Two photobooks: ‘The Present’ and ‘She dances on Jackson’

Of those photobooks I acquired in 2013, Paul Graham’s The Present and Vanessa Winship’s She Dances on Jackson captured my attention the most. The former presents images in colour and the latter in black and white. Both books share exceptional print and design quality and the images themselves have enormous appeal. Both photographers are mature artists, having exhibited and published for some time.

As I have stated in earlier posts, I share a belief with them that everything I need to make an image can be found ‘out there’. Graham himself has stated on occasion that the art world has ignored to an important degree this kind of photography in favour of the conceptual and staged; that is, motifs derived from within the artist as opposed to finding motifs from the world itself. I speak now of questions of degree after all since the inspiration for art inevitably is a mix of the two, and style is a question perhaps of which of the two an artist tends to use more often. What is interesting is when one approach is applied to the other. And for this Graham’s work, in my view, through the formal means of diptychs and triptychs as an expression of time, I think combines the conceptual with the discovered. I have returned to Graham’s book frequently and my pleasure in doing so has only deepened.

Graham uses the diptych to explore an action or gesture that a camera in the hands of a Winogrand or Cartier-Bresson would capture in one image only. In Graham’s world, small differences yield significant changes in meaning. By playing with a motif he uses a diptych to show changes in a scene: the left panel where the primary motif is on one event that changes (sometimes altogether as a result of a happy accident – a tribute to the photographer’s mantra ‘f/8 and be there’) in the second panel. Through selective focus, a scene where a motif was dominant recedes and is replaced by another. Barthes in La Chambre Claire has explored the idea of photographs as memory and death in that what is photographed has already disappeared the moment the shutter closes. There is an extraordinary wistfulness about the images in The Present and while they are rich with colour and sharpness, one has the sense that we leave no trace behind, but for the recording of an instant by a photographer with his camera. So the conceptual foreground I feel is that of the temporary and accidental, much like most of life itself. This is a theme that is of great interest to me in my own work.

When I first was exposed to the work of Eadweard Muybridge and David Hockney, both of whom considered time as the primary element in their photography, one from the point of view of documenting sequences of motion and the other through collage as a viewer spends time traversing an image, I came to appreciate the diptych (and its logical descendant, the collage) as the kind of photography that spoke most to me. Artists of course have explored the story-telling potential of multiple images going back to wall paintings, 30,000 years ago. Diptychs and polyptychs were the mainstay of religious and Northern European art in the early Renaissance, the study of which merely re-affirmed for me the beauty of this art form.

Unlike Graham’s work which uses the abundant street life of New York City sidewalks, Winship’s world is solitary and contemplative, even if it too is of the street. Her photographs of people are direct and in which the subject is quite aware of the photographer and her camera. (In my view, there is a sameness to a kind of street portraiture that arises from the natural inhibition of one stranger to be photographed by another. I would argue that there is a whole sub-genre of street photography that consists of the same look you get when someone with a camera asks a stranger to pose. This look was formalized initially by Thomas Ruff in the 1980s as one of the students of Bernd and Hilla Becher in what is now known as the Dusseldorf School.)

In Winship’s hands however, I get the feeling of an important psychological distance expressed in the eyes and face in spite of the physically short distance between subject and camera. Winship’s portraits deal explicitly with the obviousness of the exchange between strangers. I find these portraits disquieting. Juxtaposed with land- and cityscapes, the book gives off airiness and claustrophobia, the same feeling I get from the novels of Thomas Hardy.
The beautifully crafted black and white images speak of freedom circumscribed. The foreground then is of isolation and solitariness and as a whole the book is poetic in its impact. Aided by exquisite reproductions, high quality paper, sewn binding and linen covers one is left with the impression of stateliness and quiet, colour would simply not have worked here.

