Category Archives: Photographers

Vanessa Puntener – Traum Alp

Vanessa Püntener is a Swiss photographer who my tutor recommended me to research as an example of an artist who really manages to capture a sense of place in her Photographs. I was something of a challenge to do too much research on her because there appears to be very little written about her in English and my German is very poor. Although perhaps in some ways the lack of material to read means that I really had to focus on her work. Rather than try to review all the theatre, portrait and documentary work on her website (http://www.vanessapuentener.ch) I focused her documentary work (or story) Traum Alp. Literally the title translates to Dream Alp (or perhaps Dream Mountain and the work focuses on people living and working on Alpine pastures during the grazing season (roughly May to October).

Püntener’s work in Traum Alp was included in a book of the same title (https://www.amazon.de/Traum-Alp-%C3%84lplerinnen-im-Portr%C3%A4t/dp/3858695572)  which she produced with Daniela Schwegler. The book focuses on the lives of fifteen women between 20 and 75 years old who spend their summers high in the alps living and working without many of the luxuries people take for granted today.

 

 

The first picture I have selected is on the book cover in a very cropped form that I assume was dictated by the book format. To me the original picture below  really tells the story behind the book; a young woman tending to a cow lying in a pasture that is flecked with Alpine flowers with more mountains in the distance. Whereas the cropped version of the book cover misses out the Alpine meadow and other cows in the background thus not really telling the story as well as the original.

The second picture has a similar style, a woman tending her pigs high in the mountains, again looking deeply into the frame there are flowering Alpines among the lush looking grass growing between the rocks. Again there is a bright blue sky and mountains still with traces of snow on them in the distance.

The third picture captures the essence of a mountain hamlet in the early morning mist which captures a sense of the isolation of these small farming communities high in the Alps. There is what looks like a 4×4 next to the nearest house but no sign of satellite disks, TV aerials or phone lines.

A person, I assume a woman working with her dog to move a heard of cows, initially there is little to identify this as an Alpine scene but on closer inspection all the cows have tradition bells around their necks. This is clearly not a warm sunny day from the lack of shadows and the way the figure is dressed and thus talks to the harshness of the mountain life compared  to that of town or city dwellers.

This next photograph really emphasises the idea of families being together working these Alpine farms here the mother and son stare lovingly at each other while the mother milks the cow. Both figures and the cows are in a dark building that appears to be only illuminated by a single window. While this picture in isolation doesn’t have much to locate it in the Alps as part of a series of pictures about the people working the Alpine meadows in summer it really captures the sense of togetherness and family life  in what is a fairly harsh environment.

Another interior shot this time traditional cheese making, like the previous picture this captures something of the timelessness of the work on these small farms without anything to really tie it to a place independently of its inclusion in a series or work.

Finally, a portrait, I really like the expression of happiness which apparently is the result of what she is looking at outside the right-hand side of the frame. Perhaps she is looking at her child or someone telling a joke. Whatever is causing the smile the overall impression is of someone who is happy in their work even though it may be physically hard in an environment that would be alien to most people today.

I really like these pictures and the way that together they tell the story of a landscape and the way of life of people working it that has changed little over many years. However, it does also emphasise on big social change, the bulk of the people working the land are now women whereas in the past men would have dominated the workforce.  Perhaps the book addresses this change but I cannot read enough German to verify that. However, I suspect the reality is that working the high Alpine pasture is no a labour of love, the dream in the title, rather than a job that alone can sustain a family.

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Philip-Lorca diCorcia

Philip-Lorca diCorica first came to prominence in the late 1970s when he started creating carefully staged tableaux using family and friends to create pictures that were intended to make the viewer think they were spontaneous shots of someone’s everyday life. He continued this work over a period of three decades before it was published in 2003 under the name “A Story Book Life”. The picture below of the woman ironing is fairly typical example of this work. It initially has the appearance of a spontaneous shot of everyday life but on further examination it becomes clearer that it is a carefully staged and lit fiction.  The work is a cross between documentary and advertising photography having subject matter more common in the documentary world mixed with the staging and styling used in the advertising world.

In the early 1990’s diCoricia worked on a series of work called Hustlers where he created portraits of rent boys in the US. At the time there was some controversy around this work because diCorcia had paid his subjects to photography them. In fact diCorcia paid his subjects the same hourly rate they charged for sex although in interviews since he has said that he believed that many of them charged him more than their rate. The picture below of “Brent from Des Monies” has characteristics that are common in this work, the portrait is taken a night against the backdrop of a motel, giving it a slightly seedy look and the figures often seem to pose in a relatively feminine way.

