Documentary Photography-The Work of Marti Corn

“Photography is the only “language” understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures, it links the family of man” 

– Helmut Gernsheim 1

While photographic images are a universal language, there are different approaches a photographer can take to record what they see. Just as different languages have similar words, how the word is used can have a very different connotation. An image can be about everyday events, informally captured as a kind of snapshot—or a “vernacular” photograph. Alternatively, the image can be a more intentional documentary or journalistic/news-type capture. 

There is a distinction between a documentary photographer and a photojournalist. 2 Arguably, a sub-genre of documentary work might be referred to as social documentary photography that represents a photographer’s deep long-term involvement in creating a literal or artistic study of a human condition. It has been said that a photojournalist captures the current moment without creating a project or long-term engagement with that current event and then moves on to the next assignment. 3 The documentary photographer invests time to understand and research a situation using photography as the tool for communication. The focus of documentary photography is not about a moment in a place, but the emotion or emotional reaction to somewhere, something and/or someone.

Marti Corn, if she must place her photographic style into a category, views herself as a documentary fine-art photographer focusing on creating a visual dialogue on issues of social justice. 4 The camera is her tool to say something about what she sees. She once stated, “I share the stories of dismissed and marginalized communities through photography and ethnography.” Her images are an expression of what the subject of her images have seen, felt and experienced. For Corn, it’s all about people. Broadly, her passion is helping the viewer empathize with human-beings who live on the fringe of society.

Corn is currently focused on lives suspended in limbo while living in the Kakuma Refugee Camp 5 in Kenya. Kakuma was established 25 years ago, and many of the residents, in particular the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” have been there since it was established in 1991. Life here is reflected in her images of Roadside, a body of work she’s been creating the past two years. As Corn has expressed, “ … while hundreds of thousands have walked this road to find safety in this camp, the cruel irony is that few ever take this road out. They are refugees trapped with nowhere to go.”

The story of Roadside indirectly hints at what initially drew Corn to this project. Curious and concerned for those Lost Boys and Girls who were left behind, stranded in Kakuma for 25 years, along with many others refugees due to civil war, persecution, and famine, is what has sent her to travel half-way around the world twice yearly for the past two years. As Corn relates the story, more than 20,000 boys, as well as many girls, left southern Sudan (now known as South Sudan) in exodus during the genocide in 1987. After spending four years in Ethiopia, they were forced again to flee when that government was overturned, an estimated 10,000 surviving children arrived in Kakuma with the help of the United Nations. The Lost Boys and Girls of the Dinka and Nuer tribes cannot return to their native South Sudan where two million have been killed and millions more displaced, because the civil war rages on. 6 The United States took in about 3,800 of those in 1991, but for various reasons, 410 were left behind. This was partially the result of the tragic events of 9/11 in 2001. They arrived as children but now are middle-aged with children of their own. The situation for these Lost Boys and Girls has not been resolved. Today, Kakuma offers refuge to more than 160,000 people. More than 100 travel the road each day to Kakuma in search of safety. This camp was ironically, or perhaps cruelly, named Kakuma, which is the Swahili word for “nowhere.”

Image by Marti Corn ©2016

Corn is an activist 7 who has made several trips, at her own expense, to photograph and document the lives of the Lost Boys of Sudan along with those other refugees whose lives are suspended in limbo. No magazine, news organization or other group has directed her in this effort. Because of this, she is totally free to compose and present how and what she wants. Through these images, Corn is helping the Lost Boys of Sudan tell their story.

Photography can be used to form and manipulate public opinion. While the Roadside images are intended to be documentary, Corn has made these images her own. Photography, regardless of genre, is tainted by the photographer’s eye (composition of the image and technique) which becomes the thumb print of the photographer on the image. Photography is like writing. Each writer, as each photographer, has their own identifiable style—a way of speaking or use of language. Like writers, photographers communicate their imagery with different visual volume and clarity. A photograph provides information but can also reflect and capture an image that allows a viewer to carry into it their own interpretation based on their biases and life experiences. An incomplete image can have multiple meanings and interpretations. A measure of a great image is one the is both clear and unambiguous. 

Why should a photographer travel halfway across the world to photograph people to comment on their issue and focus attention on their plight? This is part of what a viewer should consider when evaluating the image. It’s a necessary question underlying the importance of what is captured in the image. Without asking that question, then perhaps the photographer’s image is more vernacular and less an intentional statement. There are certainly enough issues to focus on in one’s own city, state or country. On the other hand, should this effort to go somewhere, foreign and unfamiliar, allow a photographer more sense of purpose and attention? Corn is not the first to focus on photographing places and the people in Africa. Noted Magnum photographers George Rodger and Stuart Franklin have done extensive documentary work in Africa, albeit not camps like Kakuma. Photographer Fazal Sheikh however did spend considerable time photographing Sudanese refugee camps in Kenya and other areas. All share a common interest in images of people sharing space and coexisting, but with different visual words.  8

Image by Marti Corn ©2016

Corn’s Roadside images convey isolation. This thousand-mile-long road connects the camp to a near-by town in Turkana where camels, goats, vegetables, and supplies can be acquired. Corn’s sepia-tone usage for the images in this collection feel perfectly aligned with the dusty dry environment. The images are clear evidence of the interwoven cultures shown by their dress and what they do each day. We see people performing a daily activity, traveling to and fro gathering the essentials needed to sustain their lives. Her images illustrate isolation. The use of so much sky in each of her images deceptively suggests a sense of freedom, but her intent is to illustrate their lives in a constant state of limbo. 

Should the photographer consider what the viewer will search for in a portrait of a place? What is shown in an image like Roadside? What evidence is presented by the photographer? The photographer captures what that location, subject, or person(s) is willing to reveal. However, the placement and context is within the control of the photographer. The subject controls what is revealed, unless outwitted by the photographer to reveal more. In this setting, people are like actors on a stage. Here, the images are purposely printed in a sepia tone which tells part of the story. Looking at the landscape and the people, we feel the heat and taste the dust. It looks like a harsh place. There’s a sense of vastness yet in contrast to confinement. 

Despite the tone of harshness, Corn has created intriguing and beautiful images. Her stated philosophy is to “reveal the grace and integrity in those living in oppressive circumstances.” Roadside represents the positive attitude and beauty in these lives. Despite the tragedies that sent them to Kakuma, Corn recognizes the daily effort to live and be positive about the next day. Their environment is barren, yet, in the expression and posture of the people in the images, they appear to have adapted and reconciled to their situation and somehow have found purpose in their lives.  

Image by Marti Corn ©2016

How should the images of Roadside be studied? What is the merit of the image that depends on knowledge by the viewer of a situation? Can it stand alone? Why this refugee camp? Why this road? There are hundreds, maybe thousands of refugee camps around the world. Corn’s efforts are centered on Kakuma in Kenya, but her work is symbolic of a much larger human condition/situation. It’s symbolic of many roads that lead into these camps. In theory, roads are to take someone to somewhere to get someplace. If the viewer knows nothing about what has happened, does the image become more or less impactful? The importance lies in whether the documentation captures the depth of the moment and situation for future study. These images are successful because, as an image, they grab our attention. We want to explore them a little more deeply. It may not matter where the road is. The road has no beginning nor end in these images. Clearly, the road is well traveled. Through her photography, Corn is trying to make a difference by asking the viewer to engage with each image and question mankind’s greed for power over tolerance as evidenced in the continued civil wars which tragically affects millions of innocent lives and to question the humanity of our current system for dealing with those who are forced to take on the status of refugee.

To understand why a photographer undertakes a project, the viewer should know something more about the artist. Each image should draw out our curiosity about the photographer and why the people and places shown are important to them? Is the photographer driven by a sense of moral duty to record, document, and comment? The photojournalist is capturing the moment as news. Even news of the moment can be artistically and elegantly captured. An excellent eye and technical ability allow a photographer some measure of control over what story is told, limited by a need for objectivity rather than commentary. 9 Read a very important article on challenges for photojournalism in “Fact and Fiction in Modern Photography”, by James Estrin, the New York Times (April 24, 2015). https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/fact-and-fiction-in-modern-photography/?_r=0 The documentary photographer is given credit for investing his or herself in the story, an we expect the image and a personal involvement with the people and place to reflect the photographer’s view (commentary). What is the “truth” in an image. The viewer should challenge whether the image is unfiltered and unadulterated or is it a prepared, staged construct of reality. Corn’s images have the appearance of a foreign reality and not a construct. The way she acts as a passive observer of the activity at the side of the road, gives the image a truthfulness. It’s a sharing of what she saw. The images are not obscured or abstract. They are clear, unobstructed, and concise. A successful image, whether photojournalistic or documentary, will take and hold of us, albeit in different ways.

