Sunday, 22 May 2011

Two landscapes transformed

I came across the work of Clement Valla recently which includes “Bridges”
a project which manipulates computer software to create completely changed landscapes.

Postcards from google Earth, Bridges 2010 by Clement Valla
Valla noticed a bug in Google Earth 3D view which failed to recognise the integrity of bridges and continued rendering them using the altitude of the ground below. The result is an earthquake affected landscape on screen. At the flick of a switch technology creates a new art - an avenue that will be exploited more and more to blur the lines between fact and fiction.

Postcards from Google Earth, Bridges 2010 by Clement Valla.

If Vallas work is maximum result for minimum effort then the work of Francis Alys turns that upside down. Faith Moves Mountains (2002) is similarly landscape transformed but using human effort rather than computer technology. At the foot of a giant sand dune near Lima 500 volunteers were supplied with shovels and moved a sixteen hundred foot long monument of sand about four inches from its original position.

Still from When Faith Moves Mountains 2002 In collaboration with Cuauhtemoc Medina and Rafael Ortega. Courtesy of David Zwirner, NY

Still from When Faith Moves Mountains 2002 In collaboration with Cuauhtemoc Medina and Rafael Ortega. Courtesy of David Zwirner, NY

An extraordinary scale of vision although the intention was merely to seek an understanding of myth and the imprint left in peoples minds. The contrast in the actions and the finished object left is relevant to both artists but fascinating to see two approaches which could be described as being at two ends of the same scale.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Camera Obscura

 Camera Obscura means darkened room and has been around for far longer than our modern day equivalent. Although first built by an Iraqi scientist known as Alhacen (965-1039AD) the principle behind it had been known to scholars since the time of the Greek philosopher Aristotle. Once it became portable, in a box with a lens on the front, it developed a following amongst painters of the 17th century including Vermeer and Canaletto who used it as a drawing aid. (Nowadays some artists use a projector for the same purpose) From there of course the art of photography was born when paper and metal plates were added.

View of Central Park looking north, Fall 2008. Photograph by Abelardo Morell.
Fast forward to today and an article in National Geographic showing the work of Abelardo Morell who began a journey with the camera obscura over 20 years ago.  Since then he has moved from black and white to colour, analogue to digital and upside down to our way of seeing. Originally using a darkened room to project images he now uses a floorless tent and has started working in parks and streets. Fascinating.

Tent camera image on ground, View of Jordan Pond and the Bubble mountains, acadia National Park, Maine,
March 2010 Photograph by Abelardo Morell

Upright image of the Piazetta San Marco looking south east in office, Venice, Italy 2006
Photograph by Abelardo Morell
 Another artist who has been working for years with Camera Obscura photographs is Vera Lutter. (Recently exhibited at Gagosian, W1) Her approach results in large black and white images produced in negative form usually of cityscapes and monumental structures. Her Gagosian show concentrated on her work in Egypt.

 © Vera Lutter
Chephren and Cheops Pyramids, Giza: April 12, 2010, 2010
Unique Silver Gelatin Print
14 3/8 x 21 1/8 inches
36.5 x 53.7cm

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Imagined landscape

Copyright: Ed Sykes

This is from a new imagined landscape series. At the end of last year I spent a couple of days at Portland Bill lugging a 5/4 camera along the cliff tops. More to come..

Paul Graham exhibition. A reappraisal

The work of Paul Graham emerged in the mid 80s when I was at college and along with the work of Martin Parr heavily influenced a new approach to photography. Rejecting a serious black and white photographic tradition they tore a fresh colour perspective into a narrow and staid photographic world. They were revolutionaries in a new colour documentary vision which created an alternative to an artform still stuck in the 60s and 70s.
The Whitechapel Gallery show is startling for a number of reasons. Firstly looking at Grahams early work from A1-The Great North Road , Beyond Caring and Troubled Land one realises how unrevolutionary the work looks now. That is because as an artform photography has evolved hugely in the last 25 years and it is due to photographers such as Paul Graham. Secondly as one of the most important British photographers of his generation  this show emphasises how overlooked his work has been in this country.
Documentary photography was a label fitting for Grahams 80s subject matter. Beyond Caring feels like a social commentary on Thatchers Britain but amongst the broken figures in the DHSS offices it is the backdrop of posters and the worn walls that says even more about the boredom and the lost hope. On the A1 series we are swamped by the ordinariness of life on the road. The camera retreats to the service station or the café to examine how time stands still . 

