Exercise 2, Part 2 : Taking a walk in my neighbourhood

 

Rome – a sense of place

The problem with the centre of Rome where I live is that this town is so beautiful that it is often difficult to take purely functional photos. The combination of monuments, palaces, light conditions and people is unique. Even ugliness – the trash left around town, the heavy traffic – tends to become special in this environment. Here are some moments I captured during my walk.

 

First group:  documentary or utilitarian images

These images are from a walk around yesterday and show a mixture of beautiful monuments, cars, people, tourists, maintenance works, daily life of a typical workday in the centre of Rome in a rainy weather. Rome has I think a very unique impure beauty, a beauty in which tourists and residents are awash all the time sharing the same spaces, brushing each other but living the place in different ways, tourists mainly walking and smiling, stopping at corners to look at maps and taking photographs, and residents and politicians trying to find a quick way amid the crowds, among cars and cafés, choosing small alleys and passageways to avoid the throngs.

 

 

 

 

Second group: stepping aside and choosing details

In this second group of images I tried something different: I walked away from the main routes and focused on details. Because if it’s true that Rome is full of people, it also has many serene and almost empty spots, even in the city centre.

I don’t think these photos are ‘artistic’, but taking them was certainly an exercise in paying attention. And for the time being this is what photography means to me: to focus, to pay attention, to see things with a concentrated mind. I am drawn to the playing of colours and light, to textural effects in the world around me, to how lines meet. I am aware that my approach is more or less pictorial, not photographic, and I realize that I tend to see things around as if they were potential art materials, to be captured and stored, like interesting magazine clippings, that I somehow do not have a photographic eye, that I still have to learn how to see with a camera instead of using the camera as a tool to find something interesting to be used in other ways.

IMG_1127

Trees silhouetted against a dramatic sky, on the Pincio hill

IMG_0146

Remnants of a smashed motorcycle rear window

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_0294

Detail of a wall under renovation

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_4107

A beautiful drawing of writer Pasolini, a sort of modern Pietà, on an old wall

IMG_1506

Who lived in here? Even in the centre of Rome deserted places abound

IMG_7222

Left aside and forgotten inside a church

IMG_2239

The sun playing a beautiful light game on a building

 

Exercise 2, Part 1 : Flicking through my Iphone’s photos

Exercise 2 invites me to flick through a photo album – I chose the Camera Roll in my Iphone – and pick out some that seem ‘artistic’ to me.

As I said in my introductory notes to Project 1, I never thought to make art through my photos and so all of them were merely an attempt to fix what interests me, an aid to memory, or a form of documentation for future use. Nonetheless while reviewing these snapshots, moments of my life came forcefully back, some images woke up emotions or feelings associated with them, and these are the ones that I chose to upload.

While all of them are more or less personally meaningful to me, I am not going into the circumstances at the time – it would take too long – and shall limit myself to take note of what I think makes every one of them a little special if not really ‘artistic’.

IMG_0126

The vivid colours and the sharp lines caught my attention in a restaurant

IMG_0259

The mirrors in front of me fragmented the people and the trees behind

 

IMG_0197

Graffiti on a wall look like an abstract painting

 

IMG_0202

Another photographic abstract painting, loved the combination of green, black and cream and the strength of the black shape in the centre

 

IMG_0995

Inside a museum: I was attracted by the combination of the three elements, the wheelchairs in partial shadow, the white strong shape of the stair and the woman climbing

 

IMG_1044

I was driven by the strong contrasts of shapes, colour and light

 

IMG_1087

This is a photograph of me, taken by somebody else. I absolutely love the relationship between my eyes and those of the painted figures, and the mellow colours

 

IMG_1180

A confused picture inside a museum, I like how the statue in the foreground is a bit out of focus

 

FullSizeRender

I think this is a fun portrait

IMG_7224

A photograph of an old photograph on a grave, I wanted to take it back to life

 

IMG_3315

I was captured by this shadow of two people on a wall, it looks like a double exposure but it’s just a reflexion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research point 2: John A. Walker’s essay ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’

Walker, J. A. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ (2009)

 

In his essay John A. Walker argues that the meaning of a photograph changes according to the context in which it is located and seen: a change in location determines a change of context and so of meaning; for example a wedding photograph is viewed as a memento of a social ritual in a family album, but becomes a demonstration of a photographer’s work in a photographic shop window.