Following on from the publication of A Story Book Life diCoricia travelled the world photographing people in urban environments in this work he would hide lights which would illuminate a random subject picking them out from the crowd. The picture below taken in Tokyo is a typical example from this phase of his work which he called “Street Work”. The salaryman carrying is lunch in a paper bag in the foreground is caught in diCoricia’s light and thus really stands out from the other figures around him. As is typical of many of this series of pictures the figure also appears expressionless and really detached from the people around him. It is really quite surprising that the people in this series of work seem to be unaware or purposely ignoring what must have been bright lights.

In the early 2000s diCoricia created a body of work call “Lucky 13” that featured pole dancers hanging upside down. He has said in interviews that this work was created in reaction to the events of 9/11 with the upside and falling symbolising the people who jumped from the 80th floor of the World Trade Center. The picture below “Ephihany” illustrates the theme of falling from this work, it is hard to believe that the woman is not actually falling but effectively walking on the ceiling holding herself in place with the pressure of her thigh against the pole.

Heads where diCoricia hung a flash light in scaffolding in Times Square in New York and set up a hidden camera to capture images of people illuminated by the light.  The light was setup very carefully and gives the images diCorcia’s trademark cinematic or advertising feel while leaving the background pitch black. The pictures in the heads series are fascinating, to an extent banal and quite stunning. They show ordinary people going about their everyday lives with no knowledge that they have been photographed.

Head #10 below is one of photographs diCoricia included in the series it is a very well-lit portrait of what looks like a sulky teenager with an expression that seems so natural. It is hard to believe that a picture like this was taken at random although it is equally hard to image such a natural look be achieved in a posed shoot. However, as diCoricia took more than 4000 photographs with this setup over a period of two years and only published seventeen it is clear that while a random approach like this can create great pictures the success rate is fairly low.

Finally in recent year diCoricia has worked on a project called “East of Eden” in which he focuses on themes of banality and decay in modern life. diCoricia has said that this work was “provoked by the collapse of everything, which seems to me to be a loss of innocence. People thought they could have everything. And then it just blew up in their faces”.

The series of work started as a reaction to the crash in 2008 and includes images like the one below that shows a woman in what we must assume is a luxury hotel room staring across a harbour at major city (maybe New York?) while in the corner and ignored television shows a tornado or giant water spout that is presumably wreak havoc elsewhere in the world.

Another image in the series “The Hamptons” features too dogs caught on camera as they apparently gaze at a television showing a pornographic film. While this is an obviously comic and preposterous scene it does project a message that today wester society can corrupt anything.

Throughout his work diCoricia has concentrated on capturing the ordinary but presenting it in an extraordinary way from his early work in A storybook Life” through to his more recent work in “East of Eden” he has created carefully presented tableaux which have a very cinematic feel that make the view think they are looking through stills from a film.  Even when he is creating more candid photographs in “Heads” or “Street work” he still has  worked hard to retain this cinematic feel through very cleaver if unobtrusive lighting.

Paul Strand

When Paul Strand initially developed as a photographer around 1910 he followed the prevailing Pictorialist style. He developed a deep knowledge of the image manipulations techniques of Pictorialism and experimented with soft focus lenses and diffused light to give his pictures a painting like quality. His early pictorialist work is often ignored and it remains quite hard to find examples of this early work. Strand’s best known work started after he met Alfred Steglitz around 1915. Under Steglitz influence Strand started to follow the new style call Straight Photography.  Instead of using the many image manipulation techniques made popular by pictorialism straight photography was concerned with the production of images that were sharp, detailed and captured reality. At the same time as adopting this new approach Strand also because interested in ‘abstraction’ driven by his interest in the work of cubist painters. Stand’s view of abstraction was rather different from today’s interpretation of the word, he was primarily interested in including bold geometric shapes in his pictures.

Perhaps Strand’s best known work is his picture of Wall Street taken in 1915 where the huge architectural features of the J.P. Morgan bank dwarf the scattered commuters as they appear to rush to work. In some ways. This image can be interpreted as an early commentary on the domination of people by big businesses and in this sense is part of the political activism Strand practised throughout his life.

Another example of Strand’s ‘abstract’ work is “White Fence, Port Kent, New York” shown below. This picture was taken in 1916 the perspective has been flattened making the two buildings in the back ground appear two dimensional while the picket fence slices across the image dominating the frame.

