaged directly with the photographer, but equally they are aware of her, maybe she is not important to them, or, they are so comfortable with her presence they are ignoring her. In describing the images Baldwin says, ‘the overarching accomplishment here is that the photographer has managed to balance complicated layers of relationships, of sitter to sitter, of sitter to self, of model to photographer; ……to establish a complex set of ambiguities played out in an apparently egalitarian, if not an outrightly utopian society.’ (Kuhn and Baldwin, 2007) The images appear to follow the story of a day, from a brilliant, and soft-focus, sunrise though daytime activities to night-time quietude and languor. There is the occasional relief from all the youth and beauty, an old man staring into space (Mon Frere), a room with only a chair in partial focus (An Absence) and these are the images I am drawn to. The images that are completely out of focus (Reflecting) are edgy and uncomfortable, leaving you wondering what is happening, what has happened and what might come next. The story is only partly told. Imagination is free.

Reflecting

Reflecting © Mona Kuhn

 

Saul Leiter is another photographer who often uses a shallow depth of field.to draw attention to a specific point such as in Carol Brown (1958 for Harper’s Bazaar) or Walking (c. 1948) and to ‘create great swathes of colour’ (Pill, 2017) for example, Taxi (1957) or Through Boards (1957).

Taxi_Leiter

Taxi © Saul Leiter Estate

In the introduction to Saul Leiter (Leiter and Kozloff, 2008) Kozloff says ‘far from being a traditionalist, he is in the forefront of photographic innovators, daring for his time……..he considers what lies underneath, is off to the side, or gets in the way of his nominal subject………One notices his enjoyment of the downy texture or foamy substance when selected passages are out of focus.’

Andrew Dickson, in a review for the Guardian, said ‘Many photographs hover on the boundaries of abstraction, planes canting towards each other than cavorting away again; often they are riddles that never quite resolve…….Leiter uses mirrors and windows to tease the eye, piling half-glimpsed images on top of each other – the sharp white of a woman’s shawl imprinting itself on to the palm-leaf design of a shop dummy’s dress, or, as in Reflection (1958), a chiming collision of reflected faces caught in glazing. Just as frequently, condensation, rain or snow films and fogs the frame. Often what we most want to see is held tantalisingly out of reach (Dickson, 2016).

Carol Brown_Leiter

Carol Brown © Saul Leiter Estate

Roberta Smith wrote ‘Mr. Leiter was a photographer less of people than of perception itself. His painter’s instincts served him well in his emphasis on surface, spatial ambiguity and a lush, carefully calibrated palette. But the abstract allure of his work doesn’t rely on soft focus, a persistent, often irritating photographic ploy, or the stark isolation of details, in the manner of Aaron Siskind or early Harry Callahan. Instead, Mr. Leiter captured the passing illusions of everyday life with a precision that might almost seem scientific, if it weren’t so poetically resonant and visually layered.’ (Smith, 2005).

Leiter himself said ‘But I believe there is such a thing as a search for beauty – a delight in the nice things in the world. And I don’t think one should have to apologise for it.” (In No Great Hurry, 13 Lesions in Life from Saul Leiter, 2012).

Leiter’s images are sometimes soft, sometimes acidly clear and always alluring. His early images were black and white but he embraced the use of colour very early on. He was not well-known in his early life and is only recently being lauded. His images draw you in, there is mystery but you are part of it rather than standing outside looking in. These are images that I would hang on my wall and dream over.

Images posted with permission of and thanks to Mona Kuhn and the Saul Leiter Foundation

References:

Arciniegas, T. (2014). An Interview with Mona Kuhn ahead of her London Show at Flowers Gallery. [online] Losarciniegas.blogspot.co.uk. Available at: http://losarciniegas.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/an-interview-with-mona-kuhn-ahead-of.html [Accessed 13 May 2017].

Campany, D. (2014). MONA KUHN. [online] Monakuhn.com. Available at: http://www.monakuhn.com/pages/view/campany/ [Accessed 13 May 2017].

Dickson, A. (2016). Made in Manhattan: how Saul Leiter found beauty in Gotham’s glass and grime. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/jan/15/made-in-manhattan-how-saul-leiter-found-beauty-in-gothams-glass-and-grime [Accessed 13 May 2017].

In No Great Hurry, 13 Lesions in Life from Saul Leiter. (2012). [DVD] Tomas Leach

Kuhn, M. and Baldwin, G. (2007). Evidence. Gottingen: Steidl, p.9.

Leiter, S. and Kozloff, M. (2008). Saul Leiter. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Pill, S. (2017). Light, Form and Soul. Black and White, February, pp.38-45.

Smith, R. (2005). Art in Review; Saul Leiter. [online] Query.nytimes.com. Available at: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9901E3D81330F933A05751C1A9639C8B63 [Accessed 13 May 2017].

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