Justin Wyllie Photography

Victoria & Albert Museum Photographic Exhibition

The V&A has a standing exhibition of photographs. [1] I visited on 28 February 2017. It is likely that the actual photographs on display rotate. So; there is no guarantee that the images reviewed here will be on show at another time. Following are some comments on some of the images on display which I found especially striking. This is nothing like a 'best of' selection, or even, personal favourites. I didn't even get round all the images. Indeed the overall effect is quite intense.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955 - 1989)

Nothing to lose XII. - 1989.

This is a colour print of a male nude. It was part of a series of black male nudes. In this image the model is adopting a classical pose. On his lap is positioned some fruit; grapes and a lemon - covering his bits. The tones of the print are warm; the wooden floor of the studio reflects the amber light. This is a delicate and pleasing image. The physical form of the model is appreciated and the fruit (and with what might be honey flowing over the subject's skin) create a sense of "fertility" (as the caption to the image suggests). This is not an image of strong masculinity and it is therefore not surprising to discover that the photographer was a homosexual - an exile from Nigeria and by his own account an outsider. At the same time there is nothing simpering about this image. Light is very well handled. It looks like the lemon may have been enhanced in post-production. A very well handled and evocative image which clearly expresses something of the artist.

Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959)

The image is of a boy on a beach in Yalta (now part of the Russian province of Crimea then part of Ukraine). - 1993.

This is an enormous colour print of a boy, aged perhaps 13, standing on a beach for his portrait. Apparently it was part of a series of images of children and adolescents taken on beaches in Ukraine, Poland, Portugal, England and Croatia in the 1990s. The accompanying text for the image tells us that the photographer was drawn towards photographing children and adolescents. The subject is captured standing without props just in his swimming trunks. The background is given by the shingle of the beach, the sea and a washed out sky. The sky is pale and starts at about the level of the boy's waistline. The background is out of focus and this creates a studio type feel to the shot. The photographer explains that she "noticed that teenagers are self-conscious and find it difficult to find a pose". Indeed. And the photographer has done nothing to help her subject feel at ease. When photographing teenagers (who may indeed be self-conscious) there are various approaches. One can photograph them with a prop which says something about them; for example a skateboard. Or perhaps one can ask them to dress up a little; for example wear headphones. Or pose in a certain style - for example they could imitate their favourite actor. If you stick them in front of a studio backdrop in their swimming trunks with nothing to do they will indeed look awkward. This image then is as much about a lack of sensitivity on the part of the photographer as it is about anything else. True; making teenagers feel awkward can create a striking photograph. Maybe it even shows us something about this special stage of development - the half-formed and not yet sure of yourself stage. But it is a kind of anthropological study even perhaps with a dash of cruelty. It is not a kind and sympathetic portrait.

Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968)

Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees - 1992.

This is a colour print of two friends of the photographer. They are photographed sitting on two branches on a tree, wearing noting but macs. They may be wearing underwear. The female friend has her breasts half-exposed. The male is sitting on the lower branch wearing a red mac. The female in the top branch in a green mac. Compositionally this is a strong image. The positioning of the subjects together with the brighter colour on the subject at the left and lower creates a diagonal line from bottom-left to top-right of the image. The subjects are set in a background of forest canopy. This creates (with a little help from the explanations about the photographer's work on his WikiPedia page) a sense of the garden of Eden. We can imagine this as an image about a modern (drug-taking) generation in the garden of Eden. With these explanations the image makes more sense and acquires meaning. But without them it is not clear (to this photographer) what the image is about. And his preference is for images which explain themselves, without requiring background reading. There are such images in this exhibition and we will turn to them in a moment. Compositionally strong then but without the background explanations this image did not convey any particular meaning to this viewer. Of course; there may be an audience for whom this image speaks. But it lacks universal human appeal.

Connie Day (1962 - 2010)

England's Dreaming - 1992.

This is a monochrome image (in fact a gelatin silver print) of a staged scene. A man is photographed in a forest taking off his top. The image is captured as his head is enveloped in the garment. The man is quite thin and tall; like the trees around him; thus creating a balanced composition. The accompanying text tells us that this is a "fragment of a narrative asking us to question why this is happening". Certainly the scene does raise questions. What is going on? However; it is not clear if there is any meaningful answer to this question. The image succeeds in raising a question but no more. As such it remains a commentary on photography - and what is possible in photographic terms. But it does not rise to the level of art - if art means the communication of meaning. Both this image and the preceding one, "Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees", are well executed pieces of staged visual art. They just don't go all the way for this reviewer. They don't create a vision which he can touch and feel with his soul. In a moment we will review work that does do this.

Herbert Bayer (1900 - 1985)

Humanly Impossible (self-portrait) - 1932.

