Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper has died today at the age of 74.

A Dennis Hopper exhibition showed at Melbourne’s ACMI during 2010 and some of the work was related to the big Hopper exhibition at New York’s Tony Shafrazi Gallery I saw in 2009. Hopper is more of an artist that I thought, more of a creative individual involved in being creative on a wide front as a life’s endeavour.

I was intrigued by his paintings and their curious relationship to photography. Hopper photographed actively from the 1960s, recording his work and social life in L.A. His photographs, shown seperately at Shafrazi, were lively, interesting records of a certain milieu – intelligent celebrities, if that’s not an oxymoron.

The paintings are the photographs scaled up, big and so accurately rendered in paint that you have to look twice to see that they are not large photographs. Paintings that are 2 x 2.5 metres in size are derived from 40 x 60cm photographs. It’s like the scale propositions of Roy Liechtenstein’s giant comic strip panels. Something changes in the enlargement, but what is it?

Hopper’s paintings have the same monochrome tonality, accidental background details and lens characteristics as the original photographs, but they are not photographs. They pay homage to photography but don’t quite live without the referent of the original photograph. As paintings they are curiously dead, like billboard paintings. Being copies of photographs, they lack the spirit of painting, the painter’s gestures, the hints of colour, the plasticity – Painting’s independence as a medium. They are signs representing Photography.

Call this subject “photography by other means”.

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Which one is the painting?

 

 

 

Photographs from tonyshafrazigallery.com

 

 

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Photography in education

The question facing a lot photography teachers right now is: does the darkroom still have a role in education?

In the historic roll-over to the digital age, is there any point in still getting students to learn how to mix semi-toxic chemicals and stand around in the dark sloshing tanks and dipping sheets of paper into developer? The “digital darkroom” is so civilized in comparison. A scanner, a computer and a printer will do the same or possibly much more, in an area of one square metre, and you work sitting down and with the lights on!

Institutes like to get rid of darkrooms because the computer rooms that replace them can be generic fluoro-lit halls with the same tables and chairs as every other department, no expensive plumbing, no risk of health problems. And it’s getting harder to justify analogue on pure image-making grounds because computers allow even the laziest student to use tools that even Ansel Adams would have envied.

But there are reasons for maintaining traditional methods of photography: they anchor students in the 170 year history of photography, students can develop an eye for what a good photograph looks like, and it’s a varied activity, it gives people a sense of achievement.

These last two points bear on the course I teach, in a college level art department, a TAFE. If the curriculum only consisted of digital techniques using DSLRs and sitting at a desk to Photoshop the images, where is the fun? We have such a range of film cameras ranging from plastic toys to a big studio 5×4, with 35mm and 120 in between, that the students are constantly challenged with unfamiliar mechanics, film loading questions, light fog, enlarging issues, film grain and sharpness differences…I could go on. The point is that young students, and many older ones, are taken out of their digital/online safety zone and are are challenged. In the age of push button mobile phones, games, TVs and cameras, the simple act of loading film becomes a challenging mental effort.

To me, analogue is the soul of photography. I love digital and use it everyday, but I think that a digital only photography education would be a soulless experience. An article by Bostick and Sullivan in openorigins.com gives a another slant on the subject. Here is an excerpt.

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THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DARKROOM IN PHOTOGRAPHY EDUCATION

From Bostick and Sullivan / Member, Freestyle Advisory Board of Photographic Professionals

The whole modern electronic world is basically an abstraction. …The Waterford School in Sandy Utah requires all students to take photography. The facilities there rival those of most 4 year colleges. Students can check out 12 x 20 view cameras, and there are two Hassleblad outfits and numerous other pieces of equipment available. The developing room has three Jobo processors! I asked Dusty Heuston who founded the school why photography? He said it was a universal discipline. Huh? I said.

Dusty said that photography can encompass many disciplines: physics, chemistry, optics, math, history, art, and photography also forces the student to learn to deal with things in a mechanical sense: loading a film holder for instance. The nice thing he said was it bit back in a nice way. If we goofed back in 1953 by filling fellow student’s shoes with hot metal while doing sand casting or by losing a thumb in the table saw, the consequences could be a bit harsh. Ruining a roll of film by fixing it first is a nasty bite, but one the student could recover from. …

If the point of education is only to train young people to join the corporate work force then full on digital is the way to go. If it is to give them a sense of knowing they can “make” something through a logical set of steps and procedures then wet photography is an excellent way to achieve that. The attraction you note of students to the wet darkroom process is a reflection of the fact that we as humans do like to “make” things. Sorry to get too McLuhanesque here but listening to Hot Snot or whatever is the latest fad group on an iPod is satisfying to some but grows old after while. Wet photography is a “hot medium” and digital is “Cold.”

http://www.openorigins.com/photography-notes/the-importance-of-the-darkroom-in-photographic-education/

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Dad’s slides

In 1974 my dear late father brought back from Europe a collection of ready-made 35mm colour slides. These were professional photographs depicting places of interest that he was presumably unable to capture himself. I recently scanned and printed these images with a view to exhibiting the collection as an art installation.

