de Chirico, alienation and my square mile- some thoughts

In the feedback from my first assignment my tutor encouraged me to look at the work of the Italian artist Gorgio de Chirico. Although familiar with some surrealist painters I was unfamiliar with this artist and his work. As I investigated the artists, it became clear that although he influenced the surrealist movement, that title was perhaps not appropriate for him.

In my square mile assignment a recurrent theme for me as the photographer was my self-ascribed status as an ‘outsider’ in my own immediate square mile. Although I felt my self to be an ‘outsider’ status I failed to convey this in the images I produced. Perhaps the only one that comes close is the final shadow image in the set.

My tutor made the following suggestion:

Have a look at de Chirico’s paintings of the urban environment and see how that relates to the way Antonioni visualised “the city” in his films, like The Passenger or Blow-Up. There are large, concrete urban spaces, which are almost empty of people but for a few distant figures often set apart by distances. This reflects the alienated space experimented with in de Chirico’s paintings that depict pieces of places and flat planes.

I also considered the work of Antonioni and have watched his film ‘Blow Up’ as part of my research and study for this course. I will write a separate blog entry about that though when time permits. I have however spent quite some time looking at the work of de Chirico. I have really enjoyed this area of research and I think I have begun to visualise how I might create a sense of alienation in my images.

Let me explain why!

Whether or not some one likes de Chirico’s work, I personally do, it is clear that he uses a number of recurring themes to say something about the world and humans place within it.

In his paintings he presents a stark picture of a human landscape in which large flat surfaces of colour depict simple, yet classical buildings. Columns, arches and towers, drawn in very rudimentary and angular style create a view of the world as being empty accept for the occasional figure or pair of figures. The artist also employs an unusual and exaggerated sense of perspective that to me creates and uneasy, not quite balanced feel to the work. This deliberate and I assume meant to add the the sense of things not being quite right with the world.

In some paintings, human presence is merely implied by shadows. A particular recurring theme is pairs of figures, generally dwarfed by the surroundings, not seen in any particular detail and more emblematic of human presence than studies of people in them selves. It is in these paintings, I have included some examples below, that I can see sense of alienation and sense of ‘edifice’ overpowering human existence. de Cirico seems to create a view of a very lonely space in which the constructed world dominates those who constructed it perhaps. Single or pairs of figures overshadowed by their surroundings.

Two further motif’s in some of his paintings are distant steam trains silhouetted on the horizon and elaborate public sculptures set in the streets and piazza’s of the scenes he has created. Both, perhaps emblems of art and science, although this is a personal interpretation rather than a scholarly informed one!

In the Antonioni film ‘Blow Up’ a central theme is the photographer unwittingly witnessing a murder. The scene is set in an open space between woodland in an urban park. The photographer secretly (initially) photographs two figures from some distance as they play out an unknown conversation, engagement, argument or some other communication. To me this scene, central to the film, is very much influenced by de Chirico’s work, although the buildings are replaced by woodland, there is a sense of emptiness and distance, an atmosphere of the human presence being fleeting and even perhaps temporary?

italian-plaza-with-equestrian-statue

Italian plaza with equestrian statue

giorgio-de-chirico-mystery-and-melancholy-of-a-street2

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street 1914

piazza-d-italia-1913

Piazza d’Italia 1913

What does all of this mean for me as a photographer?

Well, I want to be able to create a sense of the ‘outsider’ in my work. I am going to look for distant figures in the landscape I photographed for the square mile assignment. Distant figures in the landscape certainly attest to mans presence and I like the idea of trying to replicate how de Chiricos figures are dwarfed by their surroundings and in some sense seem out of place. It is a challenging task but this short bit of research has given me some food for thought about what I frame in my camera’s viewfinder and why. In my self-evaluation of the first assignment, considering what I framed was a key area of learning. Through a consideration of de Chirico’s work I now have some additional ideas! Let’s see where that might take me?
A few biographical words about Gorgio de Chirico (10 July 1888 – 20 November 1978) based upon Internet searches

He was an Italian artist, although born and initially educated in Greece. He did also study in Munich and this would appear to have been a very influential time for him. In the years before World War I, he founded the ‘scuola metafisica’ art movement, which appears to have been influential to surrealist artists. After 1919, he became interested in traditional painting techniques, and worked in a neo-classical or neo-Baroque style, while frequently revisiting the metaphysical themes of his earlier work.

An interesting collection of de Chirico work, a source I found very useful

Square Mile Assignment Feedback and Reflections

The photographer as Artisan or Artist?

I was very pleased with the feedback for this, the first of my OCA assignments. However, it is fair to say that the feedback was challenging, but to me positively challenging. I have thought about my skill and ability as a photographer for some time and my tutor affirmed the accuracy of my own analysis. I am reasonably competent in using a camera as a machine but I have a long journey ahead in becoming a photographer.

