Monday, October 14, 2013

Lighting Workshop: Light and the Dramatic Portrait

As a photographer, I’ve always been interested in light. And I’ve always gravitated to photographs of people. So it was natural that I would become interested in studio portraiture. In the studio, the photographer has very precise control over the nature and quality of light and is able to match the light to the subject.

I discovered that one of the most enjoyable things about working in the studio is exploring all the various tools for modifying light. I wanted to know first hand about the differences between an umbrella, a soft box and a beauty dish, and how each of these modifiers could be used to illuminate the person I was photographing.

My process of trial and error suggested the theme for this workshop. It will be an opportunity to dip your toe into studio lighting, learn about the equipment and the effects of the different modifiers, and practice working with a model.  The workshop features:

•  an intimate, relaxed setting
•  small size, no more than 3 or 4 participants
•  individualized attention
•  plenty of hands-on time with the equipment and with the models

The 2-day workshop will run the afternoons of Saturday November 9 and Sunday November 10, from 1:00 – 5:00. The workshop fee is $300 plus model’s fees of $25 per day.

Topics to be covered include:

•  lighting systems: pack and head vs. monolights
•  effects of modifiers: umbrellas, reflectors, spotlights, softboxes, strip lights
•  how to use a flash meter
•  lighting ratios and controlling contrast
•  where to place the lights: one and two light set-ups
•  classic beauty lighting
•  why we light the background independently of the subject
•  the unique look of a ringflash
•  the advantages of shooting tethered

Please contact me with any questions or to enroll.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Grammar of Photography: A New Course at Pratt

Garry Winogrand

Photographs tell stories. As a writer might use cadence, sentence structure or even the sounds of the words used to help advance the story, photographers use light, shape, and color. But beyond employing general visual principles, photographers have a specific set of problems to solve in order to communicate effectively. This Fall, I will be teaching a course dedicated to providing an analysis of those problems and their potential solutions. 

Based on ideas suggested in two seminal writings on photography, John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye and Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs, the class will be an investigation of how photographs say what they say. Through regular shooting assignments dealing with the principles of photographic vision and composition, students will have a better sense of how to formulate and strengthen an idea and be better able to translate that idea into the visual form of a photograph.

For some background on the conceptual foundation of the class, please see my post The Grammar of Photography: Learning to See.  We will also spend considerable time with the elements of composition as they pertain to photography.  Photographic Vision: Learning to Compose is a good introduction to thinking about visual structure and the frame.

The Grammar of Photography will be offered at the Manhattan campus of Pratt Continuing and Professional Studies and runs Wednesday evenings for 10 weeks beginning October 2, 2013. To enroll online, go to the Pratt Continuing and Professional Studies main page and click on the link in the left column for CCPS Instant Enrollment. The course name and number are: The Grammar of Photography, PMPH-472-01.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Looking at Photographs: Bill Brandt at MoMA

There are only a couple of weeks left to see Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light at MoMA. If you haven't gone, I highly recommend that you do. Brandt is best known for a series of nudes taken in the mid-40's and -50's. Some verge on abstraction while others employ a degree of spatial distortion that breaks the scale between subject and environment. Rooms become vast. Or impossibly small. The influence of surrealism in this body of work is clear. And the surreal emerges in less expected places: the image of a man sleeping in a sarcophagus in Christ Church, used as an temporary air raid shelter during the London blitz, for example. Or in a series of portraits of artists, taken in extreme close up so that the artist's eye -- more elephant-like than human --fills the frame. Brandt had a way of seeing which made the familiar appear as though it had never been seen before.