What in the photograph is unfamiliar? A viewer is usually comfortable with images that comport with their own perception of the world. For most viewers, Corn is introducing an unfamiliar landscape. What may be missing for the viewer is how unfamiliar that landscape also is for the people suspended and isolated in Kakuma. Here, the viewer has most likely been presented a very different place with people conducting their daily lives in a very unfamiliar fashion. All the images give the viewer just one perspective. Corn has chosen to direct our view as if standing there by the road ourselves, as she was. It’s a straight eye-level view. It’s not a study with 360 degrees of selected images. It’s not an aerial perspective. The artist anchors our feet firmly in one place. Because of the simplicity in the composition, her images yell at us to look at the people. They allow the viewer to look at the people on that road and study them, witness what they are doing, how they travel, and what they carry, and possibly imagine what it would be like to live this kind of existence. 

Image by Marti Corn ©2016

A photograph should not need words to accompany and explain the image to engage the viewer. An image should speak for itself. That does not mean that an explanation doesn’t help deepen an appreciation for an image. Robert Capa’s image of the beach’s surf during D-Day could have been taken in many war locations, but it is a powerful, classic image regardless of knowing where it was taken. Lewis Hine’s images of a little girl in a factory is compelling even if we do not know in what city or country it was taken. August Sander’s pre-1945 images of women, farmers, laborers, and others in his series “People of the 20th Century” are powerful images regardless of where they were taken. The same is true for Gordon Park’s series on gangs in Harlem (or his iconic “American Gothic, Washington D.C.) and W. Eugene Smith’s images of a country doctor. We gladly look at and engage with the images of any of these photographers. The explanation allows us to appreciate and engage more deeply in the image and event. When the image alone can make the viewer engage, study and appreciate the composition, then, perhaps, it has become “art”, whether in a photojournalistic or documentary style.

Documentary photography, like Corn’s work, is a visual story about lives and needs. A photographer like Corn may be motivated by emotion to click the shutter, but the image now has its own voice and speaks for itself. When the context of the image is understood, she gives voice to those Lost Boys and Girls who’ve suffered a horrible tragedy and human failing. 

Kakuma is a limbo set in the margins of a society that has become a permanent “temporary” existence. Her photographs show it as an inconvenient truth for the involved governments and organizations with conflicting priorities. She is shouting to the viewer that no responsible party is stepping forward to give this road a destination for its travelers. To that extent, these photographs provide direct evidence of that failure.

In Roadside, Marti Corn has placed us in a voyeuristic position to examine a place where humanity and inhumanity exists, where few of us wish to venture. Through her images, she has contributed to our geographic and worldly knowledge of a place far beyond the comfort we inhabit. Somehow, her images allow the viewer to feel that people all over the world, and in particular, Kakuma, are people the same as us. But, we cannot be comfortable with that feeling. We, the viewer, are forced to contrast our place, family, friends and sense of community with those in this refugee camp. Armed with the story behind the image, we are unsettled as we are confronted by the evil, destructive, self-serving people who killed, displaced and orphaned the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and the other refugees forced into this place with similar stories. While the images on their own are engaging, the story Corn shares forces us to look closer and reconcile what we see in our own mind. These are images of a place where none of these people are from. It is not “home”, yet a place they cannot leave. It is land they don’t and cannot own. They know that they can never return to home. Their only future is what they do in the present, with little incentive to build a future. Yet, there is a sense of normality and optimism that they can one day leave. It’s been 25 years for the Lost Boys of Sudan who were brought to this place because of circumstances they could not control. We, the viewers, can leave Roadside and return home. 

Image by Marti Corn ©2016

Notes:

  1. “On Photography” by Susan Sontag, P. 192
  2. Wonderful images from the Magnum Collection. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-stories-10-iconic-photos-magnums-70-year-history
  3. Read a very important article on today’s challenges for photojournalism in “Fact and Fiction in Modern Photography”, by James Estrin, the New York Times (April 24, 2015). https://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/fact-and-fiction-in-modern-photography/?_r=0
  4. http://www.marticorn.com Marti Corn is a photographer living in Houston, Texas. As a student of photography, Corn is very influenced by Doug Beasley, her mentor, James Nachtwey, a photojournalist and conflict photographer and Diane Arbus, a storied character in photography.
  5. http://www.unhcr.org/ke/479-kakuma-refugee-camp.html “Kakuma camp is located in the North-western region of Kenya. The camp was established in 1992 following the arrival of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”. Kakuma camp had a population of 164,571 registered refugees and asylum-seekers as at 28/02/2017 “
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lost_Boys_of_Sudan
  7. A couple of Marti Corn’s other photo-documentaries include “The Ground on Which I Stand” about the emancipation community, Tamina, a Freedmen’s town and “Out of Darkness”, about refugees from 14 other countries starting new lives in Houston, Texas.
  8. https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/fazal-sheikh?all/all/all/all/0

Innovation from Photo Lucida 2017

Last month at Photo Lucida in Portland, Oregon there were opportunities to make new photographic discoveries. Innovation in photography is evident in both traditional analog silver gelatin prints and digital archival-pigment prints.  The old technologies coexist with the new.  In each of the following situations, the photographer found the ordinary and made it special, in the spirit of Elliott Erwitt’s comment:

“To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place…  I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

RJ Kern

RJ Kern 1 expressed the sentiments of many artists when he quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“Love of beauty is taste. Creation of beauty is art”.

Kern is a traditional photographer who has created images in the tradition of 19th Century painters and the Pictorialist movement.  Many photographers take their inspiration from other media.  Kern commented that he was inspired by the painters Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Sidney Cooper, among others.  One can see these influences his images.  Kern captures the landscape like a 19th century American painting. Bierstadt for the landscapes and Cooper for animals.  In his portfolio “Out to Pasture” he captures “bovidae”, cloven-hoofed animals.  “Out to Pasture” serves as a secondary, deeper glimpse of his series “The Unchosen Ones”, offering insight into the cultural landscape these animals call “home”.  In “The Unchosen Ones”, Kern is focused on the young people and their animals which were not chosen at the Minnesota State Fair.  He explores a concept personal to him: “One isn’t born a winner or loser, but a chooser.”  In “Out to Pasture”, the images are about the animals in a natural setting.  But, what sets these images apart are the masterful landscape settings.  To achieve that, Kern shows a mastery of natural and artificial lighting.  The lesson in his images is to reveal the details on the shadows.  “…after studying old paintings …, subtle shadow details revealed what my camera  couldn’t. There was something missing and I didn’t know how to put my finger on it. Painters, I guess, have it easier to create the light they desire. With a brush, they can create all the shadow detail they want, with desired contrast and tonality. … I attempt to bathe (the) subject in soft light to establish the minimum amount of shadow detail.”  What is more notable is that he minimizes his use of digital tools like Photoshop, and relies, in the field, on both natural light and the use of artificial lights that he brings. One would expect that RW Emerson would be very pleased with the result.

Photograph by RJ Kern, “Escapé”, Benton County, Minnesota, from the series “Out to Pasture” ©2017

Robert Calafiore

The studio work from the series “Oggetti di Vetro” 2 of Robert Calafiore brings forward an older tradition in photography.  He uses a hand-built pinhole camera to make one of a kind large “C-prints”.  A “C-print” is a chromogenic color paper that is exposed to light and developed in the wet chemistry of traditional “analog” photography before the digital revolution/evolution.  The term “C-print” itself is of interest as it is passing from the common lexicon of photographers whose only experience with image capture and reproduction is digital.  “The first commercially available chromogenic print process was Kodacolor, introduced by Kodak in January 1942.  Kodak introduced a chromogenic paper with the name Type-C in the 1950s, and then discontinued the name several years later. The terminology Type-C and C-print have remained in popular use since this time.”&nbsp 3; It produces a very different image, both in appearance and texture, from a digital pigment print. Calafiore’s images are of elegant and somewhat elaborate glass vases and the like he has found.  The colors radiate from both the glass and the studio lighting he uses.  The uniqueness of the images result not only from the physical characteristics of the chromogenic color paper used in-camera, but the way chromogenic paper reproduces color, and from the way images and light are captured by a “pinhole” camera.  A chromogenic paper has an emulsion of silver halide dyes that react to light, and a developer solution causes the image to emerge.  This is fundamentally different from a digital printer that places drops of ink onto paper to create the image, especially because C-prints have a more continuous color tone than the sprayed ink droplets in digital prints.  The ink for a C-print lies within the paper and not on the paper as in a digital print, so there is a  different look and feel that presents a different visual aesthetic.  Calafiore’s work is made even more special by the unusually large size of his images (24”x20”), especially given the self-constructed pinhole camera used.  Most cameras capture the light reflecting off a scene or object through a glass lens, that then reflects that light on to a light-sensitive film held in the darkness of the camera body.  A pinhole camera does not have a lens of any material.  It is a hole in a light-proof box that allows the light through the pin-sized aperture in the wall of the “box” of a scene or object into the box and is reflected on the opposite wall within the box or camera.  As Calafiore describes the hole: “The pinhole diameter used on this camera is the equivalent of f/958.”  To put this in context, most cameras have an aperture that ranges may range from f/2 to f/64.  Historically, the “camera obscura” echoes the earliest foundation of photography when Nicéphore Niépce, Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot were experimenting with the capture of these very images.  