I have also reflected for some time on the tension between the Artisan and the Artist. Consider a for a moment the potter, throwing a pot on a wheel requires a high level of skill, knowledge and practice. The skilled potter can make the process look remarkably simple, but anyone who has tried to throw a pot will attest to just how hard the process is. Many potters produce excellent functional vessels, created to time honoured patterns and designs. Stylish in their simplicity and utilitarian function they can have a creative charm. But is this art? No I think this is skilled artisanship, replicating , all be it with skill and competency, designs that are ultimately not creative. The potter who is an artist knows precisely how to break free of the ubiquitous functional orthodoxy and produce something that is inspiring, innovative, thought provoking, in short a work of art.

So what has this all got to do with photography! Well , like many others I have perhaps worked more at becoming artisan, mastering the camera as a device, replicating the work of others, dangerously influenced by the popular photographic press, becoming shackled to mistaken beliefs about the primacy of equipment and hoodwinked by a self serving system intent on shifting boxes and clearing the shelves of the new latest ‘thingumy!’ I suspect to some what I describe will be seen as heresy. Indeed I suspect there are many people making an acceptable living as photographers who are successful artisans, but whether they are artists, genuinely creative, making their own mark is a different question.

I am not going to post the feedback but I am going to share my response to it, sent to my tutor a few days ago

PS, in a previous life I not only made lots of pots and  also taught others to do the same!

Many thanks for your very helpful feedback on my first assignment. I have read it in detail and have already begun to follow up on the recommendations and suggestions you have made.

It hink your analysis and review of my ‘Square Mile’ assignment is just as relevant and applicable to my work in general and your comments have absolutely affirmed my decision to commit studying photography formally.

I do believe I have a reasonable level of technical competency with camera and lens operation and this means I can control the camera as an instrument, your feedback I think confirms this. What I know I am lacking is creativity and a more analytical and critical viewpoint.

In my own head I have interpreted your comments to be far more about what I frame, how I compose and most importantly what I point my camera at in the first instance. I need to think about capturing a series or sequence of moments that are much more connected. In short I need make images that are part of a sequence of connected ideas. This is an interesting challenge for me, reflecting on my work to date I think that I have spent years focusing on making single and unconnected photographs! I also recognise what you say about the ‘pretty and inexpressive’ nature of some of the work. That is a result I suspect of many years of looking at the popular photographic press. I stopped subscribing some time ago to magazines that I came to view as vehicles for advertising, merely fuelling an obsession with equipment and not outcomes. I recognise I retain some remnant of ‘contamination’ from this which still needs exorcising!

I do feel positively fired up now however to commit to a documentary / journalistic approach. But I need to learn more about practice in this genre. There is also some apprehension on my part as the exact nature and detail of more critical, edgy, communicative images, this still remains somewhat elusive to me, but I hope it will emerge through study and practise. 

Having looked at the video lectures you suggested to me I think that I am in search of ‘Punctum’?  This resonates with several on-line lectures I have watched in the past week by Paul Seawright. He often makes reference to the salient elements of the image ‘puncturing’ the photograph and creating greater meaning. I think I am beginning to understand this, but I need to bridge that understanding into my practise. Essentially I think I need to learn to look at scenes differently before I consider releasing the shutter. Lots to learn and lots to think about! I am moving forward with the exercises in the course and already have some thoughts for the next assignment.

I will also continue the Square Mile work as an ongoing development activity. I have also come to grips with the blog and will post my progress as I go, although I am also keeping a paper learning log as well.

Again, many thanks for your really helpful constructive critique, exactly what I need and the reason I signed up here!

Best wishes

John

Square Mile

First impressions and initial response to the brief

This initial assignment presented me with an interesting challenge. My first reaction was to consider where I might shoot this initial assignment? I found myself making a number of excuses to myself for identifying somewhere other than my immediate environs to shoot this project. In part this was due to my belief that where I live is not particularly interesting. But what this really meant was that I didn’t want to photograph it. This may seem odd, but on reflection this was me having to face up to someone else’s brief. In my years of making images I have always taken photographs entirely on my own terms. This task, although offering much freedom and interpretation, was essentially shooting to someone else’s tune! Given that realisation I set about considering the precise square mile in which I reside. I live in a sparsely populated and rural part of East Anglia. I am not from here and although it is my choice to live here I am an outsider, I have no roots or connections to this place.

With this in mind I set about planning how I would meet the brief and the photographic and personal challenges it presented. I used a spider diagram to plot out some thoughts and ideas and this is in my Learning Log. A key theme that quickly emerged was my lack of any romantic view about rural landscapes and rural life, to me the rural landscape is every bit as constructed as the built environment of the city. I wanted my pictures to show the mark humans on the landscape. Indeed, I narrowed the concept down further to the notion of ‘planting’. In an area of arable farming planted crops surround me. However this is not all that has been planted in the landscape. All the trappings of human existence in this place have also been planted. ‘Planted’ is the theme that I wanted to run through my images.

