Edinburgh Exhibitions

09/10/17

Edinburgh Galleries have just had two exhibitions of old photographs.

The National Portrait Gallery is showing ‘A Perfect Chemistry’, the works of Hill and Adamson

https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/perfect-chemistry-photographs-hill-and-adamson

while the Queens Gallery has ‘Shadows of War’ on Roger Fenton and his Crimea images.

https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/shadows-of-war/the-queens-gallery-palace-of-holyroodhouse

A Perfect Chemistry.

David Octavius Hill (1802 – 1870) and Robert Adamson (1821 – 1848) are one of the most famous couples in photographic history. It all started, as it often does in Scotland, with an argument. In this case an argument within the church. In May 1843 there was a massive schism in the Church of Scotland where 400 ministers broke away to form the Free Church of Scotland, where they could choose their own path and the people had more say. There was a dramatic walk out from the General Assembly and a march though the New Town of Edinburgh which ended with the signing of the Deed of Demission several days later. Hill, who was at that point primarily a landscape painter, watched the march and decided to mark the gravity of the occasion with a painting of all the ministers involved. He started by making oil sketches but rapidly realised that this was an impossible task so looked for an alternative way. At this point he was introduced to Adamson, who was already an expert in the use of the new photographic method – the calotype. And so, it began.

Talbot’s image process, the calotype, was patented in England, but those patent rights did not extend to Scotland, so the Scottish images makers were free to experiment with it, and take large numbers of images. John Adamson, Robert Adamson’s older brother, altered the process to use potassium bromide rather than iodide as a fixative, but also introduced a lengthy washing to the prints. Both Adamsons became highly proficient in the making of calotypes which was shown by the vast number of images eventually produced.

Hill and Adamson did go on to make images of all the ministers which Hill eventually combined into a massive painting. The photographic images are redolent of the times, serious faced men, often leaning on books, looking sombrely out at the world. There are no women in this series as, of course, women could not be ministers in that era. The positioning of the men is at least partly to do with the demands of the calotype process, where, even when the sun was shining, the exposure could take up to several minutes, smiling would have been impossible, but would also have been thought inappropriate for an image of a man of the church.

After taking the images of the ministers, the partnership continued, photographing the great and good of Edinburgh society, by now including women, landscapes, building projects showing Edinburgh old and new and even at least one nude portrait. Many of the images were taken in Greyfriars Cemetery, cemeteries were a popular and romantic destination even then, and many were certainly influenced by the Romantic works of Sir Walter Scott, with people dressing to portray characters from his books. They also took images of military characters, such as drummers and soldiers from the 92nd Gordon Highlanders, which again Hill combined into a massive painting of people under Edinburgh Castle. One of the ventures of the duo was to capture images of the Newhaven fisherfolk, men, women and children. This is probably one of the first examples of photographic typology extant. The images are not snapshots, but carefully composed, often using the tools of the trade as props to allow for the extended time of image taking, but also using stands and clamps to hold people still. These were often taken out of the final image or ‘painted’ over. They had planned to produce a book of these images but this never materialised.

                Images by Hill and Adamson, courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Their partnership was short, only four years, as Adamson died at 26 and Hill did not continue with the photographic work after his death, returning instead to painting and producing lithographs. However their work had a profound effect on the popularity and use of photography in Scotland, and still remains a massive achievement.

The exhibition was fascinating, accompanied by an audio recording explaining the history of the images and an extensive catalogue (Lyden, 2017). I found the images of the people surprisingly moving given that they had to sit for such a long period and they were clearly staged. They give a real sense of the people and places. The faces are the same as those you see in Edinburgh today, only the dress has changed.

Shadows of War

Roger Fenton (1819 – 1869) was a London based photographer who was commissioned to travel to the Crimea to take a series of images of the generals and other important figures there and to bring them back for the artist Thomas Barker to form a large oil painting depicting them all meeting. A meeting that could never have happened in reality. The war in Crimea, known then as the Russian War ran from 1853-55. Fenton travelled there in March 1855, leaving in June 1855 and was neither the first or the last photographer there, however his pictures were well advertised and shown around the country on his return to England and he is considered to be one of the first war photographers. He travelled to the Crimea with two assistants, his portable darkroom (a shed on wheels) and 700 plates which he prepared as needed, and brought back about 360 images.

