Research Point – Senses of Place

The Brief

Compare and contrast the strategies that these photographers adopt in conveying a sense of local identity. Do you think this type of work is easier or harder if you come from the place that you’re documenting? Can you find any evidence for the view that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’?

I researched David Goldblatt during my Landscape module, so won’t include him here.

Alex Webb

Webb was born San Francisco, but raised in New England. He attended photo workshops while in high school in New York. He went to Harvard and simultaneously studied history and literature while studying photography at Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. He initially worked in B&W, but started photographing in colour in 1978 after visiting the American South, the Caribbean and Mexico. He has published 17 books.

Webb prefers not to label his work as street photography, as he regards street photography as something fluid and having no preconceptions or preconceived agenda, in contrast with photojournalism. His work is done in public spaces and regards street photography as a type of borderland between documentary and art photography.

He switched to working in colour when visiting the Mexican border and Haiti. Colour is very much part of the culture of these places. What intrigues him most is the contrast between the US and the countries he visits – the different sense of community, and communal values and of course, the sense of colour. Although his work has political, economical and sociological overtones, his first impulse is the esthetic of the work – the form and content. He finds colour is integral to the experience of culture in these foreign countries.

Webb tends to read up just enough about the place he is visiting to get him by, but prefers to work organically, trusting in the moment rather than be led intellectually by something he has read. Its sometimes easier to respond to a place if you just experience it without any preconceptions, I’ve found. Once you’re on the ground, you can often talk to local people to get their input and extra information.

He makes interesting use of juxtapositions and and paradoxes in his work and rather like Simon Roberts also incorporates borders of some sort into his images. Form and content are very evident in his work as can be seen below with the gaze of the man in the phone box being echoed by the man further back in the alley and then the gaze of the guard on the roof – all three subjects form a triangle, while the frame is divided vertically by the foremost telephone box. This vertical division also incorporates darkness (on the right hand side) and light (on the left hand side) with tonal contrasts between the top and bottom of the image as well.

Fig 1 From Istanbul: City of 100 Names series by Alex Webb

In the image below there is a similar division in the frame, a repetition of darkness and light as well as an echo of green and brown tones in both quadrants and this division seems to convey two narratives taking place simultaneously.

Fig 2 From Istanbul: City of 100 Names series by Alex Webb

These strategies are continued in the work Webb did in Haiti, as can be seen below. Again his excellent use of shadow and light, punctuated by contrasting colour schemes, the vertical division of the frame and mirrored glances and gestures.

Jens Olof Lasthein

Swedish photograher Jens Olof Lasthein photographs in panoramic format. This allows him to incorporate several different elements into the frame which would not normally be possible with a regular format camera. He often allows a spherical barrel distortion to take place in his images which seems to extend the ‘stage’ of his photographs or emphasize the discontinuities that are in the images. He spent six years photographing the Caucasus mountain region in southeastern Europe that used to belong to the Soviet Union, but now consists of sovereign states and breakaway regions such as South Ossetia, Dagestan and Chechnya. This area is a borderland between east and west, Christianity and Islam and different cultures and languages.

Lasthein’s use of colour is quite muted. His palette, on the whole is quite cool with lots of dark tones, greys and blues. This seems to reflect the overall mood and distrust that is evident in his subjects – their unhappiness even. In Fig 5 below all the subjects have averted their gaze from the photographer and their body language (crossed arms) shouts out distrust. The contrasting splashes of colour serve as anchors in the image.

Fig 5 Meanwhile Across the Mountain: Grozny, Chechnya 2011 by Jens Olof Lasthein

I have been focusing on everyday life, which is influenced both by animosities and suspicions across the borders, but also by what is shared—and unifying—about the region’s history. For an outsider, this all presents a paradox; for the locals, this is just the way it is. Being an outsider, I was personally very attracted to this complexity.

(LensCulture, s.d.)

The barrel distortion in Fig 6 echoes the strangeness of the landscape – are those lookout towers next to each oil rig? Does the woman carry a stick or metal bar for protection in this surveillance world? Her capri shorts offer almost the only splash of bright colour in the image, just echoed slightly by the orange and teal oil rigs in the middle ground on either side of her, again anchoring the viewer’s attention on her. Its an image that has more questions and plenty of strangeness e.g the curved shadow of a vertical structure.

Fig 6 Meanwhile Across the Mountain: Balakhani, Azerbaijan 2014 by Jens Olof Lashein

The socio-political climate is quite evident in his images. Like Webb, Lasthein prefers to work organically, allowing impressions to inform his work as he shoots. He likes to get to know his subjects well and finds that this will then lead on to other circumstances which he would normally not have encountered had he not taken the trouble to establish that rapport. ‘Repeatedly, I carefully make contact with people and build up a modicum of trust, only for it to be shattered by the sudden intervention of the authorities’. (Lasthein, s.d.). His modus operandi is to shoot intuitively and analyse afterwards. He acknowledges that the world is full of contradictions which can’t always be easily understood and this paradox really does come through in his work.

Marco van Duyvendijk

Marco van Duyvendijk is a Dutch photographer,  Fotomuseum Den Haag describes one of van Duyvendijk’s distinguishing features of his work as his “flamboyant” use of colour.  I’m not so sure I’d agree with that. Looking at his Mongolia series, much of the overall colour palette is quite muted ochre tones, especially those images taken outdoors. Where there does seem to be a bit of colour is in his portraits where subjects are wearing traditional dress, or a costume/uniform of sorts.