Photograph by Robert Calafiore, a unique C-Print, “Untitled” ©2017 from his series of Pinhole Camera Chromogenic Prints

The images themselves are one-of-a kind and interesting.  These are studio-created still life objects.  As he describes the work: “The subject matter is ordinary glassware collected from family and ongoing purchase (amassing an extensive and obsessive collection), and then assembled by stacking and balancing pieces into a single tableau within a constructed set or on shelves, recalling the well-known cabinets of curiosity of the 17th century and “Articles of Glass”, salt prints by Henry Fox Talbot. It is transformed by the unique recording characteristics of the camera’s wide-angle, long exposures of 45 mins or more, and color interpretation by the light sensitive paper. I manipulate the still life to control the results; altering the saturation, color, density and translucency of certain areas of the scene by live dodging and burning as well as moving objects during the exposure.”  The images are not “straight” captures.  He elaborated further: “Lighting is altered during the exposure to control density and saturation. Live dodging and burning of areas in the image are required to achieve the end results desired. Objects are inserted and removed to create layers and depth as well as add texture. Mirrors and other reflective surfaces are employed to get a sense of movement and artifacts left behind from the bouncing light. Many other methods of manipulation during the shoot are used to impact color, light and shadow.”  This is the artistry in what Calafiore has done without any digital manipulation.  It is his thumbprint, the touch of the artist so to speak, that is placed into each image.   Calafiore’s images thereby are made very special objects given his methodology and the interest and quality in the images themselves.

Lyle Gomes

“Measuring Space”, a series by Lyle Gomes 4, is a “study of what we see and what we tend not to see – an investigation of spatial ambiguity.”  His image “Silos, Arbuckle #2” was an interesting extension of his landscape  work on dunes and his book “Imagining Eden” 5. In an interview with Karen Sinsheimer, he responded that he drew inspiration from Fredrick Sommer (for the elimination of the horizon line), Eugene Atget and Joseph Sudek (for their use of light and Sudek’s “panoramic” approach).   In his earlier (and some newer) dune images, the contrast of light and shadow create an amazing abstract that sets the stage for what we now see in the image “Silos, Arbuckle #2”.  Arbuckle is a small town in the North Sacramento Valley.  It takes a moment to realize that we are looking at two large silos with some form of telephone or electrical wires passing in the background.  It’s an image that many probably walked past innumerable times, never noticing this natural composition.  It’s a wonderful visually-caught moment where the light is hitting the silos at the right moment to create the shadow cast we see in these images.  The image has the look of a panorama, as is Gomes’ style, but it’s a straight image.  In later images, he begins to stitch images together, and this image, he mentioned, was the “nudge to enter that world”.  So, this image is relevant not only for the image itself, but for where it led him as an artist.  This image also stands in contrast, literally and figuratively, to his prior work.  In that same interview with Sinsheimer he commented that he would normally photograph on days with “fog, rain or falling snow… cloudy days..[for] soft, delicate, shadow-less light” to instill a certain “atmosphere” into his images.  This image is shot on a rather sunny day, it appears, with sharp shadows and a very graphic appearance that almost denies readily understanding what you are actually seeing, other than as a black & white abstract of form and line.  

Photograph by Lyle Gomes, “Silos, Arbuckle #2 ” ©2007 from the series “Measuring Space”.

Kerry Mansfield

Kerry Mansfield’s series “Threshold”&nbsp 6; is as light as a feather both in the immediate visual sense and essential nature that endures throughout this collection. It is really a deeply felt personal statement.  The imagery is symbolic of an episode of insomnia she suffered through.  The beauty in the images is in their delicacy and their very personal expression.  Mansfield explained: “A friend shared that she could sleep “at the drop of a feather”. Employing no digital manipulation or double-exposure, the Threshold series illustrates the physical passage of time through movement.  The resulting pictures capture feathers falling for a full second through different wavelengths of light while subsequently compressing the variations into a new form”.  This is what is so attractive and imaginative about this series.  The technical excellence is using traditional photography without manipulation to capture time and objects in very simple, clean  images of feathers from different creatures.  The meaning is her expression of “self” following a long history of conceptual photography Mansfield has embraced.  

Photograph by Kerry Mansfield, “Wild Parrot 1” ©2017 from her series “Threshold”

Conceptual photography is a type of image creation that illustrates an idea.  Conceptual art was a movement that had roots in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea of “conceptual art” today arguably has broadened and expanded.  For her, that idea is non-documentary examination of the passage of time.

We do not have to understand the physics, or technical aspects, of how the image was done to hold and appreciate the artistry and technical knowledge of the artist, Mansfield, who was able to make these images.  These are not images many of us could create without resorting to manipulation techniques.  There is an elegance and weightlessness as the feathers float.  Her focus was on holding time accountable, because she could not.  Photography is all about capturing a moment in time, but more importantly, continuing her use of the visual as a form of expressions of self.  John Szarkowski had the following observation about personal visions in photography: “In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.”  7 Images such as Mansfield’s can be both:  as mirrors (self-expression) and as windows (exploration).  It need not be either/or.  The issue is what the image triggers for the viewer.  8 Like looking at a Rothko painting, these images need to be studied and reflected upon.  Some viewers might say “Ah, feathers”.  Other viewers will see that there is no context for the feathers.  The feathers are just there frozen in a space, without a reference point.  The feather is in different positions in that space, so it is moving, or has moved. Once we realize that it is a feather in motion, we might relate time to the motion (time frozen in a captured moment, but not one “decisive moment” as expressed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson).

The white space surrounding the feathers is like a stage for performance. Unlike other works of self-expression where we see the photographer, we have no evidence of Mansfield’s presence.  It is the evidence of her existence and personal challenge with time as a “threshold” that cannot be controlled or breached.  It just “is”.  The “Threshold” portfolio is like Robert Smithson’s “Nine Mirror Displacements, Yucatan, 1969”. “Part Earthwork and part image, the displacements contemplate temporality; while the  mirror records the passage of time, its photograph suspends time.”  9 Mansfield’s work has both elements too: passage and suspension. Floating and frozen.

David Reinfeld

David Reinfeld 10 is a photographer who trained at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and studied under Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Lisette Model, and Minor White.  He was also influenced by another artist, Wolf Kahn, a German/American abstract painter known for his use of color in realistic settings. These influences are evident in his work.  His abstracted works have that feel of graffiti and decayed walls, yet with his own touch added. Unlike the others, Reinfeld makes composite images using Photoshop.  Yet, he also has very traditional imagery. He is photographing the artifacts of our culture.  Many of his composited images are covered in mystery (as in some of his other portfolios, such as “A Walk in the Woods”, “Shrouded” or “Shadow People”).  He is prolific and he does experiment.  That’s what was interesting about Reinfeld’s work.  He has more experimental portfolios than many photographers.  And, while many are reminiscent and clearly influenced by his former professors and others he has studied, he has been photographing long enough that his own style has begun to emerge.  In the work “Bloodline #1 (2017)”, he suggests that the cracked and decayed walls are “the stresses we feel from social interaction”. It is the facelessness of the outline of the person and the wall’s texture that catches one’s attention.  It feels as if someone is about to emerge from a mist; or, alternatively, fall back into a shroud of fog and uncertainty.  

Photograph by David Reinfeld, “Bloodline #1” ©2017, from his series “Bloodline”

Joana Cardozo

Joana Cardozo 11 is a Brazilian/American photographer whose series “Blueprints” has creatively blended architecture, the silhouette technique  used in past eras and creative photography and printing to define people by their environments in a new way.  Cardozo commented: “Blueprints is a series of images about how our everyday objects help define us. I usually introduce the project by defending that our home is the reflection of ourselves. Therefore; I go to my subjects’ homes and select objects I think will help me convey to the viewer who that person is, or what he/she does, etc. Then, I photograph just the shadow of the objects selected and I place each of them within the floor plan of the subject’s apartment or house. … The colors and texture play an important role in helping me depict the person portrayed. … Like a mirror, a home reflects the identity of its’ inhabitants. The way the content of a house is arranged reveals, in a whisper, whether the person is organized, chaotic, romantic, divorced; everything I imagine to know.”  It was intriguing to visually wander from room to room, and examine what objects, pets, clothing, musical instruments and other items were selected. It makes one self-conscious of what we might unintentionally reveal to our guests and visitors by the objects we have around ourselves, and where and how those objects are placed about.  Her images are revealing not just about her subjects, but ourselves, too.

Photograph by Joana Cardozo, “Blueprint17” ©2017 from her series “Blueprints”.