Context always influences the viewer’s perception of a photograph even if his or her attention is mainly drawn to the internal space and content of the image since as viewers we cannot but maintain an awareness of our environment. And in this sense the ‘context’ is seen as a determinant of photographic meaning.

The word ‘context’ is a generic term that can be further specified as being architectural, socio-historical and so on, and in most cases a recontextualisation of an image produces a partial or complete transformation of its depicted content or denotation: parts or the whole picture are given a shifted or new meaning in different contexts.

If in the distant past artworks like oil paintings or sculptures were often produced for a specific location or as part of architectural structures as in the case of frescoes, in time they became geographically dispersed until with the advent of photography they lost any connection with their original location, being ever since easily reproduced. As a consequence the importance of the architectural or physical display context has diminished while that of media contexts like newspapers, books, magazines has risen.

Also the socio-historical context is important and if the meaning of a photograph is certainly heavily influenced by the moment of its production, it changes however when it is viewed within different cultures and in different times. This means that it is crucial to examine an image not only at its birth, but also to consider its ‘circulation’ – that is the distribution/transmission of an image – and its ‘currency’ – that is its meaning, use and value for a particular community.

After examining the influence of display and media contexts, Walker takes into account a third important context: the beholder’s mental set. People enter in relation with the image according to their different position in society which is determined by factors like gender, race, nationality, age, education and so forth. The mental context of an image can be partially influenced by artists with an appropriate choice of the conditions of display according to the specific audiences they have in mind, but very often it lies outside their control.

 

Side notes on this text

This essay deals with the relevance of context for photographs and how a change in context involves a change of meaning, but the same observations can be applied to all the other areas of creative arts as I have been studying them so far, from contemporary artworks, to writing, to visual communications.

Context in its different forms – architectural, socio-historical and mental as Walker calls them – determines an interpretative shift of meaning and so new connotations: different cultures and times, and also different people appropriate what they see, read, listen to or participate in, in new ways and from changing vantage points and in so doing alter every time its meaning. At the same time and conversely, a piece of work has a different impact on people depending on their historical, cultural and sociological condition.

This generates a double flow of meaning towards and from the piece of work, a reciprocal action and impact from the work to the audience and vice versa. If I interpret it correctly, the essay can also be usefully read in the light of the critical theories of reception aesthetics/history and of the reader response which concentrates on how the reader responds to the text, and of the seminal essay by Roland Barthes,  ‘The Death of the Author’ (1967), and the corresponding ‘birth’ or the reader.

 

Bibliography

Walker, J. A. ‘Context as a Determinant of Photographic Meaning’ (2009) [online] At: https://www.academia.edu/11911020/Context_as_a_determinant_of_photographic_meaning?auto=download (Accessed 13/04/2017)

Kemp, Wolfang (1998) ‘The Work of Art and Its Beholder The Methodology of the Aesthetic of Reception’ in Cheetham, Mark A. (ed.): The subjects of art history : historical objects in contemporary perspectives, Cambridge 1998, pages 180-196 [online] At: http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/artdok/1916/1/Kemp_The_work_of_art_and_its_beholder_1998.pdf (Accessed 27/03/2017)

Barthes, R. (1967) The Death of the Author. Translated by Richard Howard. In: tbook.constantvzw.org [online] At: http://www.tbook.constantvzw.org/wp-content/death_authorbarthes.pdf  (Accessed 21.12.2016)

 

Exercise 1: What is a photograph?

What, in your view, makes photographs unique as an art form?