The marvellous iPhone 3Gs camera

The camera is located on the back of the iPhone 3Gs. Most of what I’ve seen on the net about the iPhone camera is that it’s viewed as more or less a toy given its low resolution. What I have found however, is that it is a remarkably capable camera within its limits and produces high quality jpegs. I enjoy the fact that it is a fixed focal length lens, fixed aperture and fairly responsive autofocus and shutter. Thus, the only parameters the camera plays with then are shutter speed and ISO. To use it recalls my days with a large view camera where it was impossible to hide the fact you were taking photographs. The iPhone is the same: taking pictures requires holding the camera up away from your face where you see the image in live view. You can pick the area where you want the camera to focus by touching the screen. Gently pressing the camera icon trips the shutter. Here are the specs from the Apple web site:

-3 megapixels
– Autofocus
– Tap to focus
– Video recording, VGA up to 30 fps with audio
– Photo and video geotagging
– iPhone and third-party application integration

Based on my own photos, here’s what I found:

File size: 2048 x 1536 pixels producing a file generally 1.5 MB in size
Sensor size: 3.58mm x 2.69mm Active Image Area
Output: JPEG
Aperture: Fixed f/2.8
Focal length: 4 mm. (approximately equivalent to 35 mm in 35 mm format)
Shutter: From what I can tell a maximum speed of 1/1970 secs. and a minimum of 1/10 sec.
ISO: varies from 70 to 1016 for night shots (fairly noisy). This by the way is quite cool. It is the same feature found in the new Leica M9.
Metadata are found in the image header to describe picture data.

What I love about this camera is that it is remarkably versatile and easy to keep in your pocket. In parts of the world where I travel where theft is very real, it is possible to walk around with the phone more or less hidden in the palm of your hand and slips into a pocket quite discretely. What I enjoy however are the applications that support the camera, in particular Autostitch which I downloaded from the App Store in iTunes. I can take a series of overlapping images and then instantly see the combined result via Autostitch on the phone screen.

This application is quite a marvel of software design. Aside from the incredibly easy interface and the very fast processing times, the application can be used as a tool for expression once you get the hang of how it works. I have worked with sophisticated panoramic tools on the desktop, but they were always quite unforgiving in terms of lining up one image with another, with interfaces I found difficult to use. One of their big difficulties was handling movement from stitch to stitch. This is where Autostitch excels: it will create ghosts. Now there are those who would argue that that is no solution at all. Well, mathematically it is and what else could you expect it to do? If you know this, you can use it to your advantage.

It also does a great job of aligning images, rationalizing exposure and contrast and putting together a fairly seamless stitch. Where the seams are least visible of course is when the error due to parallax is smallest. The closer you are to an object, the greater the error. Holding it as close to your face as possible and rotating in a small arc gets you reasonably close to a corrected panorama. However, I find that knowing that where there is fuzziness in the aligned images can be used for expressive purposes and thus making a ‘mistake’ adds to an image’s interest.

The more I use this software, the more experimenting I am willing to do. In the end, you wind up having another set of tools in your tool kit to maximize expressive intent. At the same time, combining images together results in one with greater resolution, thus compensating for the relatively low native resolution of the camera. Nevertheless, I am always amazed at how good the photos are with the iPhone. I don’t have access to a good inkjet printer, so it is difficult to tell how good a print they make, but I would imagine that in small sizes, they can hold up to scrutiny. The panos however could be printed large probably. For web publishing, they are more than adequate.

Here are some examples from a business trip to Nairobi. The long and wide images were constructed with Autostitch.

Needless to say, I really like using the camera and it, along with the other useful apps I have on my iPhone all add up to make it a very useful, handy and indispensable tool. And don’t get me started about my Macbook Pro! Neither product is perfect, but the software design and the objects themselves are so well designed it fits perfectly with my belief that good design is the most ecologically friendly thing one can do. There is nothing more wasteful in every sense of the word than a poorly designed and manufactured object.

No, I do not own Apple stock, although I wish I did when they were $50 a share. And no, I am not an Apple salesman, although I could be!! 🙂