Exercise 3: Viewpoints

Exercise 3 asks me to think how a landscape can change when seen (or photographed) from different points of view – from above, taken from ground level or looked upon from a map or Google Earth – and as an aid Creative Arts Today publishes three images, The Cheshire Plain from Beeston Castle (2008) by Derek Trillo, a cityscape  by the OCA student Peter Mansell and Agecroft Power Station (Salford, 1983) by John Davies. For ease of reference I shall call them Figure 1, Figure 2 and Figure 3 respectively.

All three were taken from a raised point of view, Figure 1 possibly with a telephoto setting that zooms in and eliminates any view of the sky.

Figure 1 offers a graphic sight of graceful fields and tracks, harmonious pale hues (soft pinks and greens) and a pleasing composition. The effect is almost abstract and the image has no disturbing elements in it. I made a search on Google Maps of the area around the Beeston castle and took photographs of a satellite view (left) and of a frame of the 360° panoramic image shown on Google Maps (right). The first image accentuates the graphic flatness of the original photograph, whereas the second is an atmospheric frame with a high depth of field and a cloudy sky which gives an even deeper perspective.

 

 

The following are five very casual and unpretentious snapshots of New York that I took with my iPhone during a recent trip there. I selected them because they are taken from successively higher points of view: from street level pointing upward to a dizzy-making view on Manhattan taken from a very high floor of a skyscraper building. While the first image shows the gigantic proportions of the building rising before my eyes at a very short distance, the last one is a panoramic sweeping view of the city.

Figure 2 and Figure 3 share some similarities: neither of them has the pleasantness of Figure 1, no natural beauties in them, both show with an objective and cold eye a landscape that has no pretence of being pretty. In Figure 2 we see a rather drab suburban area in the foreground with industrial warehouses and infrastructures, a causeway with trucks, and beyond it tall buildings and non-descriptive low constructions expanding to an horizon of low hills. On top a ribbon of grey sky.

In Figure 3 by John Davies the feeling is even bleaker: before us an industrial desolate area with the four chimneys of the power plant gloomily degrading in scale at the centre. In the foreground bare shrubs, an unattractive parking area with abandoned wastes and sparse cars. In between the parking lot and the power station football teams are playing a game. In the distance no houses or a city, only a dreary hinterland of cooling stations, electricity pylons, artificial channels. The uniformity of the sky is mixed in with the smoke and the smog.

The elevated view that has been chosen offers a full sight of the forlorn lifelessness of such a landscape, subtly underlines it but without dramatic tones: reality is shown for what it is in a documentary style that appears neutral and matter-of-fact. Also Figure 2 shows with its raised vantage point a similar objective, impartial sense of the cityscape ahead.

The power station photograph by John Davies makes me think of a similar Epstein’s image that I have just viewed, Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant (2004), which also has footballers playing in front of an industrial plant, but Davies’ look is more distant and cooler, in his image life looks like almost wiped out, a waste from earlier times, while in Epstein’s there is still a certain balance between humans leading their life the best they can and the industrial scape surrounding them.

 

Research point: Mitch Epstein and Fay Godwin

The New Topographics exhibition of 1975, and particularly the work of Robert Adams, has influenced ‘many other photographers who have campaigned around environmental issues’ (Creative Arts Today, page 173), and OCA suggests to investigate two projects in this area:

Mitch Epstein’s American Power (2003 onwards)
Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia 2004

Mitch Epstein, Poca High School and Amos Coal Power Plant, West Virginia 2004, from mitchepstein.net

‘American Power examines how energy is produced and used in the American landscape, and how energy influences American lives. Made on forays to production sites and their environs, these pictures question the power of nature, government, corporations, and mass consumption—as well as the power of looking—in the United States.’ (Mitch Epstein website)

The artist’s website documents his work and publications so far, and includes an exhaustive list of links to reviews and essays.

In that section I found an interview with him by William Carroll published in Places Journal, December 2013 and focusing on the theatrical performance based on American Power. After being born in 2003 as a photographic project,  American Power has since taken many forms: exhibitions, books, billboards, a website, and also this theatrical performance. The image below, as the caption says, is from the stage production of the project made in cooperation with musician and composer Erik Friedlander and the interview was registered the week after the 2013 performance.

American Power, performance by Mitch Epstein and Erik Friedlander, 2013, William and Nadine McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center. [Photo by Greg Beckel, © Walker Art]

I find Epstein’s way of working with series of photographs within the frame of a strong and ambitious project really engaging. As he explains in his website he concentrated first on the production of energy in the United States and its impact on landscape and people’s lives and then extended his analysis to other forms of power – not only to produce energy, but to the other ways in which the political, corporate and mass consumption powers can exert influence on society at large.

I think that the juxtaposition of industrial sites and daily life is forcefully compelling: together they make such an interesting story, much more so than separately. I read that Epstein is very critic of how power in its various forms negatively affects American lives, but curiously his photographs, with its pleasant colours and domestic surroundings, convey to me the feeling that life is not all that bad also in a problematic environment, that people have their personal ways to cope with changes and keep on with their daily activities in all conditions with natural resilience.

My only objection is that the project about power is so vast that it becomes almost undefined at the end and can include practically everything, but plausibly the artist’s intention was exactly to engage in an open-ended project to show how the network of power really extends to all aspects of our lives.

Fay Godwin’s Our Forbidden Land (1990)
GODWIN_2

Fay Godwin, image from The Forbidden Land, at: https://paulwalshphotographyblog.wordpress/2013/06/27/forbidden-land/

Fay Godwin’s work The Forbidden Land was also born as a project having political and social meaning. Like the title implies, her photographs were polemically concerned with the destruction of English countryside and the requisition of it by the authorities and the private owners, with more and more land subtracted from the public. So it fundamentally questions the ownership of the land and the right to it for the common citizens. The book includes 120 black and white photographs and accompanying texts by Fay Godwin.

I have looked at her images online which are not only important but also deeply beautiful and moving: they are empty of people and there is in them a feeling of solitude and desolation, a nostalgia for a disappearing countryside and with it for a way of life that is getting lost. I think that there is nothing sentimental in her photographs, and little hope too, but at the same time there is in them also a profound love and deeply felt sensitivity for nature. I read that she was a strong advocate of organic food and of the environment and that she campaigned against the fencing off of land and its preservation.

Bibliography

Mitch Epstein’s website: http://mitchepstein.net/home (Accessed 25/05/2017)

American Power: Live (2013) In: https://placesjournal.org December 2013 [online] At: https://placesjournal.org/article/american-power-live/ (Accessed 25/05/2017)

Fay Godwin’s website: http://www.faygodwin.com/ (Accessed 30/05/2017)

Drabble, M. (2011) ‘Fay Godwin at the National Media Museum’ In: http://www.theguardian.com 8/01/2011 At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/08/margaret-drabble-fay-godwin (Accessed 30/05/2017)

Clark, D. (2010) ‘Fay Godwin 1931-2005 – Iconic Photographer’ In: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk 9/11/2010 At: http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/technique/fay-godwin-1931-2005-iconic-photographer-18907 (Accessed 30/05/2017)

Images of the ‘beautiful’

A 1975 exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape in Rochester, New York, had ten photographers exhibiting ‘work that showed the effect that man has had on the landscape (Creative Arts Today, page 173).

Eight out of ten photographers selected for this show ‘that epitomized a key moment in American landscape photography’ were Americans (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, Jr.), the other two were a couple, Bernd and Hilla Becher from Germany. (Wikipedia/New Topographics)

‘The show consisted of 168 rigorously formal, black-and-white prints of streets, warehouses, city centres, industrial sites and suburban houses. Taken collectively, they seemed to posit an aesthetic of the banal.’ (O’Hagan, 2010)

‘Looking back, one can see how these images of the “man-altered landscape” carried a political message and reflected, unconsciously or otherwise, the growing unease about how the natural landscape was being eroded by industrial development and the spread of cities.’ (O’Hagan, 2010)

Lewis Baltz, Park City, image by the ASX Team (2012)

 

The photograph above is taken from an essay (2012) about that seminal exhibition, consulted online from www.americansuburbx.com (The AXS Team, 2012), showing also several images from it.

‘The exhibition’s title was clearly a nod to nineteenth-century topographic photography under the initial exploratory auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey, as well as an acknowledgment of the alteration of that terrain during the century intervening—an acknowledgement missing from mid-century photographs by Ansel Adams … while New Topographic photographs appear to be of western landscapes, trees, deserts, houses, roads, and construction, they are nonetheless about the aesthetic discourse of landscape photography, and about “a man-made wilderness” (Ratliff, 1976, p.86): that is, they are about the American myths of the West, suburban expansion, the American dream, and the exploitation and destruction of natural resources.’ (The AXS Team, 2012)

This is only a short quote from the essay that is an important contribution to the vast field of landscape photography. I made a print-out of it for further study.

On similar issues seen from a British perspective Creative Arts Today mentions Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ book Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (2011). I have no access to the book at the moment but I read a review online from The Guardian to get a general idea of what it is about.

 

 

Bibliography

Wikipedia article, New Topographics: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Topographics (Accessed 24/05/2017)

O’Hagan, S. (2010) ‘New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal’ In http://www.theguardian.com 8/02/2010 [online] At: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/feb/08/new-topographics-photographs-american-landscapes (Accessed 24/05/2017)

The ASX Team (2012) ‘New Topographics: Landscape and the West – Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography (2005) In: http://www.americansuburbx.com 14/05/2012 [online] At:
http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/05/new-topographics-landscape-and-the-west-irony-and-critique-in-new-topographic-photography-2005.html (Accessed 25/05/2017)

Macfarlane, R. (2011) ‘Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts – review’ In: http://www.theguardian.com 19/02/2011 [online] At:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/19/edgelands-farley-symmons-roberts-review (Accessed 25/05/2017)

Exercise 2: Holiday photos

I reviewed some of my holiday photos, and the first thing that I notice is that there are not that many, at least in comparison with the number of photos I take in my everyday life. One of the reasons is that I always travel light, and so I rarely take a camera with me in the days out, being mostly happy with having just my iPhone, comfortable shoes and a bottle of water and leaving everything else in my hotel room.

Also when I am busy in something or visiting places during a vacation I normally don’t think to take pictures, and so my eyes are my camera, even if later I often regret my ‘laziness’. What I generally do is to take snapshots of details that draw my attention, and to me this is like taking visual notes, like in these pictures below, colours in a window shop and the textural waves of a textile piece in a museum.

 

Left: San Francisco, Union Square – Right: Bogotà, Casa de Moneda

This sequence of three images was taken from a ferryboat approaching Seattle from the sea. I remember that the setting was grandiose, the light was beautiful in the mid afternoon and I wished to see how the town changed as I came nearer.

Seattle, from the ferryboat

Again in Seattle, I was interested in the patterns and drawings on this wooden structure, and especially in the window looking out onto the city. The place really attracted me even if these quick pictures certainly don’t do it justice but they help me to remember how special it was.

Seattle, Western Avenue

I put these two images side by side even if they were taken in very far away places because they are both flat and decorative photographs. The patterns and graphic qualities made me take out my iPhone.

Left: Seattle, Pike Market Place – Right: National Park The Arches, Utah

I was driven by the interplay of architectural structures against the sky. I normally take several photographs of features that really interest me from different angles and distances and I keep only the ones that satisfy me most discarding all the others.

Left: Seattle, 4th Avenue – Right: Bridge on Colorado River, Gran Canyon

These landscapes were absolutely memorable so I could not resist the temptation to take my photos. The first image on the left is an aerial view taken from a small plane.

Left: View on the Colorado River – Centre: View from Seattle – Right: National Park The Arches, Utah

The linear patterns on the rocks and the play of light inside the Antelope Canyon were so obviously wonderful that everybody inside could not resist putting the iPhone to rest. At right, I loved to see the trees outside filtered by the glass in the Museum so instead of photographing the artifacts on show I turned to the windows.

Left: Upper Antelope Canyon –  Right: Seattle, Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum

What I normally do not do is to take photographs of iconic places, say the Eiffel Tower or the Hoover Dam, not because I ‘spurn’ doing it but because I feel that my photographs would never do justice to them and so I prefer to buy professional images or books and limit myself to take pictures of some small details of these wonders that I particularly enjoy and wish to remember personally. For example in the image below, on the right, I was standing with my back to the colossal statue of the Cristo Redentor, at the top of the Corcovado mountain in Rio de Janeiro, and took a picture of the people admiring it instead.

Similarly on the left what dragged me were the three identical caps worn by people looking out from a trail.

Left: National Park The Arches, Utah, Right: Tijuca National Park, Rio de Janeiro

The last two images are snapshots of family and speak out loud: this is holiday time, the weather is nice, and we are having a very good time! The diagonal angle on the table was the only way to take everybody in the frame so I went for it. I really love the rather faded colours of the photograph on the right, and the positioning of the young girl on the left: it was a totally spontaneous picture but I think it gives a feeling of the heat and the wind of that day.

Looking back at my pictures all together I think that there are in them some involuntary common features: more often than not there is in these images attention to patterns and structures and this certainly belongs to me; people are only occasionally included; there is a tendency towards abstraction. It’s also apparent that my approach to photography has been so far very casual: I could not find anything resembling a ‘documentary’ value in my trip and holiday albums, only scattered fragments.

I don’t think there is anything intrinsically ‘wrong’ in using an iPhone and snapping away, if nothing else it allows for a spontaneity and quickness that it was once just unthinkable. But it’s a shame to use such a powerful instrument carelessly without exploiting its wonderful possibilities to their fullness. Using an iPhone for taking photos is in certain ways similar to writing on a computer instead than on a piece of paper: one tends to write without thinking too much because editing is so very easy and one gets sloppy. But if we want to produce a good piece of writing or a decent photo we have to put in the effort in any case at the post-production stage. I think that every time a new tool becomes available we develop new ways of thinking, learn new processes, and give up on obsolete ones or alter them and in so doing we discover different possibilities.

 

 

Exercise 1: From far and from close

For this exercise I am using the two photographs from Creative Arts Today on pages 170 and 171, which look very different from each other.

The first image on page 170 was taken with a wide angle lens and shows a much longer depth of view and a lot more information than the second one using a telephoto lens.

The white fence in the foreground appears enlarged and sharply in focus and gives access to the vast landscape expanding to the horizon, drawing the viewer in and enhancing the sense of space and depth. Also the degrading size of the clouds in the sky contributes to accentuate the depth of field and extends the perspective. The whole city is in the frame and can be taken all in as it spreads before our eyes even if it is difficult to perceive the single details of the buildings and of the other elements which appear sketchy, like patches of colour.

In the second image taken with a telephoto lens we come physically closer to the left area in the middle ground of the photograph and we get a much neater view of some urban details: the features, shapes and patterns of the individual elements like the buildings and the rooftops can now be appreciated, their colours can be distinguished, features that were difficult to see like the bridge and the green areas now appear much more clearly. What is lost in this second photograph is the sense of space, the town expansiveness; depth is compressed and the result is a certain flatness of the image. The absence of the white fence makes it difficult to judge relative sizes and distances.

I would not say that one photograph is preferable to the other, rather I think that the two images make different choices as to what to show: the wide angle one opts for a larger, deeper vision of the whole landscape, the telephoto image focuses on only some elements and gives more detailed information about them, renouncing depth of field.

 

 

Introduction to Project 3: A sense of place

Exploring the ground ahead with Creative Arts Today (pages 167-170)

Landscape photography is a whole area to itself, to explore it further CAT suggests reading Malcolm Andrews (1999) Landscape and Western Art, Oxford: OUP for a good introduction.

Basic Question: How do photographs convey a sense of place?

It’s necessary to consider space, placement and depth in images, by means of juxtaposition and perspective.

A sense of depth can be created by placing smaller objects near to the camera and larger objects further away.

Ian Berry 1974

England. Whitby. A sunny Sunday afternoon brings tourists and…, from https://pro.magnumphotos.com/image/LON1828.html (Accessed 23/05/2017)
I think that without people in the foreground this image would look flat and uninteresting.
I’m trying now a simple experiment with two objects – a big bottle and a small cup – placed in front of my Iphone to see what happens inverting their placement

It seems to me that the placement of the bottle near the camera stops the eye from moving behind it (left), while advancing the cup to the foreground helps moving the eye forward.

Scale in photographs relies on placing familiar subjects within the frame, by way of comparison: I know how tall people roughly are, so I judge the rest of the image from them.

I am now having a good look at ‘Cathedral’, Box Freestone Quarry, Wiltshire by Jesse Alexander (https://jessealexanderonphotography.com/thz/, accessed 23/05/2017).

The absence of familiar subjects in the image makes it difficult to evaluate distances and sizes of what I am seeing.

In photographs the three-dimensional world is reduced to two dimensions, but we assume that the arrangement of objects and their orientation in the spaces correspond to the view we have in front of us. ‘This ‘realism’ comes into question when wide-angle or telephoto lenses are used to give, respectively, either a much wider field of view than our own eyesight, or a far narrower one.’ (page 169)

Will Crites-Krumm at: https://digital-photography-school.com/wide-angle-versus-telephoto-lenses-for-beautiful-landscape-photography/ (Accessed 23/05/2017) explains in simple words (that I understand) what happens when we use a wide-angle and a telephoto lens respectively.

‘This is the most basic difference between the two lens types: wide lenses give you a wide view, telephoto lenses give you a narrow view. And while landscapes look great in their entirety, it’s a good habit to take a moment and look for details. There are beautiful elements of the landscape that might get shrunken, or ignored in the expanse of a wide-angle image. This is where your telephoto lens comes in. Its narrow field of view is perfect for trimming off the extra elements, and focusing right on small, beautiful scenes like the curve of a mountain, a reflection in a far-off pond, or the silhouette of a tree.

WILLCK 2 YOSEMITE

‘In the two images above, you can see this in action. They were both taken from Olmstead point in Yosemite National Park, one with a wide angle lens and the other with a telephoto. In the first image, the wide angle shows off the total landscape. It includes both sides of the valley, the up-close textures of the rocks and the far off peak of Half Dome. In the second image, the telephoto lens brings the eye right up to the mountains, showing off their shapes and the details of the geology.’

 

Still quoting from Digital Photography School:

‘Here’s an easy way to summarize it with a simple idea:

Wide angle lenses show off space, telephotos show off objects.

The wide angle lens’s big field of view, ease of uniform focus, and depth-distorting abilities, are great at showing off big, expansive landscapes. However, they take focus away from individual elements within the landscape in favor of showing the whole. Telephoto lenses are naturally the opposite: they’re great at showing off the size, shape, and intricacy, of detail of individual elements within the landscape. But their narrow field of view, small depth of field, and depth-compressing qualities make it hard to capture the landscape as a whole.’

But as CAT explains (page 169, the bold characters are mine), there is more to it than it seems, since ‘in addition to the realism of the two versions offered by wide-angle and telephoto lenses, they can have a profound impact upon what the image communicates.’

‘The telephoto image crops into a scene and so excluded the viewer from information that was available to the photographer … the telephoto lens can lead to quite ‘immersive’ imagery, i.e. the scene is crammed into the frame and the viewer ‘homes in’ on a particular part of the view. In that sense, the telephoto view epitomises the subjectivity of the photographer’s gaze. The wide-angle view, on the other hand, offers a more ‘naturalistic’ viewing experience. It shows the ‘depth’ of the scene.’ (page 169)