Photograph by Paul Graham

In Bus Converted to Café, 1982 the road is reduced to a background drone so we can only imagine the cars passing beyond the misted up windows. Time has stood still inside but beyond there is something going on.
 In fact what Graham ignores is as important as what lies inside the frame. At Interior Rainton Servives 1981 the interior fixtures become even more important than the people. A breeze catches the curtain to the kitchen and suggests movement and life beyond.

This an approach Graham returns to in Troubled Land. In Roundabout, Andersontown, Belfast 1984 the street furniture is littered with impact, broken kerb stones, a missing streetlight and an army patrol leaving the frame. It is the scars in the cityscape that provide the understanding, not the men in uniform. The approach may be understated but the intention is not. If Robert Capa urged photographers to get closer to their subject matter Graham drastically reverses the notion.

Photograph by Paul Graham

Indeed in Paint on Road, Derry 1985  the only clues to a troubled land lie in the road. Small smears and patches of coloured paint. Suddenly everything else develops more meaning – a bundle of dumped rags at  the side of the frame and a school mid distance. Executions, dumped bodies, violence and divided communities emerge from the fabric of the landscape. It is ominous, threatening and as powerful an image as that of a petrol bomb being thrown in  anger. A sign at the side of the road reads Welcome to Derry.

Figures are more prominent in his series End of an Age 1996-97. Portraits of partygoers isolated against walls and in corridors are suspended in a no mans land. Between rooms of booming music and throngs of people they seem still and calm but unsure of their next move - caught between time past and time ahead. Again what is out of the frame or merely hinted at is as vital to the narrative as what has been included.

Photograph by Paul Graham

Although Grahams early work was documentary-driven his approach was evolving even further away from the label he was first given. The Whitechapel show effectively announces Graham as an artist rather than a documentary photographer. The range of his projects shows a restlessness and constant dialogue with the constraints of the photographic medium. “It has steadily become less important to me that the photographs are about something in the most obvious way. I am interested in more nebulous and more elusive subject matter. The photography I most respect pulls something out of the ether of nothingness." (Sean Ohagan article, Observer)

His latest work in America (where he moved to in 2002) stares straight into that nothingness. His American Night bleached out landscapes were inspired by the southern sunlight hitting him as he emerged from the movie theater and give little away. The clues that littered his early work have been reduced to ghostly smudges and shapes. They are challenging images and even prompted some sellers to return copies of their print runs convinced they were botched. They contrast with the pin sharp photographs of suburban housing - one set of  images is literally almost invisible to the other. The underlying social and political themes continue to eloquently underlie his work.

Photograph by Paul Graham

If the everyday and ordinariness of life have always had a grip on Graham it is the otherness of photography that he continually returns to. A Shimmer of Possibility is a series of short visual stories based around common scenes. Texas 2005 (Pepsi Walkers) follows a couple walking with their shopping in a strip cartoon style storyboard. It defies the concept of Cartier Bressons “decisive moment” and questions what a moment is and how we could ever pretend to capture it. Indeed what makes one moment more important than another? In some ways Graham has decided to stop trying to find answers in his photographs but to instead layer them with deeper questions.

When I look back on Grahams early work  I remember how dull and ordinary it seemed at the time. My reaction was based on my preconceptions of photography as a viewer. I expected good photographs to come to me, to wow me , to move me and to at least make an effort. Graham throughout his career has taught people how to look at photographs,  in a different way, to search for clues and to ask difficult questions of photography and the way we look at and understrand the world around us. This is a  photographer who deserves proper recognition in this country and in our history of photography.

Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006 until 19th June at the Whitechapel Gallery.

P.S. Just to mention coming straight after the John Stezaker exhibition it is refreshing to see a major gallery such as the Whitechapel curating two photography shows one after another.