                                               Images by Roger Fenton (public domain)

The exhibition shows many of his images together with others of the Crimean War, including its aftermath and the fall of Sevastopol, by which time Fenton had left the area. As with all photographers of that time many of the issues were staged, and some were ‘touched up’ with details before the final prints were made. He has been criticised as only showing the images that the authorities wanted the public to see, but in reality, many of his images are bleak in the extreme. He shows the chaos of the railways, the squalor of the camps as well as the set piece portraits of the generals that he was commissioned to take. Several are instantly recognisable – ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’ with its cannonballs (even if they were placed there) is an iconic picture of a war-torn environment, while his haunting picture ‘Lord Balgonie’ has been suggested to be the first image of a soldier suffering from shell-shock.

                                    Images by Roger Fenton (public domain)

The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive book (Fenton, Gordon and Pearson, 2017) with large plates and an historical overview together with an audio soundtrack about the images, this soundtrack is enhanced by Prince Harry talking about his own experiences of war and also by Don McCullin speaking about the difficulties of shooting pictures in those situations and the ethics of what can and what cannot be taken, how sometimes all you can do is bear witness.

At this stage one cannot know how many of his images were truly real, certainly at that time photographs were thought to show the absolute truth, although they could be altered and staged then as much as they can be now. They are possibly less overtly full of death than more recent war images, however they do show the aftermath of battle. It would have been nigh on impossible to take images in the middle of a firefight using collodion plates and long exposures. They are not ‘pretty’ or ‘romantic’ images – a world away from those of Hill and Adamson.

References

Fenton, R., Gordon, S. and Pearson, L. (2017). Shadows of war.

Lyden, A. (2017). A Perfect Chemistry.

Nationalgalleries.org. (2017). A Perfect Chemistry | Photographs by Hill and Adamson. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/perfect-chemistry-photographs-hill-and-adamson [Accessed 30 Sep. 2017].

Shadows of War (2017). Shadows of War: Roger Fentons Photographs of the Crimea, 1855. [online] Royalcollection.org.uk. Available at: https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/shadows-of-war/the-queens-gallery-palace-of-holyroodhouse [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].

Summary week ending 29/09/17

Photography

  • sheep being loaded into a truck
  • indoor and outside images, night and day of cottage – thinking about light
  • boys and their toys ( guns and tanks)

Thinking

  • mainly about effects of light and night versus day. 
  • planning for assignment 4 – inside/outside views of cottage though the windows
  • ways of looking – someone commented on OCA website that it was just as much plagiarism o copy other peoples views as to use their words without proper citations 

Reading

  • SSHoP – interesting article about self portraiture, also about Carla van de Putelaar
  • Roger Fenton -related to Crimea war images
  • Hill and Adamson  – Edinburgh exhibition 

Visited the St Andrews Photography Festival – several interesting things there, especially the external images – most people completely ignoring them, leaning on them  – needs a detailed write up.

 

A Way of Looking

30/0 9/17

Recently I have been thinking a great deal about the art of looking, and it is indeed an art. It is far to easy to glance at an image, whether it is a photograph, a painting or even a sculpture and think ‘oh, I get it, that’s a man, house, apple or a dog.’ What is not easy is to understand what went into the making of the image and even less easy to consider what it means to the artist or what it might mean to another person.
I have also been thinking about the need (or not) of understanding the ‘theory’ of art and its place in the world we inhabit in the 21st century, which is certainly very different from its place in earlier centuries when it was often mainly the purview of the rich or the important, or part of the religious/spiritual world.
Last week I had a ‘lightbulb moment’, call it an epiphany if you will. I would not treat someone for a disorder without carefully examining them, listening to their past and present symptoms, researching the possible range of treatments and thinking carefully about all the options. Why should I not treat art with the same care and consideration?

There are two parallel strands to this. One is about learning how to take the best images I can, which talk, at least to myself, but hopefully also to others, about what is important to me and my view of the world. This does mean being open and allowing others the opportunity of seeing myself, my thoughts. The other strand is doing other artists (I am considering photographers in the main) the courtesy of thinking carefully about their worlds. This means learning about the present themes in all art, being open to areas that I find difficult but also learning how to speak about art in a way that others can understand.