Which practitioners I looked at for inspiration and how their work influenced you during the project?

In advance of going out and making images I undertook some research that subsequently informed how I approached and executed the assignment. I first considered the photographers whose work I was familiar with who had photographed their own environment. I have always loved the work of Josef Sudek (1896-1976), the Czech photographer known for his haunting images of Prague. Sudek used large view cameras to capture the spirit of the ancient and the new Prague. This was no mean fete given he had lost his arm during the First World War. His study of the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral in the heart of the city, demonstrate for me a thorough record of this giant human endeavour. His images, sometimes shot at dusk or dawn present to me a very romantic almost magical view of a place that in many respects was at odds with the harsh reality of the lives of many who lived there. The people of Prague saw hardship across the 19th and 20th, turbulent years politically for many Eastern European cities. What I took from my review of Sudek’s images was his ability to convey mood and atmosphere. His work I believe contains more than a record of a place, they speak of change, that nothing is permanent and that the photograph as a record seals a moment in time, a moment that will never be repeated.

Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) was another photographer who I felt had a strong association with a place. Known for his images of Whitby, his work is evocative of a time when sailing ships plied the oceans and the town was a hub of trade and commerce. Sutcliffe captured both epic scenes of sailing ships on the docks but also the minutiae of the lives of sailors and dock workers in there everyday activities. An abiding impression I get from this work is the sense of place, of some images being unmistakably Whitby, unmistakably being the work of Sutcliffe
I also considered the work of another early photographer, Eugene Atget (1857-1927). I have been drawn to his work for many years and he is already an influence that I bring to my forma study with the OCA. Given the rural focus of my assignment, Atget may seem an unusual artist to consider, particularly as he is ostensibly known for his work photographing Paris during a period of great change. I have however been drawn to Atget’s work over time, less for the context and more for the approach he takes. To me Atget’s images say so much about how people lived in Paris without actually photographing people. Indeed few of the images I reviewed contained any pictures of individuals (Atget did photograph the people of Paris, but it was not this work that I reflected upon). He somehow manages to portray so much about life in the capital city of France during a time of great transition without a shot of a person or people. It is the evidence of human existence he records, human endeavour, buildings, street scenes, shops and theatres that all say so much about the city and the people who inhabited it. In my humble opinion his work is a definitive record of a changing Europe, a city that swept away the old and built the new. In some case his images remain the only record of parts of Paris now long gone. I too wanted to record the signs of human presence in my square mile, but like Atget not show any people at all. This was to be a strong theme that really influence my executions of my assignment, one that I retained, even when it meant waiting for some time to let people pass so the I could get the image I wanted.

I was keen also to look at the photographers whose work was recommended in the course materials.

The first I looked at was the Belgravia set by Karen Knorr, work shot in the exclusive district of London. With one exception in this set her work is a collection of interior images, showing the wealthy and probably privileged in their homes. The images appear to be very formal in composition and quite possibly posed. There are recurrent the themes of the rich at rest in their lounges and in their ‘Sunday best’, women wearing coats and men in the uniform of the upper class.

To me the images rely on their captions to interpret the message the artist is conveying about class and privilege, but possibly also about people on a different sort of margin. Marginal people are perhaps more commonly thought about as being the poor, this work challenges that I believe, suggesting there are different margins of existence.

The inclusion of an image of the artist’s mother and grandmother in the set say something about her as an individual, her motivation and her own place in the world she is photographing. To me she is an ‘insider’ in the world she is recording, perhaps documenting the familiar. The caption on one of the images:

“The interior represents the universe for the private individual”

says something about the artist’s intent, the themes of imperialism and sexism appear in other captions. To me the work is an interesting perspective on place, it is different but engaging. Whilst not taking pictorial ideas from this work I was struck by the idea of Knorr as an insider, photographing the familiar, it strengthened my sense of being an outsider in my square mile.

I was also drawn to the work of Venetia Dearden although I did find it challenging and problematic.

From reading about her work ‘Somerset Stories and Fivepenny Dreams’ it is clear that it has a number of themes; kinship, friendship, family, motherhood, birth and the land, all linked to a particular locality. The work is an extensive set of engaging and in some cases quite beautiful colour images, all recorded in a specific area of Somerset. The images are hard to date. Some of them are really quite timeless and the whole sequence is punctuated with pure landscape shots which perhaps anchor the people depicted in some of the images in a clearly defined landscape of fields and woodland. Many of the images appear to have been taken in the dawn or dusk light, leading I believe to the ‘fairy tale’ atmosphere that commentators suggest her work expresses. There are a number of images of small children, babies and mothers and expectant mothers, renewal is perhaps a further them of her work?