Photo Lucida was four days of meeting a large number of creative and exceptional people.  But for a space limitation, many more could have been included in this commentary. These images are a conversation about people and our things, with an absence of portraits of people.  It’s an interesting contrast, that each of these artists is dealing with some human issue, emotion, impact or constructed space.  Yet, in none of these images does a person appear.  Much of the photographic work today is focused on struggle, memory, and other personal, very human, emotions and challenges. Stepping back, these images show imagination and creativity, using alternative methods to reflect human events without putting themselves or others explicitly into the image.  It is also interesting to note practices from the past, both in type of equipment and technique, were revised and resurrected.  The influence of prior masters of photography and other media revealed themselves in these images like some form of genetic code we carry forward from the study of art and history of photography. We cannot help but be influenced by this past.  Yet, these photographers are not just repeating the past.  They are putting their own imprint into their work, and these images may, in turn, change someone else’s path.

AIPAD-Contemporary Photography-Based Art

The 2017 Association of International Photography Art Dealers (AIPAD) Photography Show this year in New York at Pier 94 revealed a global selection of contemporary work beyond the plentiful exhibitions of older, vintage work.  There were roughly 150 Galleries, book dealers and Special Exhibitions. Approximately 2250 different photographers were shown on the walls, in the bins and boxes of the dealer booths.  While there are many excellent images to visually overwhelm any of us, the six 1 images discussed here spoke loudly and take us to a visually dynamic place.  The selected images represent the creative use of old, current and experimental photography, in some cases, mixed with other art media.

The image below, “Pagliaccio, 2016” is a unique hand-painted photograph and collage created by Paolo Ventura, an Italian artist and photographer. The buildings and other depicted objects are models Ventura hand built and painted to be used in his photographs.  Some of these were on display at the AIPAD Special Exhibition, “Fifteen Countries”, which were selected works from the Martin Z. Margulies Collection.  The people collaged into Ventura’s images are himself and his wife.  There is an artistry in these images by combining both hand created background sets, using photography to photograph himself, his wife or others, and then to have the photograph become the artistic object. This combination of media, construction and assembly takes the use of photography to a very dynamic  level of expression.

Image by Italian artist Paolo Ventura, “Pagliaccio, 2016”,
provided by Photographic Fine Art Gallery, Lugano, Switzerland

Cuba has a number of photographers now being discovered here in the United States.  At AIPAD, there was a Special Exhibition of Cuban art from the collection of Madeleine P. Plonsker: “The Light in Cuban Eyes”.  Among the work exhibited is the photographer Arien Chang Castán.  The untitled work from his series “Campo, 2011” is a black & white digital print diptych.   While both images are traditional photographic images, the combination into one visual statement is not.  The young boy in the lower part of the image appears to be supporting the entire river in the upper image, with a small amount draining down over his head.  In both images there is a horse, near and far.  In the upper photograph, a man, up to his neck in water, is peering at us from beneath and behind the horse that is calmly enjoying the cool river water. Below, the horse is behind the young boy, but we also see another small boy beneath the head and neck of the horse standing on dry land. Within the combined image, we have many different spatial and human relationships that make this an exceptional visual composition.

Image by Cuban Artist Arien Chang Castán, “Untitled” from the series “Campo, 2011”, digital prints, diptych.
Shown at the AIPAD Special Exhibition “The Light in Cuban Eyes”, from the Madeleine P. Plonsker Collection

A photograph as an object can itself become sculptural. Christopher Russell uses a fine edge knife to etch a design into the paper’s image and emulsion.  This body of work shows a blurred landscape in the background, with his physical etching echoing his thoughts and reaction to  what he has photographed.  It’s again another challenge to a straight visual image, unlike Castán’s work.  Like several of the other artists, he has chosen to use photography as part of the art rather than the visual image as the entire statement.  Another difference from traditional analog or digital photography is that each work is unique. No two images will be the same.  Multiple identical images cannot be reproduced from a film negative or digital file.  Each image’s surface is scratched and abraded in a different way.  The blurred background causes the viewer to try to look beyond the image put into the surface to see what’s there, so it requires some focus and concentration, capturing successfully a viewer’s attention to the image.  Consider that one improper scratch or abrasion will ruin that entire image and the artist would have to start over.  The viewer, in realizing this, must have an appreciation for the artistry involved and study what the artist has presented.

Image by American artist Christopher Russell, “Mountain XV”, provided by UpFor Gallery, Portland, Oregon,

Another photographer, Sebastiaan Bremer, modifies the surface of his images in a different way.  Bremer carefully draws small lines and dots in a wavy flow across the entire surface of the image. The concentration to detail and technical effort, as with Russell, must be intense.  With some of the images, playful objects like fish are included. The photographs themselves are very well executed.  The printing and tonal range are subdued.  There is a softness and sensitivity communicated in how the  woman in the image is shown.  This is only a detail of a much larger image to focus our attention on the meticulous drawing on the image surface.  The drawing on the surface of the image snags the viewers attention, and draws one into the details of the photograph. There is a tension between looking at the image from a distance and seeing the whole; and then walking up close to examine what Bremer has drawn onto the print surface.

A detail view of an image created by Dutch artist Sebastiaan Bremer, with permission of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

Some photography-based art pieces have to be physically seen to really appreciate the quality and visual perspective the artist has created.  Originally from Poland, and now France, Gabriela Morawetz’s “Ideal Structures, 2012-2013” from her series “Away From You, Close to you” is a very physical photographic object.  She prints and mounts a silver gelatin print into a frame. Then she prints another image on to a silver emulsion  layered onto the inner side of a curved dome like glass bubble that is placed over the first image. The two images are sealed together with what looks like a soldered or molded lead metal frame like an old  stained-glass window. Morawetz has created a dialogue between these two images. Again, this artist has encouraged the viewer to pay attention and look more closely.  The viewer has to look at both and reflect on how and why these two images have been combined.

Image by Polish photographer Gabriela Morawetz, “Ideal Structures, 2012-2013”, silver emulsion convex glass, combined with pigment print on paper, photographed with permission of See+ Gallery, Beijing, China.

Older historic methods of photography have been  resurrected and re-revisited by contemporary photographers over the last several years.  The Wendy Small work from her portfolio “Remedy” shown below are large photograms.  Photograms are created when objects are layered directly onto a light sensitive surface, exposed to light and then developed. “Remedy pieces are made by collecting leaves, weeds, or flowers from a  specific place (indicated in the title) and placing those leaves directly onto photo paper and exposing the paper to light.”  These images are made of four 20”x24” sheets. These are not digital. The exposed sheets of photographic paper are  developed in a “wet” darkroom using developer, stop bath, fixer and water washed as analog images were made prior to the digital printing revolution. Ms. Small’s work in this portfolio is a very engaging contemporary use of an older photographic technique going back to the earliest days of photography.  

Image by American photographer Wendy Small, “Remedy (Vermont)”,
provided by Morgan Lehman Gallery, New York

Attending the AIPAD Photography Show is an annual event that those who love looking at photography should attend.  There are clearly far too many works to discuss in any one article. These six selections, out of the approximately 2250 images at the fair, represent only a fraction of the variety in photographic expression.  Images executed as “straight” photographic work, whether analog or digital, can still make us see parts of our world and lives differently and imaginatively.  We see that older methods of photography, including cameraless techniques such as photograms, are just as visually appealing and informative today as 150+ years ago.  Combining photography with other media, whether printing or embedding images on or into other materials, constructing objects included in a collage or set, is an extension of the artist’s voice.  And then, there is the distortion of the image itself.  Here, we see the destruction of the emulsion, or in another detailed drawing on the print surface.  In other cases we know the image can be folded, crumpled, presented as is, and/or rephotographed to play with our visual sense of depth and dimension. These few images clearly show there are no limits to visual engagement and expression in photographs.

Notes:

  1. All images in this Commentary are used with the permission of the exhibiting Gallery or Collection.

Light and Color – The Work of Deborah Bay

Light is nothing to our eyes. We cannot see it unless there is darkness around us. Yet, light is everything. Most all visible things have some color which resonates from light. Light weighs nothing, yet it defines shape, appearance and gives objects the sensation of mass.  Light in nature comes from the sun, which is wavelengths of the colors that make up what we call “light”. 1 The visible light spectrum is a range of hues (or color) that transitions from red, yellow, green, blue to indigo or violet. The human eye is sensitive to red, green and blue or “RGB”. 2 At either end of the light spectrum there are infrared waves and on the other end, ultraviolet, x-rays and gamma rays. We cannot capture these extremes without the aid of technology to “see”. The blend of all colors in the visible light spectrum is what we “see” as white. “The absence of wavelengths from the light spectrum is black, yet…black is not actually a color”. 3  Deborah Bay’s “Traveling Light” photography series is all about light and color. 4

Viewing a photograph that is a color abstract forces questions that we should contemplate, whether documentary, scientific, vernacular or art.  How does a viewer of an image really appreciate what the photographer has done?  With an exception for documentary or scientific images, some might argue that if you like an image, that is all that counts, implying that it is not necessary to be critical of the color and whether it is “true to life”.  Is it appropriate to argue that whether the color is recorded and printed correctly is less important than the artistic result?  Otherwise, might we ask ourselves how the color we see relates to the subject matter and our sense of that image?  How do  “hue”, “saturation” and “value” 5  impact a viewer’s feelings about an image?  Were these images taken in the morning, afternoon, dusk or late evening? Or whether the colors we capture in our eyes will change with the intensity of the light of day, or other atmospheric influences?  Alternatively, was an artificial light source used?  If artificial light was used, as it is in Bay’s images, how does that affect what we see, and should we care?  Is there an undesirable color cast over the image that skews the pure colors intended, or is there a proper “white balance” 6?  Bay’s images put these questions front and center because there are no tangible familiar images in these works to which we can relate and identify in our mind as to what something should look like; and, there is no frame of reference for what color(s) these shapes should be or represent. To create a frame of reference, we should understand how we, as humans, “see” color, and the history of how color photography began to record and reproduce what colors we “see”.