Brandt also viewed the darkroom process as an integral part of transforming his subject. A remarkable image shows miners in an elevator re-entering sunlight at the end of their shift, their faces in shadow and covered with soot. In that darkness, their eyes gleam with light: a darkroom trick in which some of the silver is bleached away with potassium ferricyanide, a steady hand and a fine-tipped brush. One of the curatorial points of Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light is to show the evolution of his printing style. The exhibition catalogs a wide range of possibilities for interpreting a black and white image. Brandt's later images have a distinctive look: high contrast, graphic, gritty – and instantly recognizable as a Brandt. The earlier photographs have a long tonal range with a surprising amount of detail in the shadows. There is a smoothness and richness in the darks that is difficult to reproduce in printed form or on screen. In class, we often talk about the importance of maintaining detail in the shadows – a visit to the Brandt exhibition shows you exactly what that can look like.

Friday, May 31, 2013

AIPAD New York

Some personal favorites from AIPAD New York, back in April. Looking forward to seeing the controversial Arne Svenson exhibit at Julie Saul this weekend.

Ayano Sudo at Picture Photo Space

Ayano Sudo at Picture Photo Space

Alec Soth (left) and Vera Lutter (right) at Weinstein Gallery

Vera Lutter at Weinstein Gallery

Arne Svenson at Julie Saul

Damion Berger at Lisa Sette

Damion Berger at Lisa Sette

Monday, May 6, 2013

Photograms That Aren't: Thomas Ruff at David Zwirner

David Zwirner recently showed two series of images by German photographer Thomas Ruff.  One set is derived from data gathered by satellites of the surface of Mars and relayed back to Earth. Ruff’s ma.r.s. photographs are appropriated from NASA’s website, then manipulated. Ruff adds color and enhances the texture and detail, so that the end result is a hybrid of photographic description and the artist’s imagination. The second body of work is called photograms. This work has been compared to that of Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. As someone who at times works with direct photography, I was curious to see these impressively large and refined images in person.

Thomas Ruff's installation at David Zwirner

Despite the title, they aren’t actually photograms. What Ruff has done is utilize a software program which replicates the projected path of light as it interacts with virtual objects. To the effect: if I put this virtual sphere here and this ribbon form there, and the light source is here, how would the light reflect, refract and bounce around those objects? Where would the shadows be cast? What if I move the light source here instead? All this is calculated with a few clicks of the mouse.

The better description then, is that these are simulated photograms. For a while, I wondered if the fact that these images are the result of a mathematical model rather than a physical interaction mattered. In theory, Ruff’s method permits a degree of complexity that would be very difficult to achieve working with physical objects. And because the images are digitally printed, he is free of the size limitations that usually – although not always -- constrain darkroom experimentation. And they are beautiful to look at.

Photogram by Man Ray

Photogram by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy

Thomas Ruff, photogram series

To the extent that these images are taken at face value as photograms, something is missing in Ruff's process: in effect, we have the end without the middle. The wonderful aspect of the photogram is you never know exactly how it is going to turn out. Results exists at the intersection of chance and control. Given any set up, there is of course a predictable range of possible outcomes, which you learn once you’ve tinkered around a bit. But in practice one often works without being able to predict a specific outcome. And, as anyone who has engaged in the practice will tell you, a good part of the work is to come up with a process that  will produce interesting images. A traditional photogram embodies an engagement with process, something which seems short-circuited in Ruff's work

Thomas Ruff, photogram series
Thomas Ruff, photogram series

I suppose one could argue that Ruff's photograms are really no different than a computer-generated dinosaur, an extension of what the special effects industry already does in film and television to a somewhat obscure photographic practice.  At worst, what we end up with is a sophisticated, cool, and tasteful form of computer illustration. For some, the degree of detachment and immateriality in this work may in fact be its charm. 

For another perspective, there’s an interesting discussion of the exhibition at the DLK Collection blog.  One point made in that discussion is that the size of this work is unprecedented. Compared to other forms of enlarged photography -- Gursky as one example, but there is a very very long list -- this is simply not true. I actually see the size as introducing a few problems. I assume that Ruff's intention is for the experience of looking at the prints to be immersive. Unfortunately, as the viewer moves closer to the work, the Plexiglas to which the prints are mounted generate enough reflections that it is very hard not to be aware of the surface of the Plexi and, then, what is behind you in the gallery. Another, more significant, disappointing aspect of the size is that when you do move closer, there is nothing more to see. In other words, no finer structure or detail or new perspective that was unavailable from further back. The size gives you nothing in terms of scale. (The ma.r.s. images, do in fact have that more, so the experience of part and whole is much richer in that series, although I don't find the ma.r.s. pictures as interesting visually as the photograms.)