In a recent article about her work, Carla van de Puttelaar talks about the need to study the entire oeuvre of an artist you wish to emulate. Her images resonate with the velvety smoothness of the Dutch Old Masters, translated for modern eyes. In the same journal (SSHOP 30th Anniversary Edition II), images by Romina Ressia also echo that era, with present day emblems such as popcorn substituted for the objects that would have had meaning in an earlier century. It is clear that both photographers have studied the earlier artists intensively, the images immediately brought Rembrandt and the other Flemish artists to my mind, while the modern twists gave them an edge. They are not copies but re-interpretations. The types are as relevant now as they were in the 17th  century, only the look on the faces of the women has changed, less submissive, more in control of their lives and their choices.

To write a meaningful critique of an artist you need to understand them, their history and their influences together with knowing how the type of work they are making fits within the time / era of their work. Is it art, documentary, protest, or portrait? Who was it made for? Is it straight or subversive (and if so why)? Over and above that you need to look, and allow time for your own interpretations to become clear. It is too simple (and something I am aware I am guilty of) to just reflect on what the guru’s say. That may give you a lead in and inform your thinking, but will not substitute for personal opinions together with imaginative thought.

Summary:
Look – with your mind
Think – with your brain
Write – with your personal voice

Summary week ending 22/09/17

Not a very productive week.

Photos:

Very  limited outside of EYV

  • did take some occasional selfies – but not impressed with them
  • didn’t have my camera with me when I went out today – so experimented with some indoor lighting on my phone

Blog:

  • Managed to both do the images and the write up for exercise 4.2. Found this interesting as even though the day was cloudy got some interesting shots using diffused light.

Reading:

  • Finished BJP September copy – interesting piece of work by Sanne de Wilde on ‘The Island of the Colour Blind’ which fits into my thoughts on photos of people / parents of people with autism.
  • still reading Clarke the photograph however had a lightbulb moment about the need for understanding the theory behind the work – I would not treat anyone without understanding the disorder and how the medicine or therapy was likely to work – so a similar thought process is required here. Having come to that mental agreement I am actually finding the theory easier!

 

Exercise 4.2

18/09/17

Brief: Take a sequence of shots over a day, getting a good range of times. Examine the quality of light. Add shots to learning log with an explanation and thoughts.

I decided to take the images in my back garden. This was to allow me to take a range of shots over the day from the same viewpoint, and also to look for any areas that were lit up well at any specific time of day. I choose last Saturday when I was in most of the day and initially the day seemed promising, with a good weather forecast and an interesting light. Unfortunately as it developed it clouded over and the majority of the day was heavily overcast, with some rain showers and only a brief, startling, glimpse of sunlight. I decided to take the images at 2 hourly intervals from sunrise to sunset. I had to be out at the midpoint, however, have substituted in images taken today when the weather conditions are very similar. I chose to take images of:

  • a group of plants in the northeast corner of the garden
  • the sky looking towards the east
  • plants or other areas that showed well in the available light.

Plan of Images with direction of shot marked.

Scan_20170918 (4)

 

All images were taken with the camera set to manual, with settings based on the internal lightmeter and histogram. I took brief notes throughout the day. In this instance I am posting the images with metadata to show how much the light intensity varied throughout the day. I have not changed the white balance at all in processing.

0700  (Sunrise was at 0647 so I was slightly late):

The sun was only just coming up. The light was very pale and still quite grey. My eyes interpreted it as  a reasonable degree of light, I was seeing in colour, and walking outside easily so I was surprised at the amount I had to open up the camera settings to take the images. If I had been guessing I would have completely underexposed the images. The image of the flower bed is still quite blue in spite of the early hour (no hint of gold yet).

0900:

It was now completely clouded over with no shadows at all. The light was very flat, but on looking at the images definitely showing a much warmer tinge than the earlier images. I thought this would give some interesting details images, as not confused by excess shadow. I feel this worked well with the plant (Eryngium). The (slightly gory) dead frog could probably have benefitted from shadow to give a more 3-dimensional effect.

1100:

The light is now fairly constant, very similar to 2 hours previously according to the camera, although my eyes had thought it was lighter, but grayer. It remains neutral and the flower head close-ups are successful and clear. The two flower images are at an identical exposure even though they were taken at opposite sides of the garden. The light is coming from nearly overhead and is very diffuse because of the dense cloud cover.

1300 (Meridian at 1307, taken 2 days later to fill in the sequence, weather very similar):

The sun is now at the meridian, that is, as close to overhead as you get in Scotland in September. It is still very cloudy with a diffuse light. The slightly warm tinge of the earlier images has completely gone. The images look very flat but maintain a good level of detail which is brought out in the monochrome conversion. The bright green leaves (Leicestra) show well, but the red flowers are less sucessful.