As well as these abstract images, around 1915 Strand also started taking street portraits in New York using a camera with a decoy lens which he would point at one subject while taking a portrait of another. One of the most famous of these pictures is the blind woman who is standing against the wall with a sign around her neck saying blind and a New York peddlers license pined to her coat above it. Strand saw this and the other street portraits he took around this time as illustrating struggles and poverty of many residents of the city.

Later in his career Paul Strand took many portraits of people with their knowledge but somehow these are quire reminiscent of hiss earlier street portraits. The picture below of the boy from Gondeville in France taken in 1952. The boy seems to be staring almost cross eyed at the camera perhaps resentful about the time it was taking Strand to get the portrait he wanted. This picture seems to be almost a precursor to the later work that Richard Avedon made in the Western USA some twenty years later.

Another well known portrait from this period of Strand’s life is the one below of the Mayor of Luzzara in Italy which was taken in 1953. Again, this portrait shows a figure who seems at best wary of the photographer and perhaps becoming irritated. Another way to interpret it is that the mayor is projecting his importance presenting himself almost as the local mafioso.

Paul Strand is regarded as one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century he defined the path for modernism in photography and sowed the seeds of the way documentary photography is practised today. He played a key role in establishing photography as an art form. Throughout his life he practised portrait, still life and abstract photography.

Irving Penn Portraits

Irving Penn along with Richard Avedon is often credited with revolutionising portrait and fashion photography in the 1940s. However, unlike Avedon Penn’s portraits tend to more restrained letting the subjects speak for themselves rather than Avedon’s much harsher and sometimes almost cruel portraits. Penn was also one of the first photographers to pose his subjects  against plain white or grey backgrounds. Penn’s  fashion work moved away from the idea of showing clothes in luxiouous surrounds instead focusing on them  as shapes in silhouette.

Some of Penn’s most famous portraits are those where he posed famous people between two plain walls that formed a V shape. Looking through these portraits it is interesting so see how people reacted to the confined space. For example in the portrait below the author Truman Capote looks really intimated by the space:

Whereas the film star Spencer Tracy below seems to grow to dominate the space

Against a similar background made from three angled boards Salvador Dali completely dominates the frame. Looking at this portrait have the impression that whatever the background and the photographer’s intent Dali was going to project the image he wanted to.

When Penn does include more background in his portrait work there is often a surreal quality to the pictures. For example, the famous portrait of Cecil Beaton in front of what would even in the 1940s be regarded as a large ungainly camera with a female nude draped over it. This portrait has obviously been very carefully staged with the line from Beaton’s right hand, through is head to the camera and the corresponding angled lighting on the floor giving a real sense of depth ensure that Beaton remains the obvious subject of the picture.

Beaton

Compared to the photographers of the 20s and 30s Penn’s work is very different. For example the work of Edward Steichen in the 20s or Horst P Horst in the 30s has subjects captured in very ornate surroundings adopting very classic or perhaps art nouveau style poses. In the post war world of Penn and Avedon all that classicism has gone.

Jane Bown

Jane Bown work as a photographer for the Observer Newspaper for more than sixty years in that time she took thousands of portraits of politicians, religious leaders, actors, musicians and other celebrities for the paper.

One of her most famous pictures is the one of the playwright Samuel Beckett below not only is this a great, some say the best, portrait of Beckett. It was taken outside the stage door of the Royal Court Theater. This was the third of five pictures that Beckett allowed to be taken and it is a testament to her skill that in difficult light she was able to get such a good picture is such a short time.

samualbeckett

Jane Bown was quoted as say “Some people take pictures, I find them. These pictures are the real me.” Her style was to wait and look maneuvering herself around the subject, framing different images and then suddenly she would see the picture she wanted. The picture of Mick Jagger below is a result of Bown waiting for the right moment because it was taken towards the end of what for Bown was a very long shoot.

jagger

Bown was renowned for always shooting in black and white and using whatever light was available. She never used flash or complex studio light there are stories that should would carry a 150 watt bulb in her bag that she could put in a subjects desk lamp if necessary. It it was very dark she sometime took an angle poise lamp with her for a shoot. From the 1960s onwards she would use a 35mm SLR, often with an 85mm lens using a shutter speed of 1/60 and a wide apature. She didn’t use a light meter and usually judged the exposure based on the light on the back of her hand.