Photography as a genre looks really difficult to pinpoint since photographs are everywhere and everybody can easily take them, artists and not artists, for all sorts of different reasons and purposes, and exactly because it is so pervasive at the end it becomes elusive. After all the basic tools photography uses are largely available and simple to get: light, the world around us and a more or less sophisticated camera. This immediacy and straightforward simplicity could partly be what makes photography so unique and popular as a medium: in contrast to drawing or painting or sculpture, even without any technical knowledge or skill photographs can be taken by anybody.

The relative easiness of photography is certainly a factor that explains its success and a quality unique to this medium, as Talbot had already argued right from the start, even if in itself does not account for or explains the specificity of photographs as objects. Certainly though, I think, this immediacy allows for what is unique in photographs: a fixed image of a fraction of time of a specific place, the captured ‘momentness’ of André Cartier-Bresson.

In this sense the photographic image really seems the medium of choice for dealing with the main themes of time and place in contemporary arts around which this course revolves. But I think that if this freezing a place in time is certainly unique to photography as a medium, it also is less innocent of what it looks: on the one hand it is highly satisfying because the captured image saves that moment of that place from being lost and forgotten – it fixes it in our memory and makes it present after it is past – but on the other hand the image is also unsatisfactorily only a fragment and an illusion since it offers a very partial view or aspect of the many possible and continually changing conditions of that moment of that place.

And I think that this intrinsic ambiguity of photographs is also what makes them so suitable to our shifting postmodern attitude, in which nothing is certain or explained forever and everything seems condemned to being transient or only partially true and open to further interpretation. Perhaps this is why so many contemporary artists choose photography as a medium: because photography is multi-functional, unsettled, fluid, adaptable and compliant, fit to whatever purpose and extremely elusive.

Perhaps also this impossibility to contain photography within prescriptive boundaries, its same fluidity, make photography a very special if impure medium, that allows for an intrinsically hybrid use, artistic and non artistic, high or low, everyday or functional, whatever one chooses. So maybe the photograph as an object – an image that is flat, framed, taken from a certain angle – tends to disappear as if making place for the partial view of a moment of the world fixed by somebody, which can be candid, casual, unintentional, staged, manipulated or even made up (as allowed for by digital photography today).

 

Think about what we mean by ‘photographic image’. Does it have to be something permanently fixed? Does a photograph have to exist in hard copy? Is there a difference between a printed photograph and a digital image that sits virtually on someone’s device, for instance?

Following from this reasoning it seems to me that the freedom of photography as a medium can also mean that a photographic image may have a life outside a printed or a hard copy without renouncing its nature: it may have a virtual, potential if impermanent life stored in a device or digitally floating in the cloud, projected on a screen or transmitted via radio waves.

Digital images can be altered and so manipulated pixel by pixel, but after all also conventional photographs could be and have been manipulated by different means, as shown for example by Fading Away, a 1858 arranged print which was obtained by H. P. Robinson out of five negatives, or by the daguerreotyped portraits coloured by hand.

 

 

 

Photography as genre

Project 1 revolves around the questions of how we can define photography as distinct from other genres and what is its specificity as a medium, and in this regard quotes opinions from some famous practitioners (Creative Arts Today, page 14)

Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), an American photographer known for her portraits, New York City photographs of architecture and urban design of the 1930s (Wikipedia), believed that ‘photography can never grow up if it imitates some other medium. It has to walk alone; it has to be itself.’ (from the article ‘It Has to Walk Alone’ in Infinity Magazine, 1951, cited by Creative Arts Today).

Fig. 1. Berenice Abbott, Seventh Avenue looking south from 35th Street in Manhattan (1935)

At: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nypl/3109785833/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11866224 (Accessed 7/04/2017)

In his book The Nature of Photographs (2010), Stephen Shore says that ‘the photographic image depicts, within certain formal constraints, an aspect of the world’ (Shore, 2010). He also says that, beyond its ‘physical and optical factors’ which give the image its formal character, a photograph’s visual grammar is determined by four attributes: flatness – the flat plan of the photograph, frame – framing a selection from a wider view, time – the fraction of time captured by the image, and focus – where the photographer focuses the camera. I have bought this book and am going to take it into account in my first exercise for Project 1 in the next post.

