Sunday, 31 May 2015

These are some images from a series I've been working on depicting parks and public reserves in the Auckland region..

Monday, 13 April 2015

I remember, as a kid, comparing my family's home and yard to those of my schoolmates and neighbours – wondering about things like how our house compared to our neighbours or how we might be perceived to others. Our house was a nice example of a villa, but the front yard was hidden behind a large brown fence that had seen better days, covered in creeper with rocks lining the bottom of it facing the footpath. An old weeping willow in the yard sagged over the fence in one corner. Around the back of the house a thicket of bamboo backed on to our neigbour's section. The whole thing was effective at keeping people from looking in too closely, but it was far from the suburban picket-fence ideal. Eventually things changed – the bamboo came out first, and later the fence was replaced with a much nicer (to my eyes) white version.

Our neigbours properties were slightly different to the norm. The elderly lady who lived next to us had a brick house where she'd probably lived for much of her life. The windows were barred to prevent unlawful entry and it felt like a kind of fear hung over the place. Now, in retrospect it seems entirely reasonable that someone living alone at that age would want to feel protected and be surrounded by familiar old things, but its effect then was that of a strange unease. In complete contrast to it, the section across the road from it was owned by one of Auckland most wealthy residents – a huge piece of land with what seemed me to be a mansion-like house further down a long driveway. The place was shrouded in mystery as the house was barely visible behind acres of well-manicured lawns and a stately entrance-way.

Such memories came to mind as I looked at the work of photographer Gregory Conniff. His photographs from the late '70s and early '80s could be associated with the work from the New Topographics exhibition, but where much of the photography from that show examined the increasingly faceless industrialization of architectural design, or the particularly American vernacular of the suburb, this work is more of a nod towards the simple domestic backyard decisions we make to define the boundaries of our properties – the set of familiar patterns and ornaments surrounding our homes that we adhere to as an unwritten rule. The pictures he makes are structured so that no one element asserts priority and the photos have a shared commonality with the work of Lee Friedlander – and as such, an acknowledgment that the social landscape is a slightly chaotic place governed by societal rules and design choices that have been so ingrained that we barely think of them at all.

The photos offer many familiar recurring motifs. Fences of the chain-link, picket or pale variety collide with each other or overlap large sections of the frame, obscuring the view and breaking up the picture plane. Clothes lines, a volleyball net and power lines criss-cross through the scene and play little visual games with harsh shadows from barren tree branches. Boundaries between properties are blurred by overhanging trees and unkempt hedges. Occasionally nature dominates the frame almost completely and we peer through tangles of branches and leaves that cast deep shadows on to side walls and dark windows.

We construct our houses, gardens and fences from these same natural elements, molded into a sense of order that we accept as a common visual language. To add further emphasis: these are black and white photographs; colour images would deflect attention away from this point. Other artists have worked in similar territory in colour successfully. In some of her '70s conceptual triptychs, Jan Groover photographed well-maintained suburban houses with gardens. Joel Meyerowitz famously worked in the small town of Provincetown, in Cape Cod. Edward Hopper painted houses similar to those shown in Conniff's photos. For each of those artists – even including Groover's more austere conceptualism, colour provides an additional psychological dimension. There is loneliness and melancholy in the cool rooms lit by warm shafts of light in Hopper's paintings. Colour was essential to Meyerowitz's photographs, and Groover was exploring the formal language of photography, something that colour is an intrinsic part of, but rarely recognised in fine art until the 1970s. Conniff's photos are about tonality as much as their subject matter, and they allow each of their elements equal say. Questions about house paint colours and seasonal variations in foliage are cast aside. We are left to address the common fundamentals of nature that bind us together as a community.

Conniff is represented by the Joseph Bellows Gallery, who also represent Wayne Gudmundson, who offers an interesting counterpoint to Conniff's work.

Gudmundson too, is interested in the marks we make on the landscape, but his landscape is that of the developed countryside. Houses are sparsely laid-out, and function dictates form more often than in those of the urban environment. His landscapes are flat, featureless, and where trees are planted, the feeling is that they have been placed there for a specific functional purpose – to provide shelter, or to outline to boundary of a property. The land is vast and the horizons are deep. Agricultural fields and grasslands dominate the scene, interrupted by tire tracks, plowed fields, or roughly-cast roads with ragged edges.

