Monday, 20 June 2011

Vortographs at Tate Britain

Alvin Langdon Coburn is  widely regarded as having produced the worlds first completely abstract photographs. His Vortographs displayed amongst The Vorticists show at Tate Britain are only a small part of his output as a photographer but are hugely significant.
Alvin Langdon Coburn is known as a key figure in the development of American pictorialism and  was a successful photographer famous for his portraits of the great and good. His book – Men of Mark 1913 included artists and statesmen from Europe and America including Roosevelt and Matisse. In New York he became pre-occupied with photographs of soaring buildings and new metropolitan vistas. His photograph The Octopus, New York 1912 is the urban view made abstract in this case a park shot from an elevated position, something that was easy to do in the new modern architecture of Manhattan. Indeed this type of change in approach was increasingly interesting Coburn.
“Why should not the camera throw off the shackles of conventional represenatation and attempt something fresh and untried?.....Why should not perspective be studied from angles hitherto neglected or unobserved.”

Vortograph 1917. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film.

When Coburn met Ezra Pound in London they began collaborating and began with a portrait of Ezra using multiple exposures. (Thr results he described as “Cubist”) This process moved forward rapidly and soon Pound said “Coburn and I have invented Vortography. The idea is one no longer need photograph what is in front of the camera but can use ones element of design.”
They produced these ground breaking photographs using an combination of three mirrors fastened together in the form of a triangle attached to the front of the lens. The objects he photographed were usually bits of wood and crystal.
The work was completed in 1916 and eighteen Vortographs were exhibited at the Camera Club in London in January 1917. The reaction was less than rapturous indeed it was mostly one of bewilderment and perplexity. Not surprising considering photography was still in its formative years and Vortographs would have broken a mould.
Coburns career subsequently slowly declined until the point where photography played little part in it. Coburn turned to mysticism and spirituality and Vortographs marked for him an increasing occupation with the interior world. In the history of photography they mark the beginning of a new chapter . 

P.S. Observer article 19th June - Review of exhibition yet no mention of Vortographs in a long article. Disappointing.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

A Hidden Camera

A long, long time ago I did a project on the underground using a hidden camera.
I used a Rolleicord from college and made a box for it with two holes - one for the lens and one for my finger to access the shutter release. I used Kodak Tri x 120 pushed 2 or 3 stops and pre focused the lens to 3.5 or 4 foot. I seem to remember most exposures were 1/8th sec at f8. All I had to do was sit opposite a passenger and wait for the right moment.

Sunday Best. Central line, London  Copyright Ed Sykes.

I was a little nervous - for fear of being rumbled. Nowadays if I was "discovered" by the authorities I am sure the police would take a great interest in my work and interview me and not just because they are keen amateur photographers!
Anyway it was laborious work as I could not wind the film on and had to get off the tube, sit down on the platform, open the box,  take the camera out,  wind the film on and start all over again.
It was hit and miss but strangely rewarding in that old fashioned - I wonder if it came out? way. I am not sure what inspired me but I do remember seeing Walker Evans photos from the New York subway at some stage. His photographs shot over three years in the 1930s were published in Many Are Called
a book which was first published in 1966 and was reissued in 2004.

Nun in thought. London Underground  Copyright Ed Sykes

Sunday, 12 June 2011

London Street Photography - Museum of London

A collection of over 200 images covering street photography from 1860 to the present day. It is fascinating for a couple of reasons - firstly as an historical document of London the photographs chart the changes in architecture, fashion, transport and various social mores. Secondly it shows the development of camera technology and its relationship to the type of street photographs that were and are now possible.
Much has changed from the days of heavy plate cameras and long exposures to the instant gratification of a digital screen nowadays. Despite digital advances the birth of faster film and faster shutter speeds was possibly the greatest seachange. It allowed the blurred human figure to be made solid – and attention was moved away from buildings and static form to the elusive. Indeed the fleeting moment – a glance or a gesture - was captured easily for the first time on 35mm film.

Photograph by Paul Trevor

The work of Roger Mayne in Notting Hill showed streetlife in raw form – curious, threatening and joyful - one of the exhibition highlights. The range of subjects captured included increasing political tensions in the East End with Paul Trevor's work or in west London with the Notting Hill riots. The camera became more of a mouthpiece not merely recording but finding something to say.
The contemporary street photographers continue that tradition – commenting with humour and a touch of sarcasm. The work of Matt Stuart and Nick Turpin go heavily into the absurd using the street as a stage to enjoy the irony of juxtaposition.
This time it reflects the commercialisation of the streetscape but despite this the human condition pervades.
Worth seeing.

Until 4th September. Museum of London. Admission free.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Forthcoming exhibitions plus recommendations

In the next few weeks there are a number of major photographic shows which I will be reviewing;

Vorticism (part photography) Tate Britain (14th June-4th September)
Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in 20th Century, Royal Academy (30th June-2nd October)
Thomas Struth, Whitechapel Gallery (6 July - 16th September)
Taryn Simon, Tate Modern (25th May-6th November)

Current recommendations;

Paul Graham: Photographs 1981-2006 Whitechapel Gallery (until 19th June)
Essential viewing. A leading light in contemporary photography.

Norfolk+Burke: Photographs from the war in Afganhistan. Tate Modern (until 10th July)
A thought provoking show and a welcome antidote to the usual coverage of this conflict.

Photoform on film

Photoforms is an ongoing project that I have done since 2007 working with extended exposures and manipulating light. This has been mostly shot digitally as it takes much experimentation to achieve the right result. I did however shoot some on film too, more costly, more painstaking but with equal reward. (If not more - but that is a debate for another time) The subtlety of the colour I find has greater resonance.

Copyright: Ed Sykes