Thomas Ruff, ma.r.s. series

There are lots of artists mining and re-presenting historically accepted forms. There are lots of artists scouring the internet for source material: from google maps to porn to all kinds of everyday applications of photography. In general, this seems like a quite reasonable, if somewhat obvious, thing to do. Ruff is one of the more facile and elegant of the recycler/mediators. What is missing is some reflexivity: what is the nature and effect of all this mediation? And what is its connection to how we live now?

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Grammar of Photography: Learning to See

In order to make interesting photographs, two things are necessary. The first is that you need to have a point of view: observations that are out of the ordinary, an identification of a noteworthy subject or an insightful engagement with your subject. The second is that you need to be able to express what you observe in a visual form. Often I hear photographers who are just starting out explain with words what they should be showing in their pictures. This indicates that they have yet to master how photographs communicate.

All images speak through light, color and the arrangement of forms, and photographs are no exception. A painter's problem is to create meaning and order starting with a blank canvas. Photographers generally face a different kind of problem. We need to find meaning and order within a world which already exists.

If you want to better understand how to communicate through your photographs, I suggest that you begin by reading and internalizing the ideas in a book by John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye.  Szarkowski’s thesis is that every form of expression has its own set of problems to be solved in order to communicate effectively through that medium.

Garry Winogrand

For the photographer – where do I stand? when do I press the shutter? how do I arrange the subject within the viewfinder? – are questions answered every time a photograph is taken. These answers form a grammar of photography. As we answer with greater specificity, our images say more. A photograph tells a story because the photographer stood here rather than there, pressed the shutter at this particular moment, or focused on the telling detail which symbolizes what cannot be shown within the frame. 

Garry Winogrand, from The Nature of Photographs

Roger Fenton, from The Photographer's Eye

Second, learn about the principles of composition.  Any primer on visual literacy will be useful, but avoid adhering to rules. Learn general principles, but don't apply them rigidly. Your sense of composition is an extension of the way you see and will develop over time. It need not be the same as anyone else's.

Third, read Stephen Shore’s The Nature of Photographs. The Nature of Photographs identifies some of the same problems-to-be-solved as The Photographer’s Eye. Shore’s approach emphasizes the viewer’s interaction with the photograph after it is made while Szarkowski stresses the photographer’s decisions in making the image. Of course, one approach feeds off the other. One of Shore's key points is that the time we spend looking at photographs – becoming aware of what we notice and experience while looking  – eventually effects what we see and how we shoot.  

Thomas Annan, from The Nature of Photographs

Photographs reproduce a three dimensional world in a two dimensional form. The transformation of space is an often overlooked aspect of the grammar of photography. In The Nature of Photographs, Shore gives a very nuanced description about how space in a photograph is perceived. Through the examples in The Nature of Photographs, you will begin to see how he sees, and that very likely will change what you see when you look at your own photographs. 

Shore's style of writing is elegant but sparse, often pointing the reader in a direction and then offering a series of images to expand upon the idea rather than offering a verbal explanation. Like The Photographer's Eye, The Nature of Photographs is the type of book that bears reading more than once to fully absorb its contents. 

William Eggleston, from The Nature of Photographs

In terms of continuing one's education as a photographer beyond learning technique, one needs to learn to see within a photographic framework. In developing our personal point of view, it helps to first be aware of the problems and possibilities as outlined by others. Eventually, we all come to see in our own way. Engagement with the ideas in Photographer's Eye and The Nature of Photographs is a good first step towards that goal.