In considering some of the photographers referred to in the course materials and looking at this end of chapter research point, it seems an apposite time to reflect on the notion of ‘Expressing Your Vision’.
From my basic understanding of the concept of ‘aesthetic codes’, it would appear that these are central to the way the photographers I will be considering create their own personal vision.
As I continue to search for a ‘personal voice’ in my own work I can, through the course materials so far, see some of the hallmarks of other photographer’s vision.
I also want to consider this idea in the context of the lens work elements of the second section of the course. What I have been doing through the exercises and reading is I believe demonstrating how control space and to some extent where the viewer of a picture looks or is directed to look.
This I can see is controlled to an extent through the settings of focus, aperture, the selection of focal length, focus point, framing all to varying degrees create theat influence exerted on the viewer. I would argue that these area central ideas to the notion expressing a vision. I will need to explore this idea further but at this stage I needed to record this point and my thinking in my blog.
In responding specifically to the research point question I am going to comment on the work of Ansel Adams, Fay Godwin, Mona Kuhn and Gianluca Cosci in the context of my learning to date in the course.
I have been very interested in the work of Adams for many years and I have visited exhibitions of his work in the UK, Europe and the United States. I have had an interest in landscape photography and Adams is a well-known exponent of one of the most technical and aesthetically sophisticated approaches to the genre.
Adams is perhaps best known for his iconic monochrome studies of the American west, although his repertoire of work extended significantly beyond these subjects. As a member of the f64 group (a loose association of west coast photographers in the 1930’s and 40’s who subscribed to a very purist ethic of very sharp, deep depth of field images) his images use a very deep depth of field which I believe invites the viewer to see the whole scene. Viwers can decide themselves where to focus attention. Admas influence is to allow the viewer choice. His aesthetic codes are those of sharpness and realism with everything from the foreground, the mid ground and on to the distance being sharply in focus. There is something epic and monumental in some of his images and the f64 group principles are central to his practice.
His search for clarity and perhaps even truth in the images he made is summed up nicely in a reflection from his autobiography. While on a commercial assignment he describes where the clients, a mining company, were deeply dissatisfied with the images he produced. Adams was asked to take a series of images of the workings of a mine and went about making a number of very high clarity well composed monochrome photographs of the mine and miners at work. When the mine owners saw the proof images they were horrified that the images were so sharp and clear that they unintentionally highlighted the fact that the mining company were illegally using wooden rather than steel roof joists. In his sharp and detailed images, even from a distance his control of tone (his Zone System is for discussion at another time) made the grain of the timber highly visible and blatant in the images. They knew they were breaking the law but they had not thought the photographs would show this. In a strange way Adams commitment to honesty and faithfulness to accuracy exposed the company’s dishonesty.
Adams used a technique called pre visualisation to imagine how the final image would appear and then he exposed the plate or negative in a way that would allow the recreation of his pre visualised image in the darkroom. This technique in parallel to his commitment to a form of realism offer an insight into his motives and thoughts about aesthetics.
All this points to an aesthetic code or set of codes epitomised by the sharp and clear rendition of a scene in which the viewer could choose their points of focus and interest, liberated from any sense of direction by the photographer. I recognize this is a very simplistic description of his work but in understanding aesthetics I am trying to drill down to core principles..
This image above of highlights the deep focus that is a hallmark of Adams work. From the gravel in the foreground to the spire in the distance all is in sharp focus.
Godwin was a British photographer renowned for her monochrome images of the British landscape, she was also highly political, more overtly so than Adams in my opinion.
Godwin has long been associated with the ‘right to roam’ campaigns of the ramblers association and her photographs are seen by some as a central element in the campaign to gain access for walkers and ramblers to the British countryside.
I have always been intrigued by Godwin’s work since I first saw an original copy of her collaboration with the Ted Hughes, ‘The Remains of Elmet’. Her work demonstrates that she not only supported the ‘right to roam’ campaigns but also contains wider political messages about social class, access and a statement about the control of rural resources being in the hands of the few.
There is a distinctly sociological perspective within her work. This is particularly so of the images in her 1990 work: Our Forbidden Land. The images in this volume appear to be far more about communicating the messages of access, pollution, the spoiling of the land and the politics of the countryside than the more classical landscape images in her earlier 1975 work; Land. I have spent time considering both works and will revisit this assertion in a later blog post.
Throughout much of her work she employs a deep depth of field, in the tradition of earlier realist landscape photographers she allows the viewer to decide where to look and how to interpret the image.
Or does she?
In addition to the deep depth of field and deep focus I would argue that she does exert some influence on the viewer. In particular through the juxtaposition of picture elements in her images. The example image below illustrates this point, the viewer can’t help being drawn to the contrast between the landscape and the abandoned car, presumably dumped in the countryside?
I am reminded again that aesthetic codes are I believe created by the interplay of a range of factors and this is a far more sophisticated concept than merely lens or shutter control.
Kuhn’s ‘Evidence’ series is a striking collection of images. They have a real impact and an almost ethereal feel, there is also a timeless quality that is in part created by her use of a particular range of colours. They do suggest to me that they were originated on film rather than through digital media.
This was new work to me but I remain uncertain about decoding these images however.
