Encountering Culture – Digging Deeper.

The project briefing states that the images produced must be analogue. This means that I will have to shoot on film but does not necessarily restrict me to black and white. However, I have practiced with black and white film on the ‘Greater than the Whole’ assignment and the darkroom facilities available to me only allow the use of black and white film. As such I think it would be preferable to continue to work this way. This does not prevent me from looking at the work of other photographers and gaining insights regardless of their method of capture. In this section I want to look at some of the projects that others have completed that may influence my final outcomes.

Sir Francis Galton
Phrenology Map (2007)
Phrenology Map (2007)

Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) was one of the greatest intellects the world has ever known. His works and achievements are seemingly endless but he is best known as the cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton used typologies in his Criminological study of Physiognomy & Phrenology (Belief that the surface of the body, face and head bore the outward signs of a person’s inner character). Can you read an individual’s personality or determine their moral fibre from just the look on their face? Francis Galton decided to test this hypothesis by gathering images of convicted criminals. He categorised the people by crime and after careful study he presented his work as seen here.

Violent Criminal Types (1885)
Violent Criminal Types (1885)

Using the Typology system he shows us the common facial characteristics shared by the various criminals and that these particular features represent a common theme in those not only predisposed to a criminal lifestyle but to a specific type of crime. In order to reinforce his philosophies he would print his images alongside those of upstanding citizens in order to demonstrate the contrast between the features of the societal degenerate and publicly respected. His decision to use this type of visual element allowed him to convince others that there was method in this madness, after all seeing is believing and Galton had demonstrated a commonality in the features of these criminals. Alarmingly this system was proposed to identify potential criminals before they had ever committed any crimes. This methodology, although now defunct raises questions in my mind that better results can be achieved through careful selection of a subject. Internally, individuals will experience a similar range of emotional pressures but outwardly through facial traits and personal characteristics a good subject will be able to communicate those emotions with much greater effect.

Rineke Dijkstra

Dutch Born Rineke Dijkstra found inspiration whilst recovering from a hip operation. Show observed that when certain elements came into play it opened up and exposed an individual’s vulnerability. Initially, she found it was the tiredness and exhaustion coupled with being dressed only in a bathing costume that peeled away a person’s personality layers when she began in the early nineties by taking a self-portrait.

Dijkstra, R. (1991)
Dijkstra, R. (1991)

When Dijkstra looked at her own self portrait she saw a whole new person looking back. She appeared frightened and vulnerable, gone was the air of self-confidence and the assuredness of a happy woman and left behind is a character that seems apprehensive and fearful. The sense of isolation and susceptibility is heightened by the bland white surroundings, this is further increased by the way the subject has been placed in the centre of the image and has been framed with lots of space around them,  diminishing the subject and leaving you with a feeling of insignificance.

Dijkstra chose to investigate this idea further by taking a series of shots of young adolescences at a time of their lives when they would have felt most vulnerable.  Over the next few years she headed to various beeches across Europe and the USA to photograph pictures of teenagers after swimming.

Kolobrzeg, Poland (1992)
Kolobrzeg, Poland (1992)

Once again the combination of physical exercise and wearing only a bathing suit has brought out all the qualities that Dijkstra was looking for.

This teenage girl strikes a classic contrapossto pose as she exudes the vulnerability evident in those caught in an adolescent purgatory. As we move from innocence to adulthood we are caught in a physical and mental no mans land, a tempestuous emotional storm that rages through the teenage psyche during this period of rapid change. Oddly though, when confronted by Rineke Dijkstra’s camera this impassioned leviathan appears cowed and exposed, twisting the body to reveal the child that still lies within.

In addition she also found that when using the 4×5 large format camera; a bulky and imposing instrument it acted as a barrier between her and the subject, this resulted in the photographer becoming hidden and detached and only works to increase the levels of anxiety already present. Dijkstra also used a fill flash, overexposing the person slightly stripping them of any remaining dignity and presenting them in all their ungainly glory.

Fonta De Casa, P. (2000)
Fonta De Casa, P. (2000)

From here Dijkstra decided to expand on her ideas and look for new ways to capture the real person underneath the public persona. She focused her attention towards shooting people immediately after experiencing a period of extreme physical activity and possible life endangerment. The two types she focused on were bull fighters directly after a fight and women directly after giving birth. The image on above was taken the moment the bull fight was over. Shot in Portugal the matador is bruised, bloodied and exhausted. Yet despite his obvious fatigue he smiles, a sign of his elation at victory and the adrenaline that still flows through his body. Taken against a clear and uncluttered background there is nothing to take your attention away from the blood splattered subject. Originally a tradition enjoyed by the aristocracy it dates back hundreds of years and is still enjoyed by thousands of spectators every week. The significance of this type of imagery would have much greater impact in countries like Portugal and Spain were bull fighting is considered a national pastime and the matadors themselves are revered above all others.

Harderwijk, Saskia (1994)
Harderwijk, Saskia (1994)

With this image Dijkstra has combined the elements of both the previous two types. She has continued with the style of framing that was representative of her images taken at the beach but the subject is even more exposed and vulnerable than before. Once again she has placed her subject in the centre of the image and her surroundings are clean and bland. It is the emotional content of this image that is similar to the matador photo. The subject despite her exhaustion has fought and won her way through her own personal battle and now clutches her prize protectively but almost radiates a sense of triumph and achievement.

Rineke Dijkstra’s portraits are structured and posed and her work focuses on the individual rather than the environment. She communicates her vision through both facial features and body language and prefers to keep her backgrounds, although not irrelevant as a secondary part of the image. This is a fascinating method of communication that I will keep in mind for my images.