There is a tradition of romanticising the countryside and photographers joke about barn photos being clichés, but the idyllic country landscape has a long history in painting – such as that commonly seen in the works of John Constable. This is the language of the picturesque, incorporating elements of the rustic, and connecting the two elements most commonly seen in this style of painting – that of harmonious beauty and that of the sublime -- further mixed with the weathered grit of everyday man-made life. In Constable's paintings, nature asserts dominance over man and tall trees often tower over scenes of rural domesticity. There is still the sense of vastness commonly associated with the Romantic painters, but he took it in a new direction, and concentrated more on everyday life. He saw beauty in a rural fence or simple farmyard scene. As with many new concepts widely recognised, this eventually fell into the realm of the cliché, where it finally eventually ended up as a basic signpost for a feeling, devoid of any original meaning or intent. This translated into the world of photography – the charm of the “Old Barn” and its modern-day, dystopian version which typically manifests itself in the urban decay of the city or the neglected corporate/industrial facade of a failed enterprise.
Gudmundson avoids these traps however, which is no mean feat considering that the countryside isn't usually a hot-topic for contemporary art. The simple building facades and flat plains in these pictures speak more of a kind of minimalism than a rustic charm. The landscape is pared back to its essentials while still offering productivity. Buildings have empty facades or no apparent windows; they're simple shells for their function. Industry is present, but these aren't the Bechers' silos. The land is carefully cultivated but verging on barren, and any signs of humanity immediately become focal-points for the picture – a power-line, fence-line or traffic sign. These are about traces of activity and small disruptions to the land and offer up quiet reflection rather than heavy-handed critique.

It's interesting going back three decades to the work from the New Topographics exhibition. There were other photographers working in this area that were less well known, but offered work equally as good. A reminder too, that in part, due to limitations of technology, photographs were often smaller then, and as such were more intimate for the viewer to experience. Revisiting some of these less well known photographers shows how fresh that work still is, and how much it differs from the high-sheen large-scale colour photos that have become de rigueur for many photographers working in a similar field these days. Each offers its advantages, but for me, small-scale monochrome photography still shows a freshness and vitality to it whilst remaining contemporary. It'd be nice to see more of it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

There is a scene that opens the documentary Journal de France that many photographers might relate to. Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon has set up his unwieldy 8x10 inch camera to photograph a small building on a street intersection in a French town. The film crew documenting him mimic his camera angle so that the viewer's point of view appears to be approximately that of Depardon's camera. Because he needs a fairly long exposure (one second), and it's a busy street, he needs a little gap in traffic. Every time he is just about to take the photo, someone walks into the shot or a car drives past. He waits and waits, and finally he is ready – just then, an elderly gentleman strolls right across in front of him, ambling very slowly across the street and right through the centre of the frame. Eventually, we hear a click and a whir and Depardon gets his shot.

It's just one of the little oddities about working alone in the field with a large format camera. I read a recent story in Wired's Raw File, where Victoria Sambunaris discussed being stopped repeatedly by law enforcement with her 5x7 inch wooden field camera (while working on a project documenting landscapes and infrastructure). In some ways I can understand the inquisitiveness of police officers and the general public. Setting up a camera, often by yourself, and waiting sometimes hours for the right light or perfect set of conditions could look a little suspicious to someone unfamiliar with that sort of equipment. But as she points out, there are less obvious ways to photograph something, so why would you go to those lengths if you were doing something dodgy? I've also been questioned a number of times over the years, yelled at, looked at with suspicion, or just approached with curiosity. Most of the time it's sorted out fairly quickly but sometimes by the time you've stopped to chat the light has gone, or something has changed, and the moment has been lost.

When I think of great road trips in photography I think about Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, or Joel Sternfeld. Each of them committed serious amounts of time to travelling. Of course it was a different time – people were less suspicious and more open to being photographed without fear of where the photos would end up, or what the purpose was. But they were all ahead of their time and each defied the conventional photographic trends of the period in their own ways.

Raymond Depardon also spent much time on a road trip – travelling alone on a massive project that lasted six years. Journal de France is really a bit like two documentaries in one. In the contemporary part he travels through France photographing buildings in small towns with his 8x10 camera; the sort of places that might seem unremarkable to a developer but have a French quirkiness or sense of history that might be too easily forgotten should they be demolished. The other side of it features footage from his equally interesting documentaries from the '60s and '70s, made on occasion with help from his partner Claudine Nougaret who did the sound recording. I call them documentaries, but they don't have the traditional interview segments that we are normally used to. Instead he became interested in a style known as Direct Cinema. It was also reportage, but radical for the time in that it used techniques that we might associate more with modern “fly-on-the-wall” documentary making. Direct Cinema also helped pioneer the use of hand-held cameras, used tiny crews, and incorporated a loose shooting style that we've come to be very familiar with in shows such as NYPD Blue, The Office and so called single-camera comedies. Reality TV also makes extensive use of these techniques. With current digital video, we take for granted the technical side of such things but it's easy to forget that back in the '60s sound editing and shooting loosely wasn't as easy.

If his films shared some of Reality Television's techniques, the subject matter was far more interesting. Mercenaries, patients in a sanitarium, ambulance drivers. Dispensing with the traditional interview he would just leave the camera on and let people talk amongst themselves -- strange and rarely-heard stories would come out as people became less aware of the camera. Other subjects included workers in public institutions – criminals in the justice system, and politicians talking behind closed doors. Often, he would devote months to a project, sometimes in very trying circumstances.