Because of their age the slides have faded into a variety of outlandish hues. They were shot on colour films that have proved unstable, Ferrania, Agfa etc,  the only brand resisting change being Kodachrome – its colours are perfectly intact. The slides have slipped from their cardboard mounts, collected dust and hairs, and acquired scratches and fingerprints. All these signs of decay have transformed the images from their ordinary purpose as souvenirs into something luminous and new.

 

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Paper Moon

Watching the 1973 movie Paper Moon is like seeing Walker Evans photographs come to life. Set in Kansas in 1935, it’s a road movie that follows its two characters across a series of marvellous landscapes and towns. It was shot by Laszlo Kovacs, a cinematographer celebrated for his location work (Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show) which always conjures up memories of how particular places feel. You suspect that Kovacs, director Peter Bogdanovich, and production designer Polly Platt, were looking at Farm Security photographs, work by Evans, Russell Lee, Dorothea Lange and others. The compositions in the movie look like still photographs.

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There is a particular period look to the movie, a combination of carefully chosen locations in Kansas and Missouri, wide angle lenses, deep focus and filters. “Orson Welles and Peter were very close friends” Kovacs said, “and I got to meet my ‘god’ while we were preparing our film. I’d been testing black & white film with various filters but still hadn’t found the right look. Orson said, ‘Use red filters, my boy.’ And I did, because although the filters reduced the film speed and meant I had to use big arc-lights to achieve the deep-focus look Peter wanted, the red filters created incredibly beautiful, dramatic skies and gave us exactly the expressionistic look we were after.”


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DEEP FOCUS

Kovacs and Bogdanovich wanted to evoke the look of a certain American cinema of around 1940, films like Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane. “We wanted to evoke the classic black & white Hollywood tradition pioneered by cinematographers like Arthur Miller, John Alton and Gregg Toland. ‘Citizen Kane’ was our biggest influence.”


Production still from Citizen Kane, 1941

Bogdanovich wanted deep focus throughout the film to give it a greater sense of reality. This decision, combined with Kovacs’ use of red filters, meant that each scene needed vast amounts of light. Deep focus requires the smallest aperture to achieve maximum depth of field in the scene. But a red filter could cut down three stops of light meaning an effective ISO of 30 with the Kodak Double X film that they used. Huge arc lights were needed to replace the light lost through the filters and to provide enough exposure for the small apertures. The co-star Ryan O’Neal complained to Kovacs about the heat they generated.

Deep focus was used as a narrative tool in these two reverse-angle shots. The stillness and isolation of the main character, the nine year old girl played by Tatum O’Neal, is contrasted with two happily playing girls seen through the back window in the second shot.

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The elegance of the filmmaking can be seen in the café confrontation scene, between Addie and Moses (Tatum and Ryan O’Neal). Three master shots progress from …

an exterior view through the window of the café, showing the two characters at a table. (Note the reflections of the street and a cinema opposite – showing a John Ford film!) …

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…to an interior reverse angle of the two, tracking in…

 

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…to a further reverse angle, a viewpoint into the café interior. The point of view, between the window and the table, is impossible but it doesn’t seem to matter.

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Paper Moon is an example of a film that has has been heavily influenced in its visual style, by the history of (still) photography, in this case Walker Evans and the FSA photographers of the 1930s. A further example of a photography-influenced film is Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas which looks like William Eggleston and Stephen Shore photographs come to life. This idea is worth further research.

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Photo Booth

Unknown photographer. Photo-booth self-portraits, 1940s

MoMA recently showed a new acquisition of forty-four photo booth pictures of an anonymous woman. This cheerful, attractive woman documented her changing appearance, which she obviously took pride in, to create a wonderful archive of her life. It is a form of extended self-portraiture, like autobiography.

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Pouva

The Pouva Start was a bakelite camera made in Dresden in 1956. It is a basic amateur camera with limited controls, a fairly good optical viewfinder and a lens that unscrews on a helical mount when you want to shoot. It is very quaint and attractive, in a retro Cold War kind of way – Dresden was in East Germany, the GDR.

Below is the Photoshopped version

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Memento

I bought this in a second hand bookshop for a few dollars, a lovely memento of photographic Pictorialism. It is a small portfolio of photographs from 1915, printed in Switzerland. Each print is tipped-in, on a sheet of fine paper. The loose prints are held in a folded flaps, and each print and its support are in different tones.

30 Bilder aus dem Photo-Wettbewerb ‘Walz’ – 30 Pictures from the Walz Photo-Competition. Publisher W.Walz – Optical Workshop – St. Gallen Retail price 2 francs

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