Ewen Spence

Photography was not Ewen Spencer’s first choice of profession but once he had found his calling he realised that he had held a fascination with the still image all his life. Born in Newcastle in 1971 he studied in Brighton before embarking on a project to capture the life of the modern adolescent.

A busy social life, parties, drinking, drugs and sex? It sounds more like the life of a rock star that Britain’s modern youth but it was this reality that Ewen Spencer aimed to capture when he embarked upon his project. In truth there is nothing unique about this type of lifestyle, the clothes and the music may be different but nothing much has changed in the last 20 years, perhaps even the last 50 years.

Spence, E. 6th Form Disco (2000)
Spence, E. 6th Form Disco (2000)

Here Spencer has taken a picture of a 6th form party. There is such a contrast of emotions between the people in the image with two people thoroughly engaged in each others company whilst one person, most likely a friend of the other two sits sullenly nearby. His dejected body language not only tells the story of is own lack of compatible company but also that he has to endure the enjoyment that his friends are experiencing.  It also looks like he used a flash so it is likely that he only would get one chance to capture a scene like this

Spencer’s study of what he termed ‘WAG LADS’ was a far more interesting insight into a post-adolescent group that is seeing greater prominence in modern society. The terminology actually stands for ‘Wives and Girlfriends’ and was popularised by the tabloid press as a description for the partners of Britain’s highly paid football stars.

Many of the women lack the style, grace or sophistication that a well-educated female would have but are able to lavish themselves with high value material possessions whilst attending the elite social functions throughout Europe. WAGS were viewed by some sections of the public as having a glamorous lifestyle and no doubt they subjected themselves to a rigorous health a beauty routine.  It is generally accepted that most women subscribe to a fastidious regimen of beauty treatments far in excess of their male counterparts. However an increasing number of males are beginning find themselves becoming the objects of their own desires.

It was once the provenance of the gay man, but sexual orientation is now irrelevant in this rapidly growing section of our society. A product of the changes in general attitudes towards a stereotyped view of male masculinity and increasing levels of disposable income has seen the rise of the ‘metrosexual man’. Spencer latched onto the emergence of this subculture and recorded it from a fly-on-the-wall documentary style perspective.

Wag Lad (2009)
Wag Lad (2009)

Over a period of time Spencer followed a group of men and photographed them as they subjected themselves to a disciplined routine of personal maintenance. The individual featured were all successful men living in major cities close to the various amenities (Gyms, Tanning Parlours, and Health Food Shops etc.) that they valued. Above, a metrosexual man would not dare appear in public without looking his best whilst the broken doorbell suggests the house does not receive such close attention. What is enjoyable about Spencer’s images is the feeling you get from the subjects of the high regard and importance they place on their appearance and that issues of vanity clearly rule their lives. Television shows have begun to spring up around similar personality groups both here and in the USA with hit shows such as ‘The only way is Essex and Jersey Shore’ which feature both sexes with similar obsessions around their social lives and personal appearance.

Ewen Spence takes a social documentary approach to his work and chooses to show an a reality to teenage life and young adulthood. He focuses on the particular cultures that meet the stereotypical views held by society, particularly his work with teenagers. The common perception is that ‘youth’ spend more time drinking and socialising and less time working or contributing to society and Ewen Spence’s work does appear to support that view.

Lise Sarfati

Lise Sarfati was born in Paris in 1958 but has lived and travelled across Europe and Russia. She is now in North America where she has lived since 2003.

Sarfati Specialises in environmental portraiture. The majority of her work features lone females although she has experimented with Nudity and Males. All the models are aware of Sarfati and have agreed to all the work she produces.

The New Life, Sarfati, L. (2003)
The New Life, Sarfati, L. (2003)

In this image the subject is looking directly at the camera, which is unusual for Sarfati’s style. The girl is posed and her body language is confrontational. From her surroundings you can deduce that she lives in a Jewish household by the seven candle menorah in the background. This is an iconic Jewish symbol which also appears on the Israeli flag.

Her face is emotionless and her stare is challenging whilst her right hand holds up a cigarette. I view this as a symbol of rebellion a symbolic gesture that the extinguished Menorah candles have been replaced with the burning cigarette.

Litva, Sarfati, L. (2005)
Litva, Sarfati, L. (2005)

This image is far more in keeping with Sarfati’s usual style. Taken in Lithuania the model is alone and looking away from the camera. The surroundings look institutional, almost school like and this is collaborated by the subjects clothing which closely resembles a school uniform. However the room is spartan and bare, there are no books, or wall decorations, the desks are empty and even the blackboard is clear. This contrasts with life in Vilnius at the time. Since Lithuania’s independence in the early 1990’s they government had switched to a free market and the country had the fastest growing economy in Europe.

Austin Texas. Sarfati, L. (2008)
Austin Texas. Sarfati, L. (2008)

Once again the model is alone and posing as if unaware that she is being observed. Sarfeti has framed the image in a way that makes the environment feel larger. This image was taken in Texas, a southern state of North America. Texas is in the heart of the American Bible belt and is plagued by radical evangelical Christians. For me the room represents this fundamentalist life style and the girl who is dressed all in black is the antithesis to the room’s purity. The contrast in colours, the bold tattoos, smoking and drinking are all polluting the scene. There are even scuff marks on the floor suggesting that the pollution is spread where ever she walks.

Because Lise Sarfati uses both the subject and the environment to create her images it allows her greater flexibility to convey her vision. Equally though this also opens up the danger of the image becoming easily confusing and ambiguous with the viewers becoming all the more likely to come to different interpretations of the work. I do like the style and I am going to create my own portraits which also incorporate the subjects environment.

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