Part 5 : Narrative and Illustration
Following my tutor’s suggestions on other photographers to look at
In her feedback on assignment 4, my tutor suggested that I have a look at the work of Chris Steele Perkins and Josef Koudelka (both with Magnum) during my preparation for Assignment 5.
Chris Steele Perkins (1947-)
I had looked before at his work having read feedback on the Study Visit to the Open Eye on 2nd January this year in We are OCA . His Exhibition there was The Pleasure Principle 1989. I wasn’t able to go on that particular Study Visit but the student feedback/discussion was interesting and varied in terms of how the Exhibition was mounted; the photographer’s motivations for choosing his particular subjects, and how this might be connected with his own experiences as a non-white, non-English person. Chris Steele Perkins was born in 1947 in Rangoon and came to England with his father in 1949. His first book The Teds was published in 1979.
I couldn’t access the images from The Pleasure Principle on his personal website but they are on the Magnum website . They are acutely observed, bright , and colourfully vivid – complementing a, maybe, wry view of the exuberant way in which some of us enjoy ourselves in this Country. They certainly invite me to raise my eyebrows at some of the events portrayed.
However, he has photographed many other situations, including in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was published in 2000 in collaboration with the Afghan poet Sayd Bahodine Majrouh. The Magnum site states he “…has created a profoundly personal homage and celebration of Afghanistan” and that he felt the appropriate response to the Country was a photography book that transcends journalism. The photographs (taken over several visits to Afghanistan) are black and white and the tones are beautifully rendered. They show the people in their everyday lives, at work and play. Yes – the soldiers are there and one can see crumbling/damaged buildings. Overall, though, there is that sense of the human spirit surviving and everyday life continuing despite it all. I have ordered the book because I want to touch and feel it.
There we have almost polar opposites of ways in which one photographer creates narrative through photography.
Josef Koudelka (1938-)
My tutor first mentioned Josef Koudelka when we had an introductory telephone conversation at the start of this course. She said that some of the photographs of mine she had seen on my Flickr site reminded her of him. Obviously, I eagerly looked him up on the web straight away but I just couldn’t see any resemblance. I still can’t although I wish I could! I couldn’t find a personal website but an internet search informed me that he is a Czech photographer, born in 1938 who is particularly famous for his work on Gypsies (in Czechoslovakia, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Greece) and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Russians in 1968. I am old enough to remember the invasion – how I had rejoiced when the Czechs appeared to be successful in claiming their nationhood and my dismay when it failed. I can actually still remember hearing that news on the radio that day and then seeing the film on (black and white) tv. Koudelka’s images of that time are excellent of course, but what they don’t do for me is portray that sense of dismay, defeat and fall from hope that I experienced at the time.
Photographs by Koudelka appear in Magnum Magnum (2009). This is a book in which, “… current Magnum photographers select and critique six key works of another of the 69 photographers featured, with a commentary explaining their choice”. David Hurn has chosen photographs from the years 1960vand 1964 (Prague), 1968 (Romania), 1968 (Prague), 1987 and 1989 (France). If I think of narrative, the third one leaps out at me. A man and a horse in Romania (1968). The man, a gipsy, squats looking up at the horse. His hands make eloquent gestures. His left hand is pointed downwards, between his knees, to the ground. His right hand, forming a diagonal with the left, is slightly cupped with the fingers slightly splayed and his thumb appearing to be pointing to the horses head. The horse stands looking motionless; head looking downwards, seemingly towards the man’s right hand – ears forwardly erect as if listening. They are communicating somehow. I think it is a beautiful image – silvery looking horse, with rough striped dark blanket; lower legs dirtied. This is a working horse. The darker, mustachioed man, wearing even darker hat and clothing, but his fingernails gleam. Was this posed? I don’t know and the commentary doesn’t say. Even if it was, the horse still appears to be in communication with the man and the viewer can speculate upon their story. Here’s a link to the image on the Magnum site.
In another book, Eamonn McCabe (2008) discusses the techniques and approaches employed by his chosen photographers. There is another photograph of Gypsies taken around 1970 – three men indoors, gazing directly at the viewer. They form a backlit triangle framed by the dark doorway against light streaming through the window which appears to have a half-drawn blind against it. McCabe conjectures that they were maybe showmen of some sort and describes their mood as one of defiance, linking it with “….a culture in decline and the way Koudelka has boxed them into the dark space” which makes them look penned in (p. 44). The image is again perfectly composed and I assume it has been staged – for light, shade, make a statement, set a mood? The photographic acknowledgments at the back of the book (p.143) state that the prints reproduced are held in the Collection of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, Yorkshire. I have searched the site several times but been unable to locate this one.
Andre Kertesz (1894-1985)
This is another photographer who recently commanded my attention when I went to an Exhibition at the Holburne Museum in Bath, organised in partnership with the National Media Museum, entitled Art of Arrangement: Photography and the Still Life Tradition . The image is a poster for the International Museum of Photography in New York. We are looking through a doorway towards the foot of some curving stairs with a handrail to match. On the left of the doorway there is a bowl of flowers on a table. A simple, elegant composition in black and white, showing the contrasting interplay between light and shadow. I appreciated this image so much that I looked up Kertesz and discovered that, between 1915 and 1970, he had collected together a series of images on reading which had been published as a book. I love reading and the idea of this book really appealed to me so I bought it.
On Reading was first published in 1971, but reprinted in 2008 with a preface by the curator of his Estate – Robert Gurbo. It is a small, slim book (portrait size) containing 66 black and white photographs taken in places in the United States, Japan, France and Venice. There are no captions (they don’t need them), just a photograph on every page in a variety of formats. The images celebrate the ‘power and pleasure of reading’ and are a joy to look and ponder upon. Each one tells a story as I see the people reading; the locations; the clothes they are wearing and wonder what they are reading.
I’ve realised that I’m spending much more time now when I look at photographs – enjoying them (of course) but also analyzing exactly what it is that appeals to me and how the effect is gained. I move back and forth between colour and black and white trying to decide which I prefer but then do I really have to make a choice? For me colour celebrates the vibrance of life and reflects what I can see around me. Black and white distils the essence of an image down to light, shade, tone and form. People can often end to become archetypes in its fine art form and represent continuity of emotion and experience. I hope I’m now becoming more able to reflect upon what it is I want to achieve with my photography and how I might be able to go about it.
13th March 2012
- Kertesz, A (2008) On Reading, W.W. Norton & Co, New York and London.
- Lardinois, B (ed) 2009, Magnum Magnum, Thames & Hudson Ltd, London
- McCabe E. (2008), The making of great photographs, David & Charles Ltd, Cincinnati, OH