While earlier scientists thought about color, it was Sir Isaac Newton who first explained a theory of light and colors in 1672. Isaac Newton’s experiments created a wheel  of color divided into the three “primary colors” of red, green and blue 7, and the “secondary colors” of yellow, cyan and magenta (that result from various combinations of primary colors). 8 The pursuit of capturing photographic images in color began in 1861 by a Scotsman, James Clerk Maxwell.  In 1903 the Lumière brothers developed the Autochrome process that used colored microscopic potato starch grains on glass plates and a complicated development process. It was in 1935 that Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes (“God” and “Man” as they were apparently called) at the Kodak Research Laboratories  who created Kodachrome film, and the era of color photography really began for everyday and artistic use. 9  Color photography has come a long way since those days, and further now with the advent of digital technology. Photographers never cease to be fascinated and challenged with “drawing with light” 10. Deborah Bay is no exception.  Bay stated that: “Images from the “Traveling Light” series developed …After collecting dozens of prisms and lenses and experimenting with tabletop setups…intrigued with the unexpected planes and lines of color created by the light moving across the objects. The physical form and texture of the optics produce a sense of “materialness” from the formless waves and particles.” It is this captured “materialness”, using photography as the tool, that has created these intriguing abstract images.

Bay’s work challenges the viewer to consider how they will react to these images.  That effort begins with understanding the common terms associated with describing colors: “hue” (or color), “value” ((adding white (lightness or “tints”) or blacks (darkness or “shades”)) and “chroma” (“color purity”).  There is an entire science that has developed around the study of color and human perception, most often seen in some form of a color wheel. 11  “Hue is the term for the pure spectrum colors commonly referred to by the “color names” – red, orange, yellow, blue, green violet”.  Chroma (or saturation) measures the purity or intensity of the color. Value is the lightness or darkness of the color.  Something is “monochromatic” when the hues (color) are the same, varied only by value adjustments (white and black additions or subtractions to the color). 12

Each of Bay’s images tests our perception of hue, value and chroma. Recently, Bay explained: “My approach is largely intuitive. I may be inspired by a combination of colors seen on the street or in a piece of art, fabric, nature, almost anything. If I go to the studio with no particular plan, complimentary or analogous groupings are a good starting point. I also like to experiment with elements of disruptive color.” Her work explores the interaction of light and color gel filters with transparent or translucent optical objects, making us stop to evaluate what color we see and how they relate to each other. As a viewer, we have, consciously or unconsciously, an emotional and visceral reaction to color.    It is not easy to reflect in a photograph the color as we believe we see it. Different sources of light can give an artificial “color cast” over an image, either making it too reddish or too bluish, for example.  To capture color accurately, the type of light and atmospheric conditions that exist at the moment the image is made have to be considered.  The act of correction to what is mechanically captured is call the “white balance” adjustment.  “White balance (WB) is the process of removing unrealistic color casts, so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your photo. A proper camera white balance has to take into account the “color temperature” of a light source, which refers to the relative warmth or coolness of white light. Our eyes are very good at judging what is white under different light sources, but digital cameras often have great difficulty with auto white balance (AWB) — and can create unsightly blue, orange, or even green color casts. Understanding digital white balance can help avoid these color casts, thereby improving photos under a wider range of lighting conditions. …  Despite its name, light which may appear white does not necessarily contain an even distribution of colors across the visible spectrum” 13.  And colors create an emotional “feel”.  Brown colors are referenced as “warm” or cozy colors, and “blue” colors convey a sense of “coldness” or distance. In Bay’s images, we see color tones that range from muted or pastel to a bolder color palate.

Image by Deborah Bay ©2017, “Linear2Circle”, from the Traveling Light series

When we look at her image “Linear2Circle” we see the entire visible spectrum of light from red to violet.  Yet, our eyes are programmed for red, green and blue. How is it that we can see different hues and saturation and values of color? What we see and how light is projected is RGB based; but, a printing process is based on CMYK 14.   “Any natural scene or color photograph can be optically and physiologically dissected into three primary colors, red, green and blue, roughly equal amounts of which give rise to the perception of white, and different proportions of color give rise to the visual sensations of all other colors. The additive combination of any two primary colors in roughly equal proportion gives rise to the perception of a secondary color. For example, red and green yields yellow, red and blue yields magenta (a purple hue), and green and blue yield cyan (a turquoise hue). Only yellow is counterintuitive. Yellow, cyan and magenta are merely the “basic” secondary colors: unequal mixtures of the primaries give rise to perception of many other colors all of which may be considered tertiary. … [secondary] colors are cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black); abbreviated as CMYK. … Where two such inks overlap on the paper due to sequential printing impressions, a primary color is perceived. For example, yellow (minus-blue) overprinted by magenta (minus green) yields red. Where all three inks may overlap, almost all incident light is absorbed or subtracted, yielding near black…” 15  The image “Linear2Circle” is actually a diptych of two separate images combined into one.  While the colors of each image are very different, there is a pleasing combination and a sense of flow from one to the other by her use of shapes through which the light has passed.

 

Image by Deborah Bay ©2017, “Angles of Pi”, from the “Traveling Light” series

The use of only one color or hue, as Bay has done in some of her images, still creates a sense of depth, weight and dimension. When asked about this intensity in color, Bay stated: “The images constructed against a black background have a richer color density, while those created with a white background have an airiness to the light. In post production, I may add contrast and/or saturation to get the look I want.” In both “Angles of PI” and “Geometry Lesson” , we perceive light and dark gradations of one color. In each, several light sources were used, but with filters of the same hue, but different values or tones. Dr. James Pomerantz 16 commented on Bay’s images: “Many of them… have a dominant color tone throughout, with variations in brightness and saturation only, for the most part. Others…pit opposing colors (yellow and blue) against one another, and those juxtapositions bring out a kind of vibrancy along with them. Many of the images have light passing through glass filters. … I see pronounced edge effects around the filters. They can have a big effect on the colors we perceive inside those edges. See the Watercolor illusion 17…where all the background region is the same pure white throughout, even though the portions inside the yellow edges appear to have a yellowish beige tint. The illusion happens because the brain determines colors mainly at the edges it perceives and then just fills in the colors throughout the rest of the space, in a way similar to how we fill in the blind spot we have in each eye. In some images, sharp edges bleed into blurred edges, suggesting depth and a lens with a narrow depth of field. Finally there are shadows, where the color temperatures are different (compare white balance settings for sunlight vs. shade).”  

Image by Deborah Bay ©2017, “Geometry Lesson”, from the “Traveling Light” series

While the camera sensor is made to replicate what the human eye sees, the human brain is far more complex and involved in analyzing and adjusting what our mind’s eye sees compared to what a camera records. Pomerantz further explains these differences. “The human eye responds to wavelengths ranging from 400 – 700 nanometers (violet to red). That’s an infinitesimally tiny slice of the whole electromagnetic spectrum, most of which we are blind to. Also the eye, doesn’t respond equally to all wavelengths in that narrow 400-700 range. It also doesn’t have cones tuned to each wavelength (701, 702, 703, etc.) but rather has just three cone types, a short one tuned to roughly 424, a medium one tuned to 530, and a long wavelength one tuned to 560 nanometers. … Most digital cameras use what are called Bayer sensors. Each pixel is simply a photo-sensitive element with a tiny colored filter over it – red, green, or blue – like what Deborah Bay uses. As with the human retina, there are more of the medium – green – elements than red or blue. So when the camera records a picture, the blue elements produce the blue channel, green produce green, and red produce red.…The brain does a lot of interpolation to fill in or infer wavelengths in between the three sampled wavelengths of 424, 530, and 560. …By looking at the R, G, and B on a color space like Adobe or sRBG, you can see how you can create all the colors inside the triangle formed by these three points (i.e., the full gamut).”  An example of camera sensitivity to spectrums of light the eye/brain cannot record is evident in some military cameras.  Richard Mosse, a photographer, uses a camera that “has the capability to shoot sharp images from as far as 30.3 kilometers (18.8 miles) away. … by comparison, the human eye can see a maximum of around five kilometers at sea level.” 18 The camera records more specific details about color than we see, but for the colors we don’t record, our brains interpolate a color to fill in the blanks, so to speak.  When we look at Bay’s images, her compositions reflect our ability to enjoy the created ranges of color.

