Toledano’s toy

Phillip Toledano, Abu Ghraib Bobble-head figurine, 2008

This item is atrocious isn’t it? The worst possible taste – a toy figure celebrating a photograph of torture. Its creator, Phillip Toledano, made it as part of an installation on the disasters of the Bush presidency, now thankfully behind us:

“AMERICA THE GIFT SHOP is an installation project that reflects the foreign policy of the Bush/Cheney years through the fun-house mirror of American commerce. My palette is the vernacular of retail tourism.”

It’s a satirical piece that dared to target both the presidency and our capacity to commercialize almost anything. And if you think torture could never be commercialized, just remember that Jesus Christ got similar treatment and the Church has been selling trinkets of it ever since (many of them sado-masochistic nudes!) You can see the complete installation of this project at www.americathegiftshop.com.

The original image of the Iraqi torture victim is an example of the potency of single photographs to scorch our memory – perhaps the word ‘brand’ would be more accurate. It was so deeply shocking that you can never forget it, like the shots of the Twin Towers. What is it about the phenomenology of the photograph that it burns us so deeply, in ways that paintings do not?

The figurine also is an example of photography metamorphosing into sculpture, of the 2D extruding itself into 3D. It is a curious instance of species cross-breeding, the giant sculpture of the Iwo Jima soldiers raising the flag is a further example. Normally a particular medium, photography, sculpture or painting, is distinct and the attributes of one are not found in another. But a sculpture made out of a photograph? It’s a strange and magical thing, like a fish with feathers or a chicken with gills.

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Cinemagraph

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Jamie Beck & Kevin Burg

Jamie Beck & Kevin Burg are two New York artists working in the field of fashion photography, she is a photographer, he is a digital media specialist. The combination of their talents has produced a series of startling images, fashion stills that move. They have branded this technique ‘Cinemagraph,’  cinema-photograph.

The couple create images that are conceived as still photographs but captured as video (the above image contains 35 frames). Post-production eliminates all but a few traces of recorded motion, then the file is saved using the .gif format. At least I think that’s what they do.

The Turnstyle blog interviewd them about their work: An animated .gif is usually a sequence of stills pulled from video, animated art, or other imagery that is repurposed into a .gif. What we do is different because it’s a traditional still photograph with a moment living within it. 

We wanted to tell more of a story than a single still frame photograph, but didn’t want the high maintenance aspect of a video. In preparation for Fashion Week we were trying to figure out a way to show more about what it was like being there, so cinemagraphs were born out of a need to tell a story in a fast digital age.

This is a new thing in photography and you can see more of it on their sites: cinemagraphs.com and fromme-toyou.tumblr.com.

Lawrence and Freddie

When you see the film Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen you realize how great its Director of Photography Freddie Young was. He won an Oscar for it.

But I’m not just talking about Young as a cinematographer, I’m referring to the composed shots that appear on the screen as beautiful still images, as photographs.

One of the greatest single shots in cinema, the three-minute mirage sequence in which a figure slowly emerges from the desert haze, is a wonderful three part composition – see that tiny speck on the horizon in the image above? It’s a great suspenseful moment in the film, but visually it also functions as an elegant still photograph. There are many throughout the film. As well as being a great movie, Lawrence is also a great portfolio of landscape photographs.

The desert is a character in Lawrence and you often gaze at it as if at a star. The film immerses you in it, it paints the desert across the screen. There are points in the film where it is such an astonishing sight the filmmakers just leave it there on the screen so you to take it in.

This seems close to the indexical nature of still photography, its role of pointing, as if it’s saying “look at that.” You could argue that there is a distinct genre of ‘still’ photography contained within movies, images that have some DNA of the still within them and could be lifted out and printed. Despite plot, character, sound and movement there is also that purely optical component, subordinated to story but staying in the mind anyway. It must leave some residue in photographic culture.

The Decisive Moment

Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment, 1952. Cover, Henri Matisse

I recently had the privilege of looking through Cartier-Bresson’s 1952 book, The Decisive Moment. It sells for $2000 these days. The Decisive Moment is a legendary book, a retrospective of his photographic work that established his prestige and inserted a new phrase into photographic terminology…

“…if the shutter was pressed at the decisive moment, you have instinctively fixed a geometric pattern without which the photograph would have been both formless and lifeless.”

C-B disowned the phrase in later years but it usefully captures an important aspect of his practice. It’s about the medium’s genetic link to the subject of time and hence timing, and you can see how his timing worked in this photograph from the book, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932. Aiming his camera through a hole in a fence, he caught this little ballet, a man jumping a puddle and his reflection, corresponding shapes on the ground, a circus poster in the background which echoes it all. It’s the earliest ‘serious’ photograph I can recall seeing, at about 15, and it helped propel me into a lifetime of photography.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, Paris, 1932

The focal point of this photograph is the man and his reflection, specifically the foot about to touch the water. More specifically, it’s that gap between the foot and its reflection, the suspense created by the absence of closure. I’ve Photoshopped the feet to eliminate the gap so the foot has touched its reflection. The tension has gone, and so has the particular thrill of this image.

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression…”

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Secrets of a negative

John Loengard:  “Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare St Lazare, 1932. Paris Hands: Georges Févre, 5/11/87”

Magnum photographer John Loengard photographed the actual negative of Cartier-Bresson’s famous image, “Behind the Gare St Lazare, 1932”. It reveals some fascinating secrets about this picture.

Inverting the image in Photoshop shows how it would look in a contact print. It appears to be a bit under-exposed, although it is nitrate film so it might behave differently in a darkroom. In 1939, Cartier-Bresson destroyed a lot of his early work, including negatives, and that explains why this is only a single frame. Curiously, the negative has sprocket holes on only one side.

The photographer did not like to crop his negatives: “It very rarely happens that a photograph that was feebly composed can be saved by reconstruction of its composition under the enlarger; the integrity of vision is no longer there.” But this negative was cropped to make the famous image: his lens has included an iron rail on the left, and more water and sky than he wanted. Despite his statement, he cropped out about half of the negative area. Well, he was only 24 when he shot it.

I’ve drawn a line around the printed area

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Upside-down Henri

Henri Cartier-Bresson had a famous habit of turning photographs upside-down and sideways to test the strength of their composition. If a picture still worked upside-down, there must be some validity to its design. If an upside-down picture doesn’t work, then it must be relying too much on its subject-matter. It would just be a record of something and not a made work of art.

“He always turned them all around and upside-down. It became like a sort of dance. Strangely, he didn’t want to look at the picture.” – René Burri

Let’s put his own images to the test and see if they pass.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare St Lazare, Paris, 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Hyéres, France, 1932

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Children Playing in the Ruins, Seville, 1933

Henri Cartier-Bresson,

They did pass, didn’t they?

Behind the Gare St Lazare

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare St Lazare, Paris, 1932

Cartier-Bresson’s famous photograph was shot behind the Gare St Lazare, the large railway station in the north of the city. He was shooting through an iron fence, across a flooded yard, with the rear of the station in the background. I’ve figured out the location of this shot, and can even find the fence that C-B pointed his camera through – it’s still there. Using Google Earth and Google Street View, I can take you to the sacred spot!

Google Street View in the Rue de Liége. Cartier-Bresson was shooting through this fence, at about this point.

Google image of Rue de Londres the far side of the park, facing the back of the station which can be seen on the right. In the Cartier-Bresson image, a dark figure can be seen in the background, walking along the footpath on the left.

Google Earth image showing the position and angle of view of Cartier-Bresson’s lens, aiming across what is now a park, towards the rear of the Gare St Lazare.

Google Map of central Paris, showing the location of the shot.

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