Henri Cartier-Bresson‘s view is also cited by Creative Arts Today: ‘To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of the event.’

Immagine correlata

Fig. 2. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alberto Giacometti, Galerie Maeght, Paris, 1961

At: http://artyparade.com/en/news/30 (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Other quotations by Cartier-Bresson express in different ways his idea of  the ‘momentness’ of photography:

‘A photograph is a vestige of a face, a face in transit. Photography has something to do with death. It’s a trace.’

‘For me, the camera is a sketch book, an instrument of intuition and spontaneity.’

‘Photography is nothing – it’s life that interests me.’

Susan Sonntag (1933-2004), a Jewish-American writer, film-maker, teacher and political activist, wrote extensively also on photography (Wikipedia) and was rather interested in the relationship between photography and reality:

‘Instead of just recording reality, photographs have become the norm for the way things appear to us, thereby changing the very idea of reality and of realism’ (quoted by Creative Arts Today).

So it could be particularly interesting to focus on her ideas later on, on the post on ‘Truth’ in photography.

 

 

Bibliography

Shore, S. (2010) The Nature of Photographs: A Primer (2nd edition). London: Phaidon Press

Sontag, S. (2005) On Photography. [pdf edition] From: Internet Archive At: https://archive.org/details/PHOTSusanSontagOnPhotography (Accessed 10/04/2017)

Berenice Abbott: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berenice_Abbott (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Stephen Shore: http://stephenshore.net/index.php (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Henri Cartier-Bresson: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Henri Cartier-Bresson: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/1998/jan/31/photography.artsfeatures (Accessed 10/04/2017)

Henri Cartier-Bresson: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/1998/jan/31/henricartierbresson.photography (Accessed 10/04/2017)

Susan Sontag: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Susan_Sontag  (Accessed 10/04/2017)

 

But is it art?

I have found and downloaded a concise well-structured story of photography written by The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica which is being really helpful for a first exploration of the ground ahead. From this I am jotting down very schematic notes of photography early developments for my future use.

Antecedents and early developments:

camera obscura: forerunner of the camera, consisting in a dark chamber or room with a hole (later a lens) in one wall, through which images of objects outside the room are projected on the opposite wall; known to the Chinese and to ancient Greeks, it was described in the XVI century by the Italian scientist and writer Giambattista della Porta

chemistry: in 1727 J. H. Schulze (Germany) proved that the darkening of silver salts was caused by light and not heat. This discovery together with that of the camera obscura paved the ground for the later ‘invention’ of photography

heliography: ‘sun drawing’ – in 1826/27 N. Niépce (France) used a camera obscura fitted with a pewter plate and produced his first successful photograph from nature, a view of the courtyard of his country estate, with an exposure time of about eight hours

Fig. 1

At: www.photo-museum.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/catalogue-Niepce-View_Le_Gras.jpg (Accessed 7/04/2017)

daguerreotype: in 1828 L.-J.-M. Daguerre, a French professional scene painter, enters into a partnership with Niépce and by 1835 discovers that in the light a latent image forms on a plate of iodized silver and that it can be ‘developed’ and made visible by exposure to mercury vapour, which settles on the exposed parts of the image. Exposure time can thus be reduced from eight hours to 30 minutes. In 1839 Daguerre sells full rights to the daguerreotype and the heliograph to the French government and publishes a booklet describing the process, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Various Processes of the Daguerreotype and the Diorama (a PDF copy of the original can be seen and downloaded at http://photobib.bonartes.org/tl_files/buecher_scans/ALB-GLV435_96dpi.pdf, accessed 18/04/2017)

photogenic drawing: W. H. F. Talbot The Pencil of Nature (previous post)

early views of the medium’s potential: from its beginnings photography is compared with painting and drawing and is considered by most a shortcut to art, according to Daguerre’s view: ‘With this technique, without any knowledge of chemistry or physics, one will be able to make in a few minutes the most detailed views.’

development of the calotype: in 1940 Talbot discovers that gallic acid can be used to develop a latent image on paper (negative) after an exposure time of one minute

But is photography an art?