1500:

Still very cloudy and a diffuse light but the flowers from the corner are needing considerably more exposure than the Dahlia in the centre of the garden where there is no restriction to the light. There was no obvious change to my eye!

1700:

And it has suddenly done very sunny (only lasted about 30 minutes). A complete change of light. The light is now quite harsh and very directional. I deliberately left in the shadow of me taking the garden image to show how sharp edged and dense the shadows were.  The light is starting to turn more golden again. It has moved around to the west so the Eryngium (spiky flower) is in full sun and difficult to pick out against the background leaves.  All the detail of the plants has been blended together by the brightness. This is not a good use of this beautiful light.

1900:

The sun has gone into the clouds again, but is definitely going down. there is a definite redness in the sky. The light is very diffuse, and not as golden on the plants as I would have expected, but gives an interesting effect looking though the leaves of the Cotinus ‘Royal Purple’. There is good detail back in the Eryngium as it is no longer in harsh sunlight.

1930, (sunset at 1928, final set of images of the day):

The daylight has virtually gone and the settings are very similar to the first ones of the day. The light quality is still diffuse, the golden tinge of earlier has almost gone, Oddly enough the sunset in the west mirrors the sunrise in the east.

Notes as taken on day:

Learning points:

  • do not rely on the eye, it is a very poor lightmeter.
  • the diffuse light under the dense cloud cover actually made for some very interesting close-up images as there was no distracting shadow.
  • the very sunny and harsh light in the afternoon needed a more considered approach. My shadow interfered with the fairly close image, so a more distant one would have been better.
  • the day followed a clear pattern about the colour of the light, pastel, golden, neutral, golden, pastel.
  • think about the light and how it will impact on your planned images. Different times of day may suit some types of images better than others.

Light in All its Glory

18/09/17

Light is probably the most important thing when taking an image. You obviously need an image taking device of some sort, but this can be as simple as a piece of photosensitive paper or a pinhole camera, but light is essential. Complete darkness, although almost never present, makes it impossible to see or obtain an image. My father was a professional photographer, taking colour film images for sale for books and magazines long before the days of stock photography. He always used to say that the light you needed depended on what the photo was for. He would often avoid midday sun – too harsh, but might also avoid the evening light as the golden colour cast, while very attractive, was not what he was looking for. This was well before the days of being able to remove a colour cast by digital manipulation.

Sally Mann in an interview with Chinese Photography Magazine said ‘the light in the South is so different from the North, where you have this crisp and clear light. There is no mystery in that light. Everything is revealed in the Northern light. You have to live in the South to understand the difference. In summer, the quality of the air and light are so layered, complex, and mysterious, especially in the late afternoon. I was able to catch the quality of that light in a lot of the photos…….and also the refulgence or the reflection when light and water interact. There is no coating on the lens of my old camera, which permits a much softer and more luminous light. I am less interested in the facts of a picture than in the feelings. The facts don’t have to be absolutely sharp. I can get information across by appealing to viewer’s emotions’ (American Suburb X, 2013). Her images in the Southern Landscape series reflect this philosophy. They are not clear, sharp and flat but you feel you are looking into the images rather than at them. Sometimes only part of the image is visible, the remainder clouded in mist. The focus is variable – leaving you peering though the murk, wondering and imagining what might be there. I find myself blinking in a hope to see more clearly, to try and see what Mann saw on that day, at that particular time, at that moment. My favourite, much desired image, (simply identified by the year 1998) is very simple. A patch of light, surrounded by trees over grass, or possibly water. I keep changing my mind.

A completely different use of light is shown in the images of Schmidt. He said ‘I prefer black and white photography because it guarantees the viewer a maximum amount of neutrality within the limits of the medium. It reduces and neutralizes the coloured world to a finely nuanced range of greys, thus precluding an individual way of seeing (personal colour tastes) by the viewer. This means that the viewer is able to form an objective opinion about the image from a neutral standpoint independent of his subjective colour perception. He is thus not emotionally distracted. In order to achieve a maximum of objectivity and thus create a photograph which possesses credibility and authenticity as a document (factual information), I prefer to work with neutral diffused light, i.e. to produce an image without noticeable shadows. The viewer must allow the objects portrayed in the photograph to take their effect upon him without being distracted by shadows or other mood effects. In this context, it is essential that the viewer should be able to recognize the depicted objects clearly and in relation to each other.’ (American Suburb X, 2010). Schmidt’s images are very different from those of Mann. They are clear, without obvious emotional content, explicitly showing the subject. As he said – you can recognise the subject easily and therefore make your own judgements on the content, rather than trying to interpret Schmidt’s thoughts and feelings. The images are relatively emotion free, (I do not think that any image can ever be completely devoid of emotional reading) and therefore what you see can become very personal. In his obituary for the Guardian, Delahaye said’ His language is a language of precision and his tool is the most simple one: a small, 35mm camera, and a few rolls of films. His pictures look simple at first glance, and their anti-sentimentality, their refusal of all the tricks of the usual seduction, their concision and their clarity, give them great efficiency. They show what they show but they manage to retain an opacity, a mystery, and they become a support for our imagination’ (O’Hagan, 2014).