I did not find the same level of engagement with the place or people as is evident in Webb and Lasthein’s work, even though van Duyvendijk spends months or years working on a project. I also thought that the series (at least what I can see on his website) lacks a cohesiveness. Van Duyvendijk’s work seems to alternate between travel/landscape photography and portraits. Most of the portraits are done in deadpan aesthetic. The course manual states that this work was commissioned by the Mongolian Consulate to document the nation’s shifting identity. While traces of modernity come through in the portraits (Western clothing, gymnastic activities, etc.)  I found these less compelling than those that showed the traditional Mongolians. The traditional portraits held more of a narrative as far as I’m concerned.

 

Philip Cheung

Philip Cheung is a Canadian photographer, based in Los Angeles and Toronto. Unfortunately it seems that he has taken his West Bank project offline, but I managed to find four images from that series under his Commission work – not really sure if that is enough to critique on.

I do prefer Cheung’s work over van Duyvendijk’s as the portraits show more a sense of place which adds to the narrative. The two night images are vibrant in colour and densely saturated, showing a good use of contrasting colours on the colour wheel. In contrast to this, the two day images are quite muted in tone featuring mainly greys and green shades. There is a quietness about the day images even though one subject is wearing a gas mask lending a rather surreal impression to that image.

To get a better sense of Cheung’s work I looked at a few of his other projects. The Edge is a project about the dynamic between the landscape and activity along the UAE coastline. The overall palette in this series is of pastel shades – soft and muted, which in itself is a contrast to the harsh desert conditions. The towering, modern city of Abu Dhabi dominates the background of many images as local people go about their daily activities along the beach and coastline. An image of man-made artificial waterways that wind their way through the skyscrapers carrying boatloads of tourists to their destinations is juxtaposed with an image of a mountainous region that has a stream through the valley.

Mikhael Subtozky

Mikhael Subtozky hails from my native country, South Africa and I have passed through the town of Beaufort West many times in my youth. After crossing the mountains from Cape Town, the town is the last bastion of civilization (so it seemed to me) before embarking on a long, dreary road through semi-arid desert land before reaching the next city about 542 km away. As a child I always hated this section of the road trip because it was deadly boring. There would be a little hill on the horizon and only scrub land between yourself and that, and when you reached the hill, there would be another one waiting on the horizon again and so the road would go on.

I would say that Subotzky, from what I can remember of the place, has rendered an accurate depiction, but is perhaps biased towards one segment of the population as he has mainly depicted the lower socio-economic segments of the population in this series. That it is a rather depressing town comes through very well in his work. How could it not be depressing with a prison situated right in the middle of the town (on a traffic circle) like a big bellybutton, around which all incoming and outgoing traffic to major metropolises have to pass?

Subotzky photographs in a social documentary mode and there is a clear narrative running through his work. He has captured the forlorn-ness (is that even a word?) of the town, the homelessness that is very prevalent there and the underlying danger that exists in every South African town or city. A man stands guard with a machine gun while residents collect their social assistance money, another stands resting his foot on a hospital drip stand, armed with a sword. Subotzky’s use of shadows and his washed out colour palette conveys this sense of danger and hopelessness.

Looking back at all these photographers above, but perhaps especially Philip Cheung’s The Edge, one can see that ‘the same geographical space can be different places at the same time’. In The Edge we see Abu Dhabi used as a thriving tourist metropolis and business centre, as well as an entertainment hub and the beach as recreation place for both local and tourist population. I find this sense a little less obvious in Marco van Duvendijk’s Mongolia, but it is amplified in Jens Olf Lasthein’s work. Here agriculture mixes with leisure space, demolished buildings and railway tracks become playgrounds. In Webb’s work places of commemoration abut places of recreation, darkness juxtaposes light. There is also a subtle difference in comparing Subotzky’s and Goldblatt’s work to that of Webb, Cheung, van Duyvendijk, and Lasthein. Both Goldblatt and Subotzky understand the underlying culture, the paradoxical differences that exist within the subcultures and have used their insider knowledge to highlight aspects of this in their work.

 

Bibliography

British Journal of Photography (2017) Book: Meanwhile Across the Mountain by Jens Olof Lasthein. At: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/07/jens-olaf-lasthein/ (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Cheung, P. (s.d.) COMMISSIONS. At: https://www.philipcheungphoto.com/commissions/y2cj1e7dbx9i9kggkboure9jrpcgj5 (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Circuit Gallery (s.d.) Philip Cheung. At: http://www.circuitgallery.com/artists/philip-cheung/ (Accessed  13/11/2019).

van Duyvendijk, M. (s.d.) Mongolia. At: https://www.marcovanduyvendijk.nl/portfolio/mongolia/ (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Grygiel, M. and Mazur, A. (s.d.) Interview with Alex Webb. At: http://fototapeta.art.pl/2005/axwe.php (Accessed  12/11/2019).

Lasthein, J. O. (s.d.) Meanwhile Across the Mountain. At: https://www.lasthein.se/meanwhiletext (Accessed  13/11/2019).

LensCulture (2014) Philip Cheung – The Edge. At: https://www.lensculture.com/philip-cheung?modal=project-524426 (Accessed  13/11/2019).

LensCulture (s.d.) Meanwhile Across the Mountain – Interview with Jens Olof Lasthein | LensCulture. At: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/jens-olof-lasthein-meanwhile-across-the-mountain (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Magnum Photos (s.d.) Alex Webb • Photographer Profile. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/alex-webb/ (Accessed  12/11/2019).

Magnum Photos (s.d.) Mikhael Subotzky • Photographer Profile. At: https://www.magnumphotos.com/photographer/mikhael-subotzky/ (Accessed  14/11/2019).

Marco van Duyvendijk | Fotomuseum Den Haag (2010) At: https://www.fotomuseumdenhaag.nl/en/exhibitions/marco-van-duyvendijk (Accessed  13/11/2019).

Risch, C. (2018) Q&A: Alex Webb On Street Photography as “Exploration and Discovery with the Camera” | PDN Online. At: https://pdnