In the course notes it was suggested that I look at the work of Douglas Huebler, in particular his project entitled Variable Piece #101. Huebler was an American Minimal Sculptor and Conceptual Artist who began his career as an artist, turning to sculpture and finally to the collection of material (such as photographs, maps and written texts) from everyday life forming several series’ of this documentation[¹]. Starting in 1970 until his death in 1997 he worked on a project that was an attempt to “photographically document the existence of everyone alive”[²]. Within this project was the series entitled Variable Piece #101 in which Huebler took ten portraits of the typologist Bernd Becher in which he was asked to take on the persona of ten different identities/identity traits:
Bernd Becher (himself)
This on its own is interesting enough but, taking the project one step further, Huebler waited a few months and then sent the images to Becher and asked him to pair the images to the persona he was playing. The images are captioned and made in to a series by Huebler as he had taken them and a new series was made using the new order that Becher had since made some new associations with (due presumably to unreliable memories and the inability to recall and or identify which persona he was playing in each image correctly 100% of the time).
Not only are the portraits of Becher performing different roles interesting to view in the first set alone but the inclusion of the second series with Becher’s associations attached to it in the form of captions, and a re-ordering of the series, therefore takes the project even further, adding a layer of confusion and encouraging the viewer to engage with the work whilst trying to decipher it. The fact that Becher himself is a noted typologist himself gives the work another layer also – one typologist using another typologist to make a typology!
[¹] Background information on Douglas Huebler from Tate.org
Brief: In response to Sander’s work, try to create a photographic portraiture typology which attempts to bring together a collection of types. Think carefully about how you wish to classify these images; don’t make the series too literal or obvious.
Brief: Study Sander’s portraits in very close detail, making notes as you go. Look at how his subjects are positioned in relation to each other or their environment. Are they facing the camera or looking away? What, if any, props does Sander use? Do these props seem relevant or are they strange? What physical stance does the subject adopt? Detail was extremely important to August Sander and the background in his portraits was never left to chance. Study the backgrounds of Sander’s portraits very closely and reflect upon what you see. Where does the subject sit in relation to the background? If location-based, does the head sit above or below the horizon? Has the background been deliberately blurred through the use of a wider aperture and therefore shorter depth of field? Does the background offer any meaning or context to the portrait? Make a portrait of someone you know, paying very close attention to what is happening in the background of the shot. Be very particular about how you pose the subject and what you choose to include in the photograph. Ideally, the background should tell the viewer something about the subject being photographed.
Reflect upon how successful this project was in your learning log or blog.
August Sander was born in Germany in 1876. He was a documentary and portrait photographer who was known, and highly commended, for his cross-sectional portrait work which sought to document German society during the twentieth century. His work forms a ‘pictorial mosaic'[¹] of inter-war Germany. By taking over 600 photographs of people from all walks of life, including Nazi’s and those persecuted by them, Sander’s work formed an important collective history of the German people.
‘Sander once said ‘The portrait is your mirror. It’s you’. He believed that, through photography, he could reveal the characteristic traits of people. He used these images to tell each person’s story; their profession, politics, social situation and background.’ – Tate.org on August Sander
Young Farmers 1914, August Sander:
Positioned in a line on a path that runs diagonally away from the camera. Subject’s are all positioned side on with canes out on the ground next to the them, clutched similarly in their right hands. Their faces are turned towards the camera, all making eye contact, all adopting the same stern, formal look. Props include the three canes, bowler hats and one young man, alienated slightly from the other two, smokes a cigarette. Subjects’ are presumably dressed up for an event as farmers wouldn’t usually wear their best clothing to work the land. The background is fields and a muddy path to give some extra context in to the young men an their characters/profession, at least in regard to farming. The angle and stances of the subjects’ make them look suave, confident, proud – they dominate the frame with their strong presence.
Notes on background: The subject’s sit across much of the frame and the vast landscape looks smaller than reality behind them. Their heads sit just above the horizon line of the fields. The land behind the subject’s looks 2D, quite blurry, non-descript with just enough detail to work out what they are. The three young men are the main subject with just enough information from the blurred fields to confirm their identity as young farmers.
“[W]e know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled” –August Sander[²]
The two men in the image above ‘Blacksmiths, 1926’ are standing relatively close together which suggests a general camaraderie at work. The background is their workshop and has lots of detail, it isn’t blurred in a shallow depth of field as the last image ‘Young Farmers’ was – presumably because the details in this workshop add to the scene rather than serving as a distraction. Both men are facing the camera and holding piercing eye contact with the viewer, something which grabs my attention instantly. The props are definitely relevant and add information on who these two men are, at work at least. They are serious about their job, both holding tools purposefully and not as though they had just been asked to and therefore weren’t sure on how or whereabouts to hold them. Presumably at the time Blacksmiths would have been highly skilled tradesmen and this is what this image is telling me, that these two men take their work seriously and that they are professional and devoted.
Brief:Do some research in to historic photographic portraiture. Select one portrait to really study in depth. Write a maximum of 500 words about this portrait, but don’t merely ‘describe’ what you see. The idea behind this exercise is to encourage you to be more reflective in your written work (see Introduction), which means trying to elaborate upon the feelings and emotions generated whilst viewing an image. The portrait an be any of you choice, but try to choose a historic practitioner of note. This will make your research much easier, as the practitioner’s works will have been collected internationally by galleries and museums and written about extensively. Read what has already been written about your chosen practitioner’s archive, paying particular attention to what historians and other academics have highlighted in their texts. Post your thought in your learning log or blog.
As my knowledge of portrait photographers throughout history was, frankly, atrocious I decided to make a timeline of the portrait photographers I had researched so that I can see where they fit in in relation to one another and around big events such as the Great Depression/Civil War etc. It was very time consuming but I now feel like I have a much greater understanding of the history of portrait photography and the genre of Photography throughout history too. Here is my timeline work (made with Read Write Think Timelines), it is in three segments and runs from 1839 to 1956:
For this exercise I picked the portrait known only as ‘A Group’ by Albert Sands Southworth and Josiah Johnson Hawes, dated ‘after 1849’.
‘It should be the aim of the artist-photographer to produce in the likeness the best possible character and finest expression of which that particular face or figure could ever have been capable. But in the result there is to be no departure from truth in the delineation and representation of beauty, and expression, and character’ – A. S. Southworth, 1870
The image I have picked, pictured above, was photographed after 1849 and before the firm closed in 1863. The caption, like so many of the photographs in the Southworth and Hawes archives, simply declares ‘A Group‘ and doesn’t provide names or the relationship between the subjects. Within Southworth and Hawes archive there is a clear distinction between personal and private portraiture and ‘A Group’ clearly fits in to the personal category as the subjects seem amiable with one another, intimate even and two of the subjects are smiling.
Personally, when I study the image I see a group of relatives, three sisters and a brother perhaps, as they all have very similar features and build. One young lady and the young man are seated, a corner of a very intricate carved chair can be glimpsed towards the middle of the frame, and the other two ladies are standing behind them. The seated lady is leaning in towards the young man and the lady standing directly above him is resting her arm familiarly on his shoulder. Their clothes are exquisite, suggesting a higher class of sitter which is unsurprising as this was Southworth and Hawes primary clientele type. Their clothing styles and hair also give away the era of which these subjects lived in, they are typically Victorian – the ladies with their V-necked smocks and frilly cuffs, their hair braided and piled to the side and the young man in his waist coat and bow-tie, his hair slicked back and his moustache combed. The background of the portrait is white and plain although there is a very obvious vignette that frames the sitters, a process Hawes had thought up, and perfected, himself[²].
What is most unusual about the portrait for its time is that the sitters are expressing emotion and are posed in interesting and unusual positions. Most portrait daguerreotypists of the time valued quantity over quality and used the same pose and background over and over (see Pinterest board of typical Portraiture in the 1840s/50s here), yet Southworth and Hawes gave each sitter much more time and attention to create a portrait that showed something of their individual personalities.
‘They were known for such creative use of light, which was in marked contrast to the bright, unflattering light then prevalent among daguerreotypists. They also developed methods that reduced exposure time, so as to avoid the stiff poses seen in most portraits of the time’ – the editors of Encyclopedia Britannica
I feel drawn to this image to interpret because the subject’s are interesting to study, the level of detail and quality of the photograph on the daguerreotype surface is incredible for something so old. I like the fact that the sitter’s are showing character, the faintest smile on the beautiful ladies’ lips and the stern but gentle look on the gentleman’s face as the others lean in towards him. I feel particularly moved by the eye contact of the woman at the top left of the frame and the daguerreotype enhances this intense look with its almost 3D quality – something about this image enchants me. This reminds me of something I read on the website of The American Museum of Photography, a quote by photography curator Grant Romer, who (when describing the daguerrotype) wrote ‘All lovers of the daguerreotype are spellbound beings’ and I can relate to this, in the case of Southworth and Hawes’ ‘A Group’ particularly so.
Do you feel at one with the land and belong in the countryside?
Absolutely, yes. I am at home in a countryside setting and feel very close to nature and the land around me.
What does an urban landscape tell us about its inhabitants?
It might say something about the types of people living in it – is it a fast paced city or a more relaxed and slower moving town? Is it modern or is it more historical – perhaps lots of older retired people live here or perhaps the majority of the population of that area is young and trendy.
How can the spaces between buildings speak of identity?
I’m not sure what this question is asking precisely but it makes me think of alley ways with cast away brown boxes, crates and graffiti lined walls and this makes me think of our disposable generation and also of youth and wasted/undiscovered talent.
Your ‘place’ may be more psychological or mental than physical. Perhaps you are an introvert. What does this mean about how you move through physical spaces?
This is a really interesting and thought invoking question. Personally I think I am either an introvert or an ambivert and I’m not sure what that means about how I move through physical spaces. I often feel quite overwhelmed by lots of tall buildings and very built up areas and very claustrophobic and when I am in nature I feel very free and energised. I wouldn’t say that I spend much time daydreaming or living in my head, only if my fear overcomes me do I retract within, but I definitely enjoy time alone in my ‘safe space’ which is currently a room in which I sleep and study. This space is filled with lots of my personal belongings and decorated with things that show little fragments of my personality. Another space in which I spend a lot of time in is my van in which I commute to work and back every day (a total of 60 minutes a day) and again, this reflects parts of my identity. For example I have seat covers because I have two dogs and they are a surf brand because I like outdoorsy makes and I have many air fresheners which I keep adding to but never take any down because I think they look pretty and I have lined the back of the van with red carpet and there are homemade stickers on the dash to remind me to turn off the lights as currently my door switch doesn’t work.
Or perhaps you have a disability. How does this impact on your day to day life? Does it help or hinder your position in your current environment?
I suffer from anxiety which has a huge impact on my day to day life, restricting how much I can do and alienating me quite a lot. This hinders my position in my current environment as I am limited as to what I can do with regards to work, social engagements and leisure activities. There are many barriers I find myself up against on a daily basis, some of which I conquer and others which I find are harder to move and take a lot longer to get on top of.
I’m going to be really honest and fess up that I nearly picked a different course so that I wouldn’t have to face my fears and do this one as the idea of photographing people, especially ones that I do not know, is utterly terrifying to me. I suffer from social anxiety, -something that I don’t usually talk about much, but in this case its very relevant to how I got here. I find it difficult to talk to strangers, especially in a one to one setting, to the point where I actually experience panic attacks that make me want to get away from the situation as quickly as possible. My first instincts when I browsed one of my fellow students Identity and Place learning log to give me an idea of what the course entailed was that it was going to be impossible for me to do many of the exercises and assignments. This fear made me immediately write it off and look in to other course options such as Introduction to Film Culture, a course that would count towards my photography degree but would bypass the difficult genre of Portrait. I filled out the enrolments form for this other course and very nearly posted it but at the last minute, and many hours of bully ragging myself, I decided that Identity and Place was the way that I needed to go. Not only do I find the course material (at a glance) incredibly interesting and therefore don’t want to let fear stop me from studying what I want to study but also I think that it will inevitably be good for me to step far far away from my comfort zone and realise that I can actually do it. I am fully expecting my coursework and assignment material to reflect this disability of sorts, but instead of resisting it I hope to find a way to utilise my fear, enveloping it in my ideas and using it to push boundaries and make new discoveries about myself and others. I’m genuinely excited about where this course will take me, it has been a difficult decision to make but one that I am, at this stage, very glad to have made.
Brief:If you have a social media profile picture, write a paragraph describing the ‘you’ it portrays. What aspects of yourself remain hidden? If you were to construct a more ‘accurate’ portrait of yourself, including various aspects of who you are, what would you choose to include? How might you visualise these things? Try creating a new, more honest, self portrait.
I have noticed that during the past year my social media profile pictures always include my partner Gabs too, as though she is my conjoined twin or something. If I think about it I guess I choose photos with Gabs in too because a) I look more relaxed in them as I don’t feel as self conscious when someone else is being photographed with me as when I am the sole subject and b) Potential viewers of my profile picture can see less about me as an individual, therefore I am making myself feel more comfortable again. My social media profile picture shows at least one truth about me – I am not looking at the camera, avoiding eye contact which shows my social anxiety perhaps. The picture is in black and white so that does not give away the colour of my hair, other than that it is relatively dark, nor the colour of my eyes or the clothing that I am wearing. In the past I have had quite abstract photographs of myself such as blurred, low light or very close up images but this one is quite an honest photograph showing me smiling and relaxed. I think I was on a day trip to an arboretum here, I am in my element. However, a viewer could look at this image and deduce that I am always happy and relaxed which is far from the truth – the relaxed part at least.
If I was to make a more honest self portrait of myself it would have more layers. In an assignment for my previous OCA course Context and Narrative I used photographs of myself from my personal archives and layered them with more recent pieces of my identity so this comes to mind here although I still think this is a little too confusing to be an honest self-portrait in this case. I would want to include aspects of my personality, my passions, struggles and goals in life but this would be difficult to cram in to one photograph. I recently visited an exhibition at Hestercombe house of the work of Trish Morrissey and this exercise reminds me of her interpretation of Miss Ware – Morrissey designed a hat which was covered in phsycial representationsof Miss Ware’s known personality traits and passions (a mini easel, some 3D birds, an accordian ect). Please see the post corresponding to this exhibition here. Perhaps this is something I could do? I was thinking perhaps of drawing a huge mind map of everything that makes up ‘me’ and holding it above my head, or in the style of Grayson Perry I could use lots of images or drawings or words or a combination of both and combine them all together to make one composite that outlines my entire identity. A collage perhaps?