Image by Deborah Bay ©2017, “Intersection Theory 1”, from the “Traveling Light” series

Bay’s images are a visual dialogue on color theory. The image “Intersection Theory I” combines yellow and blue. Yellow and blue are primary colors and across from each other on a traditional color wheel. A color wheel is a visual aid to understanding how colors relate to each other visually, and how that influences a viewer. Colors in opposite positions on a color wheel are referred to as “complementary colors” (or opposite), and colors near each other on the color wheel are “analogous colors”.  Opposite colors on the wheel create a strong contrast and give a noticeable separation or barrier when next to each other.  Analogous colors, since they are close to each other on the color wheel, give a more harmonious or peaceful sensation.  An artist armed with that understanding has a valuable tool through which their images can speak; and, depending on the value or saturation, speak loudly or softly.  In a sense, we are hearing a visual expression in our mind’s eye.   “In visual experiences, harmony is something that is pleasing to the eye. It engages the viewer and it creates an inner sense of order, a balance in the visual experience. When something is not harmonious, it’s either boring or chaotic. At one extreme is a visual experience that is so bland that the viewer is not engaged. The human brain will reject under-stimulating information. At the other extreme is a visual experience that is so overdone, so chaotic that the viewer can’t stand to look at it. The human brain rejects what it cannot organize, what it can not understand. The visual task requires that we present a logical structure. Color harmony delivers visual interest and a sense of order.” 19  The power in Bay’s images is this ability to intuitively match colors and shapes to give an image we want to explore, and find pleasing to look at.  Yet, the images are more than just pleasing, because her arrangement of shapes, combination of images, and juxtaposition, as in the image “Mondrian Dialectic III”, cause our mind to relate these images to other thoughts, places and objects by association.  Her reference to Mondrian 20 reinforces and illustrates the mutual influences of art on photography and the reverse allowing similar expression whether a camera or a paint brush, oil, acrylic or watercolor, paper collage, etc.

Image by Deborah Bay @2017, “Mondrian Dialectic III”, from the “Traveling Light” series

What Deborah Bay has done is somewhat different from other contemporary photographers who are also working with abstract photographic color compositions.  Liz Nielson creates cameraless color images. “Replacing the traditional negative with hand cut collages comprised of different colored gels, Nielsen projects her forms on to chromogenic paper creating bright and luminous abstractions.  As the paper she uses is a negative rather than a positive paper, the colors of the gels are reversed often creating surprising new combinations…”. 21  A good example is her work “Canoe (2015)” an analog chromogenic unique photo. Other photographers to look at are Shirana Shahbazi, Jessica Eaton and Walead Beshty.  Shahbazi’s images are non-digital studio photographs of painted geometric objects. 22  Writer Lily Rothman wrote about  Jessica Eaton’s cFaal images. “…[She] explains that she exploits the properties of light through additive color separation… Eaton applies filters in those three [red, green, blue] colors to her camera and takes multiple exposures…constructs her images using analog photography with various experimental techniques that play with light and colour and that, unlike traditional photography, go beyond what can be seen with the naked eye.” 23 One should look at Eaton’s cFaal 113 (2011) or cFaal 109(2011) images.  Yet, another method is used by Walead Beshty in creating his photography based color abstracts like “Six Magnet, Three Color Curl” (2009). “With the Multisided Pictures I fold the paper into a freestanding form, and based on touch – the processes of colour photography require total darkness – each side is exposed to a colour. If the form has six sides the piece will be called Six-Sided Picture. Initially the colours were all the ones embedded within the development of the technology: cyan, magenta, yellow, red, green, and blue, but with the curled pieces I stopped using RGB, realizing there was actually no need for it. I had thought that RGB incorporated the way we see, i.e. the red, green and blue cones in our eyes, but this seemed unnecessary as my understanding of the work changed. In case of the Curls I use the easel outlines left behind by others in the darkroom. It’s a horizontal enlarger, which means you project against a wall instead of at the ground. Using the existing magnetic framing I let the paper hang of the wall, so that its weight, how it curls and what not, will dictate how the shadows are cast. I expose it to three colours; taking it down and putting it back up between each exposure, all of it blindly.” 24

Deborah Bay’s photographic art brings an excitement into our visible world.  In her case, the arrangements are experimental yet purposefully done. Our inclination and experience with photography, in general, has been to see a photograph that documents an event or records a scene, like a landscape.  Black & white film photographers of the past, such as William Klein, Aaron Siskind, Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy have experimented with abstraction in the past, but color has added an entirely new dimension for experimentation with in photography, in some ways learning from what has been done in other mediums previously.  But, Deborah Bay’s work has a special message for those who take the time to look carefully at her work.  Not everyone, nor every creature can enjoy the visible colors in nature and our surroundings. 25  Her use of color with different filters and geometric optical objects shape, twist and turn  the light.  Her orchestration of “traveling light” make these images intriguing.  Bay’s images are a reminder that we should not take the visible and tonal pleasures of color for granted.

Notes:

  1. see http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/light/Lesson-2/The-Electromagnetic-and-Visible-Spectra
  2. Hermann von Helmholtz in the mid to late 1800s postulated: “the existence of three types of color receptors, called cones, in the human eye that are stimulated by broad regions of the visible spectrum. Red light in one of these regions stimulated one type of cone, green light from the middle region could stimulate a second type of cone, and blue light in the final region stimulated the remaining cone. The relative degree of stimulation of these cones gives us perception of all of the colors that we see. We perceive sunlight as “white” because [wavelengths of light that] radiate from each of the three …parts of the visible spectrum (red, green, and blue) stimulate the three cones in our eyes. If an object reflects red and green light but not blue light, my eyes will see it as yellow. If a second object reflects just red and blue light, my eyes will see it as magenta. Yet another object reflecting just blue and green light appears cyan colored.” http://web.mit.edu/22.51/www/Extras/color_theory/color.html . The “RGB” concept will be discussed in more detail later in this Commentary.
  3. from http://www.physicsclassroom.com/class/light/Lesson-2/The-Electromagnetic-and-Visible-Spectra
  4. http://deborahbay.com
  5. This last dimension usually goes by brightness or lightness (for light sources and reflective surfaces, respectively). But there are different groups that use different terms. The Munsell system calls this third dimension “value” and uses “chroma” for saturation.
  6. Most cameras today have features to “correct” the color recorded based on the predominate light reflected off the subject. There is usually a default “auto” setting. Other settings include: Tungsten, Daylight, Cloudy, Flash, Shade, Fluorescent or allow for custom or manually adjusted settings.
  7. At an early age…We were taught…that the primary colors were red, blue, and yellow. … The color wheel that we could make … is quite different than Newton’s color wheel. The primary colors that we learned in school, were red, blue, and yellow (NOT GREEN). From http://web.mit.edu/22.51/www/Extras/color_theory/color.html Dr. James Pomerantz (Professor of Psychology at Rice University, with an emphasis in the areas of perception, cognitive and affective neuroscience. Dr. Pomerantz has served as the Elma W. Schneider Professor of Psychology, Dean of School of Social Sciences and Director of Neurosciences) explained it well. “Basically it depends on whether you are talking about mixing lights versus mixing paints. Computer screens emit light, whereas prints absorb and reflect light, and therein lies the difference. Color science almost always focuses on mixing lights and so usually uses RGB as the three primaries,…For mixing paints, which absorb light, what we see are the wavelengths that are reflected, that don’t get absorbed. CMY are really the three primaries here. You can form black by mixing C, M, and Y (cyan, magenta, and yellow), but that’s way expensive compared to using plain old carbon, so the space for printing with inks is called CMYK (with the K standing for black, because the letter B has already been used for blue!). There’s nothing really in the physics of light to justify any of this, however. It’s all in biology and evolution. Biologically eyes evolved to take the physical continuum of wavelength and represent it in the brain using long, medium, and short wavelength sensitive cones. Thus we have R, G, and B cones, and we can fake any other color by mixing those three properly.”
  8. See http://web.mit.edu/22.51/www/Extras/color_theory/color.html
  9. An excellent timeline and discussion of color photography can be found at: History of Color Photography: http://www.bu.edu/prc/GODOWSKY/timeline.htm , The Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, from the “Timeline of Color Photography (2005)”.
  10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photography
  11. There is an entire science that has developed around the study of color and human perception: “Colorimetry”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Munsell_color_system In colorimetry, the Munsell color system is a color space that specifies colors based on three color dimensions: hue, value (lightness), and chroma (color purity)…created by Professor Albert H. Munsell in the first decade of the 20th century…and he was the first to systematically illustrate the colors… into perceptually uniform… and in three-dimensional space …Munsell determined the spacing of colors along these dimensions by taking measurements of human visual responses. …Each horizontal circle Munsell divided into five principal hues: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Purple … Albert Munsell, an artist and professor of art at the Massachusetts Normal Art School (now Massachusetts College of Art and Design, or MassArt), wanted to create a “rational way to describe color.”
  12. for a basic illustration of these terms go to http://www.harding.edu/gclayton/color/topics/001_huevaluechroma.html and see also http://char.txa.cornell.edu/language/element/color/color.htm.
  13. “Basics:How Your Camera Works: Understanding White Balance http://www.cambridgeincolour.com/tutorials/white-balance.htm
  14. See footnote 7 above for an explanation of CYMK.
  15. From wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_printing .
  16. The excerpt is from conversations with the author about Deborah Bay’s work with Dr. James Pomerantz (op.cit.). See also “Sensing Violet: THe Human Eye and Digital Cameras”, Dr. Robert Schleif, Johns Hopkins. http://gene.bio.jhu.edu/violet/violet.html
  17. See an explanation of the Watercolor Illusion at https://www.cs.bgu.ac.il/~ben-shahar/Teaching/Computational-Vision/StudentProjects/ICBV111/ICBV-2011-1-ArsenShatikian-NitzanOhana/ICBV-2011-1-ArsenShatikian-NitzanOhana.pdf
  18. From the article “Richard Mosse Is Using a Weapons-Grade Camerato Take Chilling Photos of the Migrant Crisis”, ARTSY, by Casey Lesser, February 13, 2017. Dr. Pomerantz, op. cit., mentions pictures from the Hubble Telescope, which include both UV and near infrared.
  19. http://www.colormatters.com/color-and-design/basic-color-theory An excellent site for an explanation of how colors work and why color is important.
  20. http://www.theartstory.org/artist-mondrian-piet-artworks.htm “In the 1920s, Mondrian began to create the definitive abstract paintings for which he is best known. He limited his palette to white, black, gray, and the three primary colors, with the composition constructed from thick, black horizontal and vertical lines that delineated the outlines of the various rectangles of color or reserve.”
  21. http://www.danzigergallery.com/artists/liz-nielsen
  22. https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2012/newphotography/shirana-shahbazi/shahbazi-3/index.html
  23. From http://time.com/3788545/jessica-eaton/ article May 16, 2012 by Lily Rothman.
  24. http://www.konsthall.malmo.se/upload/pdf/Walead_Beshty_Interview.pdf
  25. Again, referencing the comments of Dr. Jim Pomerantz of Rice University (op.cit.) : “ Other animals have only two cones … Birds often have 4 or 5 cones, so they aren’t fooled by our screens and printers in the slightest. Most animals have no cones, however, and they don’t see color at all.”