Photographic societies are set up in the mid-19th century in London, Paris and elsewhere and help in establishing photography as an aesthetic medium which is meant to imitate painting by different means, for instance putting the subject slightly out of focus and retouching photographs. As a consequence photographers begin to combine several negatives to make one print and try to push photography beyond what were considered its technical limitations.

Pictorialism as against naturalistic photography

In 1858 Henry Peach Robinson, a professional English photographer combines five negatives in a famous print, Fading Away, with a dying girl as its subject, consisting in a scene posed and arranged for the camera.

Risultati immagini per fading away robinson

Fig. 2

At: https://media1.britannica.com/eb-media/69/59969-004-F0287A4E.jpg (Accessed 7/04/2017)

He also publishes a very influential book, Pictorial Effect in Photography (1869). He stresses the importance of balance and of the opposition between light and dark to emulate painting, and so gives rise to a long-lasting debate if photography should imitate painting – and implicitly renounce its specificity as a medium – or rather reflect nature.

This second approach is advocated by P. H. Emerson who proposes instead that photographs offer ‘the illusion of truth’ and be made without recourse to retouching techniques, combination of multiple prints and use of staged settings, models and costumes, thus exploiting the qualities of tone, texture and light of the new medium and making it a unique art form. In 1889 he publishes the very influential Naturalistic Photography.

Though different, both approaches had the same goal to make photography an art form in its own right.

Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession

In 1902 Alfred Stieglitz founds in New York City the Photo-Secession group, after the name of the avant-garde secessionist movement in Europe and opens the Little Galleries to exhibit the works of Modernist painters, sculptors and photographers. In the 15 years of its existence the group moved away from Pictorialism towards sharply defined prints like those of Paul Strand and Edward Steichen.

Risultati immagini per paul strand

Fig. 3 Paul Strand, Wall Street, New York City (1915)

At: https://it.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Strand (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Steichen, Edward

Fig. 4. Edward Steichen, Ad for Coty Lipstick (c. 1930)

At: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/12/14/a-celebration-of-edward-steichen-the-world-s-first-fashion-photographer.html (Accessed 7/04/2017)

Bibliography

https://www.britannica.com/technology/photography (Accessed 17/03/2017)

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Henry-Peach-Robinson (Accessed 17/03/2017)

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-Henry-Emerson (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Edwards, S. (2006) Photography: A Very Short Introduction. [Kindle edition] From:Amazon.it (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Research point 1: The Pencil of Nature by W.H.F. Talbot

The Pencil of Nature by W.H.F. Talbot

 

1844 Title Page

Cover of The Pencil of Nature by W.H.F. Talbot, e-book #33447 released on August 16, 2010 by The Project Gutenberg

 

Sources

E-file of the original text and its 24 plates: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33447/33447-h/33447-h.html (Accessed 17/03/2017)

Official website with full text of the book: http://www.thepencilofnature.com/ (Accessed 17/03/2017)

An essay from the MET Museum interestingly retraces the history of Talbot’s early photographic experiments, approximately at the same time of Daguerre’s in France. See: Daniel, Malcolm. “William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) and the Invention of Photography.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm (October 2004) [online] At: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tlbt/hd_tlbt.htm (Accessed 17/03/2017)

 

Some notes on the text

The Pencil of Nature by W.H.F. Talbot, the first published book illustrated with photographs (24 calotype* prints), contains the full text of Talbot’s writings on photography and was published in London between 1844 and 1846. The tables are examples of the possible uses of the new technology that Talbot called Photogenic Drawing.