This is a complex self-portrait in monochrome. The subject is photographed in a mirror. We see the side of his face and his full face in reflection in the mirror. He is in the bathroom. He is holding a sponge, just below his nipple. We can see the sponge; but in the reflection it has become (through editing) a piece of marble, which appears to have been cut away from his shoulder. On his face he wears a look of horror. The text accompanying the image explains that the picture was created during a turbulent time in the artist's life. The expression is convincing. The way that we see the expression in the mirror and the manner in which this is juxtaposed with the (half-seen) 'actual' artist successfully creates a sense that we are seeing into the artist's soul. The use of shadows in the image helps to create the sense of drama and tension; the effect makes the image feel like a Raymond Chandler novel. Bayer was a member of the Bauhaus movement (the German graphic design movement in the 1930s). His own background as a graphic designer can be seen in the complex construction of this image and its use of symbolism to convey meaning. This is an image which much have taken considerable effort to produce. It successfully conveys a sense of a man horrified by some part of himself and engaged in an inner struggle.

Brassai (1899 - 1984)

Nude - 1931-1934.

Brassai was the nom de plume of Gyula Halasz, a French-Hungarian photographer. [2] This image is a gelatin silver print of a female nude. It is an abstract work. Only the subject's midriff is shown. She is lying on her side and her body is turned towards the camera; creating an effect of portraying her as a sausage, or, as the text accompanying the photograph says, as a phallic object. The only feature distinctly visible is her belly-button. The text explains that this fetishism was an aspect of the surrealistic movement and that such fetishism of the female body was explained on the basis that this is how the male unconscious actually sees women. Possibly; though alternatively we can say that such ideas are projected onto the plastic unconscious and only thus become real. This is not a pleasant image. It is disturbing and dark. It is however well constructed; shadow and light are used very deliberately. Shadow covers the woman's private parts. This is contrasted with an area of light on the background just below this. Then the model's belly is lit and this in turn is contrasted with an area of shadow on the background just beneath the belly. This 4-part light-shadow grid gives the image some of its intensity as well as serving the practical purpose of obscuring the genitalia of the subject. Overall, though, this is a morbid and unpleasant image. IF the artist would have justified it on the basis that this is how the unconscious actually sees women we can suggest a too heavy reliance on theories of psychoanalysis. The photographer's Wikipedia page [2] mentions a book of photographs of Paris at night. It would be more interesting to see those.

Gerard Petrius Fieret (1924 - 2009)

Untitled (woman bending over) and Untitled (Mariane's face and arm) - c. 1965.

These 2 gelatin silver prints stand out in this exhibition as supreme works of art. Untitled (woman bending over) shows a woman leaning forwards. She has some kind of a pole or stick in her left hand. She is wearing just lingerie. She appears to have been photographed in a night-club and, perhaps, to be about to perform. Though the image could have been made in a studio. The subject herself is quite well lit; the background behind her is in shadow. The lit area forms a triangle which frames the subject. This 'inner' triangle in the image almost creates the sense of an inner sanctum or temple. The image as a whole is suggestive of ancient Roman mystery cults and has echoes of paintings of these familiar from from Pompeii. The image is high in contrast and grainy. The effect is that we have a sense of catching a glimpse of this woman's life. Only a glimpse, but a glimpse in which we can see something of her life and her experience. It is like we are being shown a momentary snap-shot of her soul. Because we are being shown an impression of the soul of the subject the image says something about human experience in general. The lighting, unselfconscious pose, exactly the right degree of 'roughness' in terms of a slight lack of formal composition and the high-grain contribute to the effect. This is an image which communicates something about the soul with unbelievable precision; and with the kind of precision needed for this kind of communication. Possession of this particular kind of precise seeing of the soul is rare indeed. The artist has stamped the image with a copyright message in two places. The first stamp is on the brick wall in the background. This stamp almost appears as a street sign and does not detract from the image. The second stamp is printed directly onto the model's thigh and significantly detracts from the image. The text accompanying the photograph explains that the artist was bothered about copyright infringement of his work. (This may give an impression of a commercially-minded photographer trying to hold onto his work. However, based on what seems like an honest account of the artist in the Telegraph [3] the reason for this defacing of the image is likely to be found elsewhere).

The second image by Gerard Fieret in this exhibition is also untitled and has been titled (by someone - possibly the artist?) "Mariane's face and arm". This image is similar in style to the first. The same approach of high-contrast and high-grain is used. The image is also a little bit "messy" while being on the nail in all the essential aspects. This image again shows a single female subject. Again the atmosphere is suggestive of a night-club, though it could be shot in a studio. The model is leaning on her hand. High-contrast lighting on her face ensures that only her eyes are visible; these are shown looking back at the viewer (I was going to say 'subject') in a triangle of light. The lower part of her face is in shadow. This image reverses the normal equation. The subject appears to be looking at the viewer of the image (as if through a triangle made with her hands) thus making a subject (model) of the viewer. This triangle of light on the face is matched by the triangle formed by the woman's arm, her hand resting against her face. This double-triangle creates a particularly strong composition.

Gerard Petrius Fieret was a Dutch artist who spent time in forced labour camps in Germany during the war. Before that he had been sexually abused in orphanages in Holland. A sympathetic article about him can be found on the Daily Telegraph. There is also a trailer for a documentary about him which is worth viewing. In the short clip which is linked to in the Daily Telegraph piece we can see one of his female models saying how posing for Fieret "set something free in them". This freedom is perhaps what we see in the unselfconscious posture of the models we have reviewed here. Truly a great artist.