He made other films documenting people simply walking in the street – films that have a kind of lyrical quality, the camera sometimes following someone for a only few seconds then moving on, reminding me of another film from a similar period F for Fake, where Orson Welles edits a long sequence where he secretly films various mens' reactions as they watch his partner Oja Kodar simply walk down the street (another film that helped pioneer modern editing techniques only to be widely criticised on release but celebrated much later).
In an interview in American Suburb X, Depardon discusses the aspect of being a loner in film-making. He sees it as offering much more freedom. There is the freedom to be able to go where you want without restriction, the freedom to spent more time on a project. Photography is generally considered more of a solitary pursuit and film-making more of a collaborative one – but that could change as news reporting moves out of print and further onto the web. Embedding content from video platforms such as YouTube has opened up new means of storytelling without the traditional time restrictions of TV and radio. The recent (hugely popular) podcast Serial is a good example of long-form journalism taking a different approach (devoting a whole year to a researching a single story told over twelve episodes). As reporters start moving on from the big new agents, perhaps something similar will start to emerge with video-reporting.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

I've been revisiting some of Joel Sternfeld's work recently following the release of a new edition of a book covering his work documenting the High Line in New York.

Some years ago I came across a few images from his series Oxbow Archive, a project that documented slow changes and seasonal variations within a field in Massachusetts. I kept them in mind over the years. The project took place in the mid-2000s when climate change started being heavily covered in the media. It also coincided with a period when documentaries started to become more mainstream, largely thanks to Michael Moore. There was Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 and the same year also the saw the rise of YouTube. So it was an interesting time for photography and documentary making -- perhaps an optimistic time for thinking that photography had the power to bring about change.

Before that project though, in 2000 he began to photograph the abandoned railroad track known as the High Line that ran through a section of Manhattan. The project contained many similarities to Oxbow Archive: a documentation span of about one year, subtle changes in mood and colour, and a concentration of interest in a small area of land. The photos described an area that had been largely reclaimed by nature, untended in the twenty year period since the last train delivered its goods. Wildflowers and grasses had grown up through the tracks -- even fruit trees had begun to flourish there; it had essentially become a meadow. Wild nature existed only 25 feet above busy city streets.

In 1999, a non-profit organisation, Friends of the High Line, was set up to try to help preserve the area with the idea of developing it into park land. The land was valuable; Mayor Giuliani saw it as unsightly, and it was in serious danger of being demolished. Sternfeld's photos were widely seen and used at public meetings where they became a point of reference for what could be done with the land, and more importantly, what would be lost should it be torn down. It was touch and go for quite a few years. On one side, there was a push to demolish and redevelop it. On the other, the newly elected Mayor Bloomberg was an advocate for its preservation. In the end the public and the administration gave its support – the general feeling was that it would be positive for the city. The redesign was done beautifully and I suspect that Sternfeld's photos were an inspiration on the landscape design -- some of the tracks were preserved and grasses were planted to reflect its history as a meadow.

Several other artists contributed to the project. Sarah Sze's grid-like work references the constructed path and the buildings surrounding it and incorporates smaller box-like elements housing birds and insects, which in turn, incorporate themselves into the artwork by extension. Ed Rusha's mural is pretty funny – it's painted hot pink and has a rather droll message which I image would contrast effectively with the lush green, peaceful nature of the surroundings.

A book was published in 2001 from the series, with an updated edition arriving in 2012 – the edition that I saw. The first thing I noticed was that it was smaller than I thought it would be. There's a tradition to making books from large format photography to be oversized (a notable exception – Joel Meyerowitz's “At the Water's Edge”, a tiny collection). Being published by Steidl, it's of a very high quality, but it's not ostentatious at all. The volume is fairly slim, with the final section devoted to essays and a time-line of the history of the line along with a few images such as photos from the early days. As it's titled, the book invites the viewer to imagine walking the length of it, approximately 2.33 km -- sometimes the viewpoint changes only slightly, on occasion only by a few meters. There are pictures with snow and fog, but the overall feeling and colour palette is one of autumnal moodiness; hard sunlight seldom if ever appears. The intense greenery is one of the first things you notice, everything else seems to fade towards desaturated monochrome. Upon closer inspection small items appear in the grasses – a bottle, detritus, a tiny lit-up Christmas tree. The meadow seems to develop its own sense of order. Small dense patches of wildflowers seamlessly merge into thicker areas of wild vegetation. In one image, snow carpets almost all forms of life, with just a few twigs and branches poking out from underneath the blanket. Above all it is solitary. Seen by very few, it was shut-off from any form of legal public access -- Sternfeld was granted special permission to photograph it by the line's owners.

It's rare to find urban planning done much creative originality; this was an exception that brought the right people together at the right time.