Walker Evans – “Depth of Field”

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Vancouver Art Gallery #1; © Ian Poole, Canada, 2017.

In my thought processes, the photographic output of Walker Evans (1903-75) was over-shadowed by the mid twentieth century photographers Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander;  the Farm Security Administration (FSA) members like Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Gordon Parks.  Whilst Australian heroes in Dr Michael Coyne and Tim Page piqued my visual interest.  The paucity of names on this list is a clear indication of my lack of knowledge of the genre.

Today I expanded that knowledge by a quantum of 100%!  Whilst others in my travel group were heading to Whistler for skiing – I was aiming to catch the final days of this block buster exhibition Walker Evans – Depth of Field at the Vancouver Art Gallery.  I was not disappointed.  Gathered with the skill that only a good curator possesses, from a multitude of sources, this exhibition documented some of Evans earliest work right through to his late output using Polaroid materials.  Colour even!

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Road Side Stand near Birmingham Alabama, 1936; © Walker Evans

I got to see personal favourites (the old reliable house mover) and discovered many new and ironic photographs (damaged).

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Truck and Sign; © Walker Evans, 1929-30.

These further fed my interest.  Of the monochrome photographs, there was a delightful mix of gelatin silver prints (both vintage and later printed) and ink jet.  The difference of printing techniques was never a consideration, such was the quality of both old and new.  The viewer concentrated on content not on technique.  I suspect even Evans would have approved.

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Robert Frank’s Stove, Cape Breton Island; © Walker Evans, 1971

Another intriguing find was a photograph of Robert Frank’s stove.  Such a personal insight into Frank’s personal space seems to indicate that the two great photographers had a knowledge of each other (albeit late in Evan’s life).

Evans trip to Cuba produced some delightful photographs including another of my personal favourites.  It was a joy to see three variants, including a large inkjet print, all side by side for the viewer’s pleasure.

Such curatorship is wonderful when it is carefully crafted to seduce and educate the viewer.

 

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Citizen of Downtown Havana; © Walker Evans, 1933

A pleasant gallery interlude and totally worth a trip around the world to view.  Thank you Vancouver Art Gallery.

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Vancouver Art Gallery #2; © Ian Poole, Canada, 2017.

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Vancouver Art Gallery #3; © Ian Poole, Canada 2017.


 

 

 

 

Previsualisation

A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera…’ – Dorothea Lange

How could an early twentieth-century photographer be so aware and conscious of the power of photography without possessing any of the knowledge we now have at our fingertips, in our case thanks largely to the information age of the internet?

Lange was from that famous school of American documentary photographers during the early twentieth century which included, amongst many others, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, James Nachtwey, W. Eugene Smith, Nan Goldin and Mary Ellen Mark.

Seeing without a camera is also described as pre-visualisation. Ansel Adams was a great proponent of getting the image clear in his head before exposing a sheet of film.  There might have been monetary constraints behind such a process, but I like to think it was then, and still is now, all about searching and finding the photograph before letting the camera perform its very mechanical and technical thing, the job of making an exposure.

At this time of the year when the photography calendar has started with the WPPI convention in Las Vegas now completed, the various Australian state professional awards commenced, nominations for entries into the New Zealand professional awards having been called, and mumblings already starting about the Australian awards later in the year; discussion is rife about creativity, and the creation of great photographs.

Whilst some photographers maintain that a good photograph can be created via careful post-production of an image (either digitally or in the darkroom) I am strongly of the opinion that great images have their genesis in a process involving careful thought.  That superb reaction shot taken by a wedding or documentary photographer is more than just the tangible evidence of good reflexes, it is the sum total of years of experience, of getting into the right position, of thinking about new angles or approaches and having the presence of mind to be ready for the unexpected.  Luck plays very little part in it.

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Migrant Mother; © Dorothea Lange, 1936

The power of Lange’s photographs is as strong and compelling today as they were when she worked for the US Farm Security Administration and created the iconic photograph, Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936).  This image has little to do with technique and a lot to do with the gentle but determined desire of the photographer to observe and then capture a scene that she felt needed to be seen by a wider audience.

The focal length of her lens, her choice of film type, or the length of time it spent in the developer are rendered irrelevant by the choice of angle, the humanity contained in the eyes of the subject, a poverty-stricken mother, and the fact that her children, huddled in their tent do not make face contact with the camera.  Their eyes are unseen.  The power of the back story to this photo is compelling but it is the photo that takes you to that place in an unwavering way.

Whilst I now own up to looking for more books about photographs than I do for books of photographs, it was through my early career period spent studying photographs that I started preparing my eyes for seeing without a camera.  This was a difficult period because I was hooked on the mechanical process of creating photographs.

A period of time we all must pass through in order to reach the other side, I hasten to add!

But it slowly dawned on me (cheerfully admitting to being one of the world’s tardiest learners) that the content, the construction, and the creation of the photograph was more important than the delivery of the image.

This applies equally to the commercial image sold for money, and the fine art print created for aesthetic and stylish reasons.

The brain behind the eye behind the viewfinder is more powerful than any of the metrics we use to measure the calibre, quality or resolving power of the lens.

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Outside Portrait Gallery; © Ian Poole, London, 2016.


Screen Shot 2016-04-30 at 6.10.45 pmThis essay first appeared in f11 Magazine :: for PHOTOGRAPHERS and AFICIONADOSp156, issue 53 :: April, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 


 

Simple Documentary Photography can be Powerful

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Apartment Interior, Berry Street; © Maris Rusis, 2013.

Apart from being a cluttered, untidy apartment, probably constructed in the early part of the twenty-first century; this is undoubtedly a fine piece of imagery suitable for future visual archaeology.   Ooh, and it is my apartment – shame, shame, shame.

A visit to my apartment by Tewantin based photographer Maris Rusis, to debate the meaning of photographic life, resulted in a series of documentary photographs being taken.  Firstly Rusis was keen to work with his 37mm Mamiya-Sekor lens, and then try out the newly constructed pop-up portrait studio on my front balcony.

There are many genres of documentary photography, ranging from my heroes of the photographic movement (Mathew Brady, Dorothea Lange, Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, to name just a few personal favourites) through that form of reportage that is losing some support with the demise of magazines specialising in displaying this form, to that which Rusis is a quiet expert.

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Chez Poole, Maris, Ian and Louise; © Maris Rusis, 2013.

Visual archaeology has always had important place in the photographic milieu.  Consider the photographs of Gustave Le Gray – who took his first first daguerreotypes in 1847;   Le Gray’s earliest photographs were of banal and commonplace locations.  As were Robert Frank’s images which went on to become the book The Americans.

Rusis works in a deceptively simple style using analogue black and white materials, self-processed with deliberate care and printed with the skill of the technician that he is.  But it is his deliberate and obsessive attention to detail that will make each and every Rusis photograph a valuable addition to a collection.

On the back of each photograph, Rusis has placed an identifying stamp giving author provenance and usually a descriptor giving context.  It is this attention to detail that places immense value on each and every photograph produced. (…… and for the record the pork, the cabbage and potatoes were just as tasty as the photographs gifted to me).Berry_verso_blog