Curiously the cover page does not show a photograph, but consists in an intricate Celtic design in the Victorian style typical of the time.

Talbot first ‘found that a sheet of fine writing paper, coated with salt and brushed with a solution of silver nitrate, darkened in the sun, and that a second coating of salt impeded further darkening or fading’ and ‘he called his new discovery “the art of photogenic drawing.”'(Malcolm, 2004 above). In 1840 Talbot discovered that exposing for a few seconds to the sun a chemically treated paper he obtained ‘a latent image that could be brought out with the application of an “exciting liquid” (essentially a solution of gallic acid)’ (idem). Talbot patented this invention as the “calotype” process in 1841 (Daniel, 2004).

His introductory remarks to The Pencil of Nature include several interesting points that help us understand how photography was considered in the 1840s and also how much our vision of it has changed.

As remarked by Creative Arts Today (page 146) even Talbot’s title, The Pencil of Nature, indicates that photography – literally the writing of light – was for him a sort of automatic drawing by nature, with scarce or no intervention of man if not for the chemicals used to ‘trap’ light. It was a handy and useful substitution for the artist’s pencil. According to Talbot’s words in the Introductory Remarks, the plates ‘are impressed by Nature’s hand’.

Even so some of Talbot’s plates, for example Plate VI ‘The Open Door’, already show a care for visual qualities which go beyond a faithfully mechanical reproduction of the real world; in this case a rustic scene of daily life is artistically composed with a great attention to framing and light effects.

PLATE VI. THE OPEN DOOR.

Plate VI. The Open Door

In an interesting passage Talbot remarks that photographic art can even see what the human eye cannot, as ‘certain invisible rays which lie beyond the violet, and beyond the limits of the spectrum’, and so ‘the eye of the camera would see plainly where the human eye would find nothing but darkness’ and is in a sense superior to it.

 

Do I see photography as mechanical or creative?

I must say that I almost never tried to consciously make art while taking photographs and am happy to be given a chance during this course to consider photography with deeper attention and focus for the first time on its expressive qualities. I have mostly always used photography to fix special moments, to store images for documentation in the same way that I clip visual ideas from magazines, or as a shortcut to drawing or taking a note.

This is not to say that I do not value photographs as art when I view them in galleries or in books, but for what I am concerned I generally have the feeling that I do not have the ability to take full advantage of cameras, so I tend to use them in the automatic mode or choose easily understandable ‘scenes’ like macro, landscape or interiors when I have some specific needs. For everything else I normally need to have a look into my instruction manual. It is only since the advent of smartphones that I feel more comfortable with taking photos and now I press my camera button almost as often as everybody else, but I still do not see my photos as art.

Being so inexperienced in the technical aspects of photography it is really interesting to read of Talbot’s early efforts to capture and fix images and for the first time I have felt curious about finding out more and learn about the history of photography. Talbot’s concentration on the technical developments of the new medium as against an attention to its artistic potential and implications looks to me unavoidable and totally understandable in those pioneering days in which the technical process of photography was being tentatively explored. I think that today, in the time of easy digital photography with smartphones and tablets,  it is again very useful to go back to the roots of photography in order to understand the nature of the medium and also look at it from what has become an unusual perspective.

In my opinion the focus on technology is no obstacle to creative expression, quite the opposite a good knowledge of how photography works may be a stimulus to creation and generate new ideas as it happens in other media too. There may be photographers who are more technologically versed or interested, others who are mostly conceptually driven but I believe that a sound acquaintance with the technical aspects of a medium never hurts while ignorance can be a severe limitation.

 

 

*Calotype: Calotype or talbotype is an early photographic process introduced in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot, using paper coated with silver iodide. The term calotype comes from the Greek καλός (kalos), “beautiful”, and τύπος (tupos), “impression”. (from Wikipedia, at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calotype (Accessed 06/04/2017)