The use of a shallow depth of field creates a sense of depth to the pictures, almost a feel of three dimensions. The very soft colour palette creates an elusive quality to the images, an effect that is formed by the wide f-stop used to make the images. The very shallow depth of field also links or even creates a question about the relationships between the subjects in the images. There is an intimacy created through the photographer’s use of aperture to direct even control what the viewer sees.
In some of the images, particularly those of two or more nude or semi nude subjects, there are questions raised about what is their relationship and these questions are underpinned by the stark effect of the shallow use of focus. The interesting framing of some of the images also transforms the out of focus windows in some of the scenes into angular light panels carefully placed within the overall composition of the picture.
In some of the images the subjects are entirely out of focus although still easily discernible. In others the subjects are framed with a plant or flower in the foreground that is sharp focus. Again this creates a real sense of three dimensions in the image.
I liked the square format of these images. Square images I find have a sort of democracy, there is no debate for me as to whether the picture should be landscape or portrait, there is a satisfying feel to the square frame that I don’t get from other formats and ratios. I am aware this is a very personal perspective, informed by some years of choosing 6×6 as my format of first choice.
I am left pondering upon this set and I can see there are some clear hallmarks of the photographer’s style, that said the specifics of the aesthetic codes being deployed are still a little elusive. For me the shallow depth of field alone is not an aesthetic code in itself.
I looked specifically at Cosci’s ‘Panem et Circenses’ set which is new work to me. This set of images is the antitheses of Godwin’s and Adams approach, using an exceptionally shallow depth of field an d narrow zone of sharp focus in a field of out of focus background and foreground. Focusing on what might be seen as a simple and uninteresting subject in the ‘in focus’ area of the frame raises for me questions about what is it that Cosci wants the viewer to see?
Panem et Circenses is also is an interesting title I thought. The Latin origins of the phrase (from a poem by Juvenal) are about political approval being gained not through reasoned argument or exemplary service from politicians but rather through the diversion of ‘bread and circuses’ or ‘bread and games’. In short, duping or defrauding the masses by offering them diversion.
Knowing this changes they way that I read his images. The extremely shallow depth of field highlights some simple object, a part of a bench, a blade of grass or weed coming though a pavement. In considering this work I found the real information and perhaps message was not what was in the ‘in focus’ element of the image but rather what had been framed in the out of focus areas of the images.
This work did make me thin about the the way Cosci possibly misdirects the viewer. The detail is not where we expect it? Close observation reveals that in the out of focus elements of the image there are hints at the corporate and the powerful, the image below highlights this I feel.
Is Cosci misdirecting the viewer? As mentioned above the message and meaning of the image might bein the out of focus area and not in the slender field of focus. There may also be a message about what we see and what we don’t see in the world around us?
This does further compound the notion of the aesthetic code. In a shallow depth of field there might be a message about alienation, even subjugation, a very different set of meanings are created than in the shallow depth of field in Kuhns work?
Reflections on aesthetic codes
It has been an interesting exercise to review the work of Adams, Godwin, Kuhn and Cosci as a tool to explore the concept of the aesthetic code. I am however not at a point where I feel I have achieved a definitive view of the concept.
Let me explain why. There appears to be an element of ‘convention’ to the interpretation of aesthetic codes, i.e. they are what they are because we say they are.
This creates some tensions for me. For example, I think the motives and intended outcomes of Adams work and Godwin’s work are fundamentally different. Some of Godwin’s work is overtly political, for example the inclusion of signage in the image below setting out access restrictions leave nothing to the imagination about the artists intent.
Adams work however is much more subtly political, whether we like it or not, his highly detailed images of the American wilderness have I believe an implicit message about ‘damage this at your peril’. His biography attests to his unique contribution to the creation of the Wilderness act and the formation of the National Parks movement.
Both use similar techniques in terms of deep depth of field, deep focus, high contrast fine art monochrome and both deployed square format cameras for much of their work. I ask my self are they employing the same aesthetic codes? I believe not and the comparison helps me to begin to decode this principle.
Aesthetic codes are not simply about the use of large or small apertures, they are also about framing,the use of colour and tone and the selection of content. Most importantly however, they are about the artist’s motive, this is sometimes overt, but at other times it is far more elusive. I feel I now need to look into the world of semiotics if I am to begin to understand these codes in real detail and depth!
Examples of some of my own work highlighting the aesthetic codes described in Section 2
In this image I used a very small aperture to get a deep depth of field. I wanted to create a sense of grandeur, but also a composition that draws the viewer into the scene. The inclusion of the fence was to direct the viewers journey into the image.
Again in this image I have used a deep depth of field and focus, but the simple layers composition attempt to create a sense of solitude. In this image the viewer has more freedom to choose where to look than in the previous example.
In this image I used a very shallow depth of field, autumn in the street emphasised by the leaves caught in a small zone of focus. Also, there is important information for the viewer in the out of focus element of the image.
In this final image, the shallow depth of field creates a sense of intimacy and association with important information for the viewer in the out of focus area of the image presenting meaning beyond the aspects of the image that are in focus.
Adams, A. (1985) An Autobiography, Little Brown, New York
Armor, J. & Wright P. (1989) Manzanar. Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd, London
Godwin, F. (1975) Land. Little Brown, London
Godwin, F. (1990) Our Forbidden Land, Jonathon Cape, London
Kuhn, M. (2007) Evidence found at: http://www.monakuhn.com/collections/view/evidence
Cosci, G. (2006) Panem et Circenses found at: http://www.gianlucacosci.com/page10.htm