Photography in Motion: Time-Slip – The Work of Martin Holmes

Photographers have always been interested in freezing a moment in time. Beaumont Newhall , in describing photography stated: “All good photography… holds a moment of time and a fraction of space forever; it reveals more than the eye can see; it discovers the world for us.” 1 It’s a wonderful statement of what all photographers with a vision to express want to achieve. An emerging conceptual photographer, Martin Holmes, has been experimenting with training his eye and imagination to do just this. Because of his own sense of isolation and the frenzy on city streets, Holmes, in his series “Time-Slip”, used photography as a tool to capture the tone, pace, motion and, for him, emotion of the streets. This commentary will explore his work over the last couple of years and highlight how this expression has evolved through 12 images that each represent different permutations of this still developing vision.

Holmes defied the conventional wisdom that all things have been photographed, as all photographers should. His interest germinated from a study of the streets of downtown Houston, Texas, exploring the creation of “streetscape” and “urbanscape” type images. While street photography is a classic and well known genre, he felt a need to express his own vision of what he saw and felt. One of his first images from the “Time Slip” series was “Don’t Walk”. Certain elements have been part of street photography for years: people rushing from place to place, responding to street signs and signals and avoiding cars, buses and trains. What Holmes captured was the frenzied pace of people within a composition framed by the downtown urban environment. We move instinctively between other people on the sidewalks and obstacles mechanically and by rote driven by a fear of time, delayed, interrupted and being late for our next appointment. These images visualize this pace for all types of people in motion on our streets.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Don’t Walk”, from the Time-Slip Series, 2015

What is interesting about this series of images is watching the development of an artist at work building on a concept. These images layout for our study a process of trial and error that any artist goes through, but rarely can we witness the process. The series all starts with Holmes finding a street corner in downtown Houston, Texas from which to photograph street activity. Initially the images are caught moments, in the spirit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moments”. 2 In the 1986 edition of “A History of Photography”, edited by Jean-Claude Lemagny and André Rouillé, they quote Cartier-Bresson in stating that: “It is Cartier-Bresson who had produced the most perfect definition of the reporter’s action in taking photographs” … “Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a single instant, of on the one hand the significance of a fact and, on the other, the rigorous organization of the visually perceived forms which express and give meaning to that fact”. While Holmes is not a reporter, and his images are not documentary, he is catching moments, and emphasizing them both with repetition and modification to communicate and give “meaning” to what he is thinking.

His next step in this visual journey was to capture an individual, not just showing motion, but the expression of motion and movement, between moving objects. It is reminiscent of the scientific stroboscopic photograph “Bob Running” of the movement images by Harold “Doc” Edgerton or “The Pendulum” from the motion studies of Berenice Abbott. 3

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Trains on Rusk Street”, from the Time-Slip Series, 2015

Holmes does not think about his work as photography, but as art, where the camera is the tool used. In Beaumont Newhall’s “The History of Photography: from 1839 to the present day” 4, a chapter was devoted to “The Conquest of Action”. Cameras in the early days of photography were barely able to capture a clear image of an individual sitting much less in motion, given the limitation of lens, shutters and film sensitivity to light. Motion in still photography brings to mind immediately Eadweard Muybridge and his studies of movement. Perhaps the most famous is the 1878 image of a horse in motion which demonstrated that a horse actually ran with all four feet off the ground at one part of a gallop, which was very different than what was thought. Muybridge expanded what we were able to now see. Like Muybridge, Holmes is able to take advantage of the digital technology today to capture images that allows us to see our own movement on city streets differently.

Holmes then experimented with capturing a lone individual in a more extended range of motion. In the image “Glum”, Holmes has moved the background from a street setting of buildings to one framing the activity with the side of a building. He chooses his sites carefully. The selection process involves a background that will match in some manner the color and attitude of the person shown. The hustle and bustle of the street is felt. The image is a combination of the stationary building wall, a walking person in clearly separate motions of walk, against yet a third type of motion that is captured, the quickly moving car that is a lone blur going the opposite direction.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Glum on Lamar Street”, from the Time-Slip Series, 2015

He continued the “Time Slip” series experiment with a group of images subtitled “Street Portraits”. The image now becomes a study of one person. Our actions on the streets of the city is a study in movement that is choreographed within the stage of the urban environment we walk through most everyday. The series “Street Portraits” is a study of movements on the street focused on our own gestures, the actions of those around us, signs or barriers that impede our progress. While we sometimes “walk in a daze”, we may also interrupt our own rapid pace by a phone call, a “pearl of wisdom” we want to capture and write down or a call we suddenly remember to make. The camera captures the visual pace and actions, parts of which are emphasized in post processing to examine our conscious and unconscious behaviors. The images reflect what we do and how we are controlled as we ping-pong from place to place in our ever more crowded downtown urban environment.

His selection of who is photographed now speaks to what we are all guilty of at one time or another – walking while our mind is distracted with other thoughts of something else, another time and place or people, deep in thought. “Distraction”, appears to capture a woman walking and reading something off her cell phone. A very typical, everyday feature seen all the time on the street, and many other places. The artist does wonder if this image will be “dated” by the cell phone because one day a new technology will replace it. Future images may indeed show us walking wearing a visual reality headgear totally oblivious and detached from our surroundings. Rather than engaged with others or our surroundings, we are transported by our mobile devices to some other place. The term “Time-Slip” now has another meaning. Its not only our own passage through traditional time and space. In “Distraction” , the Time-Slip is suggesting missed time. How often have we been so lost in thought, that when we emerge from our thoughts and break through, as we come up for air so to speak, figuratively and perhaps literally, we wonder where we’ve walked, and where are we?