Atget, much earlier on in the development of photography, was very aware of the effects of light and varied his technique over time, initially using the relatively neutral light at midday to produce images that give information about the ‘facts’ while images from later in his career are very different ‘Atget’s late photographs, however, are frequently marked by subjective light and deep shadows. Often made early in the morning, these pictures—such as Parc de Sceaux—use light and shadow to create a mood rather than to describe a place; they mark the apex of Atget’s formal and expressive investigations of the medium.’ (Nga.gov,2017).

All these examples are of photographers who usually took monochrome images where it is often easier to see changes in light intensity, together with the effect of the direction of the light. A further layer of complexity is added in when using colour as the temperature of the light varies as well as it’s apparent quality. Light in the morning and evening is warmer, and may be very red at sunrise and sunset, while it is a more neutral colour at midday. The following table from Cambridge in Colour (Cambridgeincolour.com,2017) helpfully summarises the effects of light throughout the day.

Time of Day   Contrast Colors Direction of Sun
1. Midday Highest Neutral White Near Vertical
2. Evening & Morning High Slightly Warm Mid to Low
3. Golden Hour & Sunrise/Sunset Medium Warm to Fiery Near Horizontal
4. Twilight, Dawn & Dusk Low Cool Pastel Below Horizon

References

AMERICAN SUBURB X. (2010). MICHAEL SCHMIDT: “Thoughts About My Way of Working” (1979) | #ASX. [online] Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/10/michael-schmidt-thoughts-about-my-way-of-working-1979.html [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017].

AMERICAN SUBURB X. (2013). INTERVIEW: Sally Mann – “The Touch of an Angel” (2010) – ASX | Photography & Culture. [online] Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/01/interview-sally-mann-the-touch-of-an-angel-2010.html [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017].

Cambridgeincolour.com. (2017). Making the Most of Natural Light in Photography. [online] Available at: http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/natural-light-photography.htm [Accessed 17 Sep. 2017].

Nga.gov. (2017). Atget: The Art of Documentary Photography. [online] Available at: https://www.nga.gov/feature/atget/work.shtm [Accessed 15 Sep. 2017].

O’Hagan, S. (2014). Michael Schmidt obituary. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/28/michael-schmidt [Accessed 17 Sep. 2017].

 

Summary week ending 15/09/17

Photos:

  • Went to Glasgow and took a series of photos while walking along the Clyde
  • Experimented more with taking selfies
  • Amusing pics of dog in motorbike sidecar.

I have continued to think about:

  • concept of selfies and how they are used. My son is very strongly of the idea that they must have context to mean anything. Overall I agree, but in practice difficult to do.
  • difficulty in managing areas of extreme differences between light and dark in one image
  • Kate Davis and feminism in photos. Feminism and the female gaze seems to be a common thread in my reading at present. Is it possible/probable that we have gone too far? I think that there may be less of an issue now than when i was young – however it is probably just more subtle and hidden.

Blog:

  • working on Part 4
  • wrote up about Kate Davis

Reading:

  • Graham Clarke – The Photograph. I am having great difficulty with the concepts here, (even on the 2nd time through) partly in understanding the whole issue about critical thinking and its importance, partly because of the language used – coming from a science rather than an arts background. Need to find a primer!
  • Stereoscope – the yearly magazine from the Arts and Photography students at St.Andrews University. Images, writings intercut with images from the universities Special Collection photographic Archives. It is interesting to see the sort of images that are taken by students – not just those that are picked as major upcomingt alents by BJP, Foam or Lenswork. Work often muted – very much about people rather than places. The one that stood out for me was Tom Oldridge. keep an eye out for his name
  • Lensculture – several interesting articles this week