Martin Parr (b. 1952)

Beauty contest. New Brighton. 1984

This is a colour print of a scene from a beauty contest in New Brighton, a resort just outside Liverpool. Unlike all the images reviewed so far this image would not fall into a category of 'visual art', that is, created and staged scenes. This image is more photo-journalistic. It is an image of actual events without modification. However; it has been shot in such a way as to depict a particular scene in a particular way. When photographing a beauty contest the traditional photographer might stand in front of the line-up producing the images the organisers would like to see. A slightly more thoughtful and documentary minded photographer might go back-stage and capture the contestants getting ready to go on stage. Martin Parr has, however, chosen to photograph the contestants at the point where they cross this boundary; as they queue up to go onto the stage. We see them neither glamorous and on stage nor in the intimacy of the dressing room.

To one side of the image we see the figure of what looks like the official photographer. He is cut off at the middle and we see only his legs and torso. From the torso hangs the camera and camera equipment. The overall effect is to show, without artifice, the beauty contest in all its crudity. The presence of the camera shows us the real essence of the beauty contest. The contestants are in fact meat for the male gaze. While this is basically a photo-journalistic image, in its choice of subject and in the careful framing of the photographer it shows us far more about this event than a typical photo-journalistic image would achieve. The only complaint I have is that the colour balance of the image is heavily weighted towards the tungsten end of the spectrum - a orangey-yellow, which is not especially pleasing. But then; the image is not especially trying to please so if anything this contributes to the slightly horrible atmosphere. A striking documentary image in colour.

From temporary exhibition: The Camera Exposed. Cartier-Bresson (1908 - 2004)

Nuns on the steps of the Cathedral at Lourdes. 1958

NB. This image is being shown in an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert which closes on March 5th 2017.

This temporary exhibition features a collection of photographs united by the common theme that all the photographs include a camera in the image. This (black and white) image, by Cartier-Bresson, is included in the exhibition because it contains a view finder camera in the image. The shot shows a flock of Nuns waiting on the steps of the Cathedral for a procession (perhaps with dignitaries) to pass. They are waiting for the procession to arrive. Some Nuns, at the front, look anxious and expectant. The balustrade of the steps forms the strong central diagonal line in the image. The balance of the image is, of course, just right. The gaze of the nuns on the left is balanced by an out-of-focus ear of perhaps an official or another photographer on the right. The diagonal line of the balustrade and the nuns themselves creates the flowing dynamic tension in the image. (The view camera at the top of the steps has been set up to photograph the actual procession). As with all of Cartier-Bresson's image this image simply sings.

I've included this image in my review of the standing exhibition because it helps the discussion.

Summary and Discussion

With the exception of the images by Martin Parr and Cartier-Bresson all the images reviewed here fall into a category of 'visual art'. These images, based on photographing scenes which have been constructed by the photographer are, in effect, pieces of "installation art". There are three elments at work here. The artist must have artistic vision. They must possess some insight into the world and into experience which, while it may be entirely to do with ordinary life, is a perception of more intensity and depth than we usually see. Secondly, they must have a conception; that is, for the piece they are creating they must have a definite idea. The piece must have some kind of an aim, which will give it unity. Is it to show some aspect of experience in a new light? To make the viewer ask themselves a question? To make a comment on the medium itself? And, finally, they must be able to execute their conception. This means that they must be able to bring together all the elements of photography; control of depth of field, focus, composition, handling of light and shade, handling of colour tones (in a colour image), posing of the subjects, choice of film type, management of post production, and so on, so as to realise their aim (and not have it ruined by sloppy technical skills). We can note, however, that all three elements were also required in the photo-journalistic images by Cartier-Bresson and Martin Parr as well.

Of the images reviewed here perhaps the only ones which show a slight messiness in technical execution are those by Gerard Petrius Fieret. (Though we could also comment that the lighting in the nude by Brassai is a little crude). However, as we discussed, all the essential details in the images by Fieret are spot on. So; once technical competence is assumed, what counts is artistic vision and the ability to come up with an idea in which this vision can be embodied. Can we rate the vision of the artist like we rate a wine? In effect, it seems we can. Connoisseurs of the human experience will not find Fieret lacking in anything. In as much as we can give weight to the the values and the vision of the artist then, for this reviewer at least, Fieret stands in a different league to the other artists reviewed here.

However; all the work here shows vision, conception and technical excellence. Aspiring photographers need to reflect on all these three aspects of picture making. What is my artistic vision? How do I see the world? What do I want to show about the world? How will I show that? (Conception). And, lastly; is my control of lighting, focus, depth of field, composition and all the other technical parts of picture-making at a level of faultless excellence? These questions are pertinent just as much for the wedding photographer as they are for the visual artist.

Notes
1. Victoria & Albert Museum
2. Wikipedia article on Brassai
3. Daily Telegraph article on Gerard Petrius Fieret


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