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Distraction”, from the Time-Slip/Street Portrait Series, 2015

In the last example of Holmes’ work in this sampling of the “Time-Slip Street Portraits” series, he experiments with colorizing the images to apparently give the image a more fanciful, less documentary look. “Rainbow Dress” is his first effort trying to use the camera and Photoshop as tools of fabricated artistic expression, rather than as a literal photographic image. Up until this point, Holmes had used the tools in Photoshop as a substitute for a traditional “wet” darkroom to create a print from an image (or images) he has taken, rather than to manipulate and create an “artificial” image. Muybridge had captured motion using multiple cameras creating many separate images that were presented separately as distinct prints aligned together to illustrate motion. What Holmes did in photoshop was to take multiple images and stack or combine them in photoshop. This is no different than the layering of traditional film images by artists like Jerry Uelsmann. However, he then departs from a traditional photographic approach with the “Rainbow Dress” image using Photoshop as a tool to create this unrealistic image.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Rainbow Dress”, from the Time-Slip/Street Portraits Series, 2015

Holmes also becomes interested in the challenge of extracting and directing the focus of a viewer’s attention to one person out of the many in a crowd of people. From a professional standpoint, he has also joined an outside group of artists, other than photographers, to look at and critique works of others in the group. He is listening to the statements by non-photographic artists talking about what they are doing and why. Whether consciously or not, he also appears to have been exposed to the photo collage/ photomontage work of the dadaist and surrealists. He seems driven by a desire to convey his own state of mind in these images, creating his own photographic expression, albeit an artificial image. In this image another new element is added to the visual composition: signs. Part of Holmes’ sense of the street is not only the pace of distracted people walking alone within a bustling environment, but how that movement is regulated. Our movements in these urban environments are controlled. We have lines to walk between. We have signs to tell us to “Stop” and to “Go”. To walk. To not walk. Warning signs. Signs of instruction, as well as direction. Holmes identifies with these signs. While the sign in this image is literal, in later images the signs and objects on the street begin to take on a very different character.

Holmes’ next extension of expression about our urban landscape is the series “Throwing Bones”. Still a part of the “Time-Slip” series as a whole, he described this direction in his work as follows 5: “Society is a concept with many definitions. It might be considered a community with a common set of laws and beliefs. While some societies are homogeneous, there are societies whose fabric holds in its embrace differing views and behaviors, but not always easily acknowledged. The act, or expression, of “throwing bones” is a term that implies connectivity. It may be a term rooted in throwing bones to dogs to bring them closer into human connectivity; in some cultures it was a practice to tell the future. Today, it may be an expression for drawing attention to one’s self or the act of reaching out to another for inclusion.” Martin Holmes’ series “Throwing Bones” is about inclusion, belonging and acceptance; not predicting the future. Visual images are Holmes’ “bones”. He looks for a “special place at a special time” to collect as much visual information as he can, take it home, and interpret it. The visualization of motion, in part, is an individual’s self-perception about him/herself: connection with others, fears and navigating social norms and laws. It’s about being an engaged person (but, sometimes feeling like an island) building and maintaining relationships. There is anxiety in the blurred motion. Holmes uses different techniques to illustrate the fear that one’s reality and accomplishments are not real; the risk of discovery as a fraud. Society is not static; it keeps changing. We resist change and become as immoveable as a fire hydrant: hardened and set in place, and yet providing an invaluable service. For Holmes, “Throwing Bones” is a part of a “fabricated” body of work dealing with urban life.

Lemagny and Rouillé made the following observation about “fabricated photography”. “Fabricated photography or ‘staged photography’ is directly descended from the conceptual movement and from surrealist inspiration. … Fabricated photography of this kind becomes possible when the most important thing for the author is no longer to invent beautiful objects but to demonstrate his own concept of art… his purpose is to construct something completely artificial”. 6 This text as written in 1986. Now, 30 years later, their discussion seems to reach out to Martin Holmes’ art effort using digital rather than traditional photography as the tool. Neither is the “straight photography” advocated by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston and the F.64 photography group. 7

In the image “Adrift”, Holmes now adds to the background a mirrored image in motion, rather than just a wall or street scene. There is still a sign whichis an artist’ message to the viewer to consider. But there is a more fundamental change. He takes one of the figures in the image and makes a physical change, taking an inanimate object and giving it an emotional meaning as a replacement for the head on one of the participants in the scene. In this case a fire hydrant. His art is anthropomorphic – the attribution of a “human shape or characteristic to [an] inanimate thing”. 8

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Adrift”, from the Time-Slip Series, 2016

He then takes an additional step in “Recognizing Interference”. He returns to a neutral background to emphasize the people. The use of inanimate objects embedded into figures is continued as he had done in the image “Adrift”. But two new communications were added. Where before he had incorporated an unmodified street sign, a street sign is now added that has been manipulated to give an other than literal message. The other figures of people in motion are faded and made blurry. These other faded figures in motion are pushed into the background more as props to just remind us that the action is in an urban setting.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Recognizing Interference”, from the Time-Slip Series, 2016

With the image “Discord”, the figures now become part of the emotional expression of the artist. Instead of a faded image that appears as a backdrop, the images themselves are modified with noticeable red curved nodal type lines to convey an additional message. The use of the street signs has also changed. Rather than a detached “message” where one would normally expect to see a sign, the sign has now become part of one of the people on the street, making it an even more personal expression.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Discord”, from the Time-Slip Series, 2016

Holmes returns to fading the figures in “Impending Exposure”, but gives them a movement like distortion reminiscent of André Kertész’s “Distortions” work. 9 In this image, Holmes chooses to leave out an instructive street sign. His messaging is primarily the visual of actual figures of people in motion, although there is one inanimate object added to a person walking and talking on a cell phone.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Impending Exposure”, from “Throwing Bones” of the Time-Slip Series, 2016

A similar effort is made in “Untitled #12”. However, he reverts to showing all the images except one, as silhouettes of the actual people. Literally, shadows of themselves. It makes us feel the indifference of others in the city as we walk along very crowded streets, yet feel very much alone. And, while the background remains neutral, the one “person” in color in the image carries a traffic control box, or sign, as a lunch pail or briefcase. One can read many things into the image, but it seems the artist has not lifted the burden of the message of “control” and instruction that society puts on us to manage our movement as part payment for the right to coexist with others in a city, on the streets in this urban environment.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “Untitled #12”, from the “Throwing Bones” of the Time-Slip Series, 2017

The next image image of this body of work, “M.A.”, is an image that takes us full circle back to photography’s origins. The work is only a single person, in motion , against a selected background. Holmes asks individuals he knows to dress in cloths of a certain color. He looks for a particular location with color characteristics that complement the dress of the individual in motion, not unlike a black background for the stroboscopic work of Edgerton or Abbott. The artist seems solely focused back on an artistic visual image, using the camera as a tool used in a traditional manner, again, without any unusual manipulation of the image; a straight forward attempt, even more straight forward than the very first image, “Don’t Walk”. Holmes went back to the very beginning, and in effect, took a step back from that. The image is still very effective, and more purely photographic than the others.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “M.A.”, from the Time-Slip Series, 2017

The final image we discuss in this series, “N.S.”, is a nude, making a statement not only about our actions, but society’s imposed norms on how we dress; what is appropriate to wear, or not, when and where.This image is a most basic statement about our movement through society, space and time. This image harkens back to the images by Muybridge where the human figures in motion were all done sans clothing. Unlike Muybridge, the image is not to study motion, but to create artistic expression. The image, while an isolated figure against a neutral background, as with other of his images, is at a very busy intersection, a five lane street in the middle of the day with a constant flow of traffic. The artist has brought us back to their discomfort with the hustle, bustle, isolation and loneliness felt while in the middle of large groups of people. Like the prior “M.A.” image, this is again a return to a basic image, not fabricated or artificial. Its an image that challenges us and makes a firm commentary on what we take for granted when we rise in the morning, bathe and put our clothes on before we venture out in the street.

Image by ©Martin Holmes, “N.S.”, 2017

Martin Holmes’ series “Time Slip” series of “Street Portraits” and “Throwing Bones” are special. We can see photography used to create art by someone who is not trying to produce a classic “photograph”, yet ends up with something thoughtful and special. He is a conceptual artist with each photograph a completed image; but, not a completed, defined process. His work is useful both for its visual expression, and as an example of a fearless determination to keep working a concept and an image until the artist abandons the effort, possibly to be revisited, or reaches a sense of accomplishment and even fulfillment. The series also reminds us that all topics, as much as we feel it may have been thought about, talked about, visualized and photographed; can always be thought about, talked about, visualized and photographed in a new and inventive way to give the viewer a new way of seeing and thinking.

Notes:

  1. Excerpted from Mary Street Alinder’s book’ “Group F.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography”, Bloomsbury Press, 2014.
  2. See Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 iconic image “Derriere La Gare Saint-Lazare”.
  3. See examples of the work of Harold E. Edgerton at http://edgerton-digital-collections.org/galleries/iconic/page/2 and http://archive.artsmia.org/get-the-picture/print/abbott.shtml
  4. “The History of Photography: from 1839 to the present day”, Beaumont Newhall, THe Museum of Modern Art and The George Eastman House, New York, 1964
  5. Modified from the artist statement on the artist’s website written by this author. http://www.mholmesphoto.com/throwing-bones/
  6. Op cit. “A History of Photography”, pg. 221
  7. Op Cit., Mary Street Alinder’s book’ “Group F.64: Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and the Community of Artists Who Revolutionized American Photography”
  8. Webster’s New World Dictionary, 4th Edition, Wiley Publishing, 2004.
  9. See “Distortions” by André Kertész, Alfred A. Knopf publishers, New York, 1976.