‘Look again at Henri Cartier Bresson’s photograph ‘Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare’. Is there a single element in the image that you could say is the pivotal ‘point’ to which the eye returns again and again? What information does this ‘point’ contain?
I have seen this image many, many times. Sometimes in the context of art book collections, sometimes accidentally on an internet article feed and sometimes through directly seeking it out. In reflecting my own perceptions of this photograph and can say with complete conviction that my eye is mostly drawn to the leaping man in silhouette and his reflection. This for me is the pivotal point of the picture. But why is this and what information does it convey? The man is in the foreground and takes up a large part of the frame. We also see him twice due to the reflection in the puddle. Despite the fact that the figure is in silhouette, the edges are sharp – giving him prominence within the frame again. So what information does this pivotal point convey? The man is in a hurry and taking on the wetness underfoot in an energetic, somewhat careless way. We see no splashes but the area is covered in water. This is a very ‘decisive’ moment captured as the man takes a leap and this frozen moment in time suggests multiple narrative possibilities due to the context within the frame. Is he late for a train, running to avoid the rain, leaping to avoid the puddles, on his way home? This is where we can see the importance of considering internal context, external context and original context.
‘Photographers…are in pursuit of possibilities that are still unexplored in the camera’s programme, in pursuit of informative, improbable images that have not been seen before.’ (Flusser, 2000, p37)
In considering the camera as a tool for recording information as well as exposing information that is not always seen with the naked eye or in a single, fleeting moment.
Rinko Kawauchi – Illuminance (2001)
So in considering the effect for accurate exposure when recording an image with a photo, we would usually want to ensure that we weren’t under or over exposing to ensure the optimum amount of detail is included to when wanting to convey information about the captured moment effectively. So what information is being conveyed in the image used on the front cover of Kawauchi’s Illuminance. Here light and exposure to it is being used in a way that makes to viewer use its previous image knowledge to interpret the picture. Our perception here tells us this is a rose with a moon in the background and various foliage in the midground. The use of over exposure also adds a painterly aspect to the frame. This image underlines the relevance of considering what the viewer is bringing to the table in terms of placing an image in the context of their previous knowledge.
Select an image by a photographer of your choice and take a photograph in response to it.
Throughout the course I have found myself even more drawn to the effect created by long exposure in creating movement within an image. In exploring Doisneau’s images I discovered this excellent use of contrast in isolating a moment of passion by juxtaposing the stillness of the central figures with the movement of city life around them.
I began by heading out into the busy city to explore the techniques required. With my fstop on 22 and iso set to 100 I was pleased with how easy it was to capture the ghosts/blurs. As can be seen from my experiments the challenge was ensuring the central focal point the image is clear and sharp.
It is this contrast between the sharp focus of the central figure, and the blur of the people in motion that I wanted to emulate in response to Doisneau’s image. So does my response apply Barratt’s internal, external or original context? In the first instance I was initially drawn to the aesthetics within the monochrome and how well the eye was drawn to the central figures. This would suggest an application of the internal context and the information within the picture. My mind on the shoot was on finding a very static individual to place mid-frame who was surrounded by moving crowds. The internal context could be a common link in creating a photograph as an homage to another’s work, as it is using what the eye sees to recreate an image. In understanding the technical processes required to create such an image, eg exposure requirements, it could also be said that there are some links to original context. This is also relevant in terms of researching a photograph and therefore having information related to the photographer’s purpose in taking the shot, as well as the geographical placing.
Homage to Bernd and Hilla Becher
I am a huge fan of the work of Bernd and Hilla, particularly their industrial photography. A few years ago a friend asked me to take photographs of all the places she had lived in London. It was a really fun project. We spent a few days revisiting all her old neighbourhoods, eating cake and drinking coffee in her favourite cafes from the past. In taking the shots I found myself using the Becher approach as a reference.
A response to Terry Barrett’s ‘Photographs and Context’
‘Barrett suggests that we interpret pictures according to three different types of information: information in the picture, information the surrounding the picture and information about the way the picture was made. He calls these the internal context, the external context and the original context.’ (OCA course guidance – sept 2014)
In Barratt’s essay on context he uses the example of five different uses, or applied contexts, that a single photograph taken by Robert Doisneau was subjected too. By examining how differently these five contexts result in five diverse interpretations, we can begin to understand the importance of context when approaching capturing an experience. The image in question was a couple enjoying a bottle of wine in a Paris cafe. Doisneau took many similar photos and asked permission of the couple to use the photo. It was published as part of a collection on Paris in the magazine Le Point. The photo then went on to be used in several other contexts without the photographer’s permission. These included a brochure on the evils of alcohol abuse and a french Scandal sheet with the caption ‘Prostitution in the Champs Elysees’. A further two appearances of the image were in the publication ‘Looking at Photographs – 100 pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art’. Within this context there is an essay that references the photo as depicting ‘secret venial sins of ordinary individuals’ reading the picture as ‘a potential seduction’ (Terry Barrett – Photography and Context 1985)
Reflecting on this example personally, and at a very basic level, the meaning conveyed by a single image can be changed dramatically by captioning it with different texts. In fact throughout the much of Barratt’s essay I would add that text seems to play a significant part in adding context to the images he identifies. There is an argument here that within photography the image alone should create the context for the picture, whether this is through the visual context within the frame, or through the artistic use of light and composition and palette and pov etc, or through the empathy created by the relationship between the photographer and the subject matter.
This is where the relevance of Barratt’s three forms of interpreting a picture seems more relevant, in an absence of contextual text. This refers to his three approaches to interpreting a picture: internal, external and original. The internal would relate to the information given in terms of date taken, the actual image and its title, and the photographer. The external refers to the pictures presentational environment. The original refers the the causal environment what was apparent to the photographer in relation to the physical and psychological aspects at the time of taking the picture.
An age old saying springs to mind when identifying how much context can change the meaning of a photo. This is ‘The camera never lies’. As the photographer there is also a distance that I find myself discovering over and over and this is between the actual intent at the beginning of a shoot, and the actual accidental image that is reached. The journey that an image takes after the point of publication is then down to individual’s interpretation and/or borrowed or falsely applied contexts.
Brief – Use your camera as a measuring device – find a subject that you have an empathy with and take a sequence of shots to ‘explore the distance between you’.
I was having a birthday lunch with my ex-boyfriend’s daughter. We are close but rarely get to see each other now – living 100 miles apart. But what is reassuring when we do meet up is the immediate intimacy and connection. The shots are intended to demonstrate the ease in which candid and intimate shots can be taken with barely a break in the conversation over lunch and catch up.
‘Look critically at the work you did by including what you didn’t mean to do. Include the mistake, or your unconcious, or whatever you want to call it, and analyse it not from the point of view of your intention, but because its there.’ (Alexia Clorinda)