There is also a sense of freedom in the images, but also for me sense of foreboding, particularly in the images of the travelling community. This is a vanishing way of life, that however an idyllic view her images paint, they are of people in hardship, poverty and in a world where they are not always welcome. The work reminds me a little of Boxall’s (1964) work ‘Gypsy Camera’, a long-term study of the Vincent Family of travellers in Surrey and Sussex. Although that work is much darker than Reardon’s, as it tracks the slow decline of a family and a way of life. What is similar however is a real sense of respect for the subjects that is evident in the images, the intimate moments recorded, the positive, even hopeful image portrayed. Reardon’s use of natural light is evocative and very strong.

However, many of the images grated with me in that they had the feel of a fashion catalogue, I know this is a bit contentious perhaps!! There is for me a tension between the reality of the subjects in the artist’s work and the idyllic and romantic atmosphere created by her. This is however a highly subjective interpretation on my part. I did however take from the work some thoughts about the light and the look of images in the dawn and dusk light. Indeed I set out to record my square mile images, in most cases in the early morning or late evening light.

An Internet search also led me to a Flickr page: ‘Y Filltir Sgwar’. It contained lots of individual images by many different photographers and although taken in different place a lot of the images were emblematic of rural Wales. It did make me think about what would be emblematic in my square mile?
Technical approach and any particular techniques you incorporated

From a technical point of view I wanted to convey the open expanse of my square mile, the sparcity of population and the impact of humans in creating this built landscape. To this end I decided to predominantly use a wide-angle prime lens for many of the images. Also as stated and influenced by the look of Dearden’s images I shot many of the images in either the early morning or late evening light. I took the pictures over 5 days too and from my journey to work.

I produced in all 78 images and after careful consideration and reflection on my theme of the built landscape narrowed it down to 10 final photographs.

A feature of a number of images in the final selection is a sharp angular geometry, such geometry does not often exist in nature and this I used to try to capture the man made environment I was trying to emphasise.

Strengths and weaknesses of particular photographs and your project as a whole (self-assessment)

I have mixed views about the images that I took and the final set I chose. There are one or two I was generally pleased with but overall I don’t think the collection is strong enough in conveying my message that a rural landscape is a built environment. In future I would consider some captioning. I chose not to on this first assignment because I was keen to get tutor feedback purely on the images alone. Although I used a couple of prime lenses on this assignment I will on the next one make use of a zoom. I tend not to use zooms because those affordable I find a bit slow. That said I need to address this personal prejudice!
I learned a lot from this exercise, I possibly over thought it and I recognise I need to increase the pace of my work. I also need to think more carefully at the planning stage what I want the final message of the work to be. Lots to learn, but that’s why I am here!

Thoughts on how I could develop this project in the future

There are a number of potential follow up projects from this work. I could look to create a real sense of drama in the landscape, in particular the vast East Anglian skies could be presently more dramatically than I did. The use of Neutral Density and graduate filters coupled with long exposures would create a real sense of the dramatic think. This is a technique employed by Tom Hunter in some of his images. At the suggestion of my tutor I did look at these images after I had completed the assignment. There is of course scope to shoot the people of this landscape and that is something I am giving serious consideration to trying too. All in all however I really enjoyed this activity and will post something about my tutor’s comments soon!
References

Adam, H. (Ed.) (2004) Atget’s Paris. Taschen London
Boxall, T. (1992) Gypsy Camera. Creative Monochrome, London
Eglon Shaw, W. (Ed) (1974) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe: Photographer: A Selection of His Work Paperback. Sutcliffe Gallery
Murray, J. (1990) Josef Sudek- Poet of Prague: A Photographers Life. Aperture Foundation. New York

Web Resources

Karen Knorr: http://karenknorr.com/photography/belgravia/
Venetia Dearden: http://www.venetiadearden.com/en/somerset_stories_fivepenny_dreams. Html
Tom Hunter: http://www.purdyhicks.com/display.php?aID=10
Y Filltir Sgwar’: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nicdafis/sets/725448/#

My Square Mile-April 2015

Click on the images to enlarge

Verdant with Nitrogen (1 of 1)

Daffs and Telegraph (1 of 1)

Wires and Sky (1 of 1)

Postbox (1 of 1)

Track and sky 2 (1 of 1)

Track 2 (1 of 1)

Tree and Avenue (1 of 1)

Telegraph A (1 of 1)

Oil Seed and Sky (1 of 1)

Shadow (1 of 1)

Contact Sheets

Contact Sheets 1,2 & 3-2

Contact Sheets 1,2 & 3-3

Square Mile Contact Sheet 3a

Contact Sheets 1,2 & 3-1