Jane Bown portraits have some similar characteristics based on her technique they usually very shallow depth of field even to the extent of only one of the subjects eyes being in focus as in the picture of Maya Angelou. Also because she generally used available light and avoided strong sunlight the lighting tends to be soft with no pronounced shadows although as she is generally using one light source like a window there is usually one side of the face that is much darker than the other.

mayaOne of Bown strengths was that she could take a good portrait wherever the subject was in the street, in their home effectively against any background the picture below show Beryl Bainbridge the author with her cat.

beryl

It is said that Bown never research her subjects before photographing them she would just arrive with a  reporter and usually spend  at most 10-15 minutes talking picture. For most subjects she would use about half a roll of film. If she took more pictures it usually indicated that she was struggling to get what she regarded as a good image. The last picture here is Bown’s well know picture of Bjork this was taken at the end of a shoot indeed there is a story that once she had taken this picture eh shoot was over because Bown realalised this was the image she had been looking for.

bork

Looking at Jane Bown’s work there is a quoute by Lord Snowden who describes her as “a kind of English Cartier-Bresson” who produced “photography at its best. She doesn’t rely on tricks or gimmicks, just simple, honest recording, but with a shrewd and intelligent eye”

Richard Avedon

From the time, he started working in the mid-20th Century Richard Avedon is credited with being at the forefront of a revolution in both fashion and portrait photography. When in the 1950s Avedon did not conform to the accepted approach to fashion photography he did use the stylised art deco poses where models stood in a studio looking emotionless and indifferent to the camera. Instead he created pictures of models full of emotion, smiling, laughing, and often moving in outdoor locations. Picture like the one below were considered revolutionary at the time.

fashion

In this early work, Avedon mainly used soft natural light again breaking with the convention at the time which was to use quite harsh studio lights or flash that cast pronounced shadows. Although later in the 1950’s Avedon did move to use flash. When comparing Avedon’s fashion work to earlier artists like Steichen or Horst his different approach is clear for example the picture on the left below by Steichen and the one on the right by Horst both show very rigid formal poses when compare to the work of Avedon above. To some extent advances in technology (faster emulsions et) enabled Avedon’s new approach but even without the technological advances is injection of emotion into the fashion world would have been a revolution.

steichenandhorst

As Avedon developed hi style he pushed his models further into environments that they often found uncomfortable for example the famous shot “Dovima with the Elephants” where the model Dorothy Juba (bets known as Dorvima is pictured in a Dior dress with two circus elephants.

made from the engraver, 3/23/05, 5:04 PM, 16G, 5890x7386 (108+408), 100%, Hujar 91604, 1/120 s, R72.7, G57.1, B79.7

 

Although Avedon’s career started with fashion photography as he became more established he became increasing interested in photographing the movers and shakers of the American social and political scenes. Many of Avedon’s portraits depict some of the most famous politicians, actors, actresses, artists, and writers of the later part of the 20th century. He was always interested in how portraiture captured the personality and perhaps the soul of its subject. In every portrait, he tried to capture this subject stripped of the Hollywood or political bravado instead aiming to represent basic human emotions.

Avedon often put his subjects under psychological pressure to generate reactions and get the picture he wanted, he was famously quoted as saying “There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth”.  In his portrait work he very much decided on the picture he wanted and then tried to manipulate his subjects to get it. His picture of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor below is a classic example of his approach, these are two people who were very used to being photographed and who were well versed in putting on an act for the Camera. The story goes that to get this picture Avedon who knew the couple were great dog lovers told them that he had seen a dog being killed by a car on his way to the shoot and this is what give the rather shocked and uncomfortable image.

windsor

Many people though Avedon could be cruel in the way he portrayed his subjects he was criticised for the way he portrayed some of his subjects. He created strong portraits of elderly people that didn’t add any gloss to their condition the most infamous portraits in this style were those he took of his father in his last days. These like the one below are in many ways a brutal comment on getting old.

father

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Avedon toured the American West creating images of everyday working people again when this work was first shown he received criticism for being voyeuristic and exploiting his subjects. There was also a view that how could a photographer from the rich world of New York visit the west and capture true images of the hardship and suffering of the working class.

When they were exhibit Avedon’s pictures from the American West were printed life size of larger and in some cases seeing themselves portrayed in this way had a profound effect on the subjects. Perhaps the most often quoted example is that of  Billy Mudd  (shown below) a drifter and truck driver who was so affected by what he saw in his portrait that he returned to his family and turned his life around.

billymudd

To finish with I have selected Avedon’s portrait of Maryilin Monroe looking like a lost little girl rather than the very confident star she is usually portrayed as. The story is that this is a shot that Avedon captured at the end of a long shoot when Monroe was exhausted after putting on her ‘act’ for so long. There are other pictures from early in this shoot that seem to indicate that this could be true.

marylin

In researching this post I have become fascinated by Avedon’s work what I find  most interesting is the way he manipulated, perhaps even dominated his subject to get an image that he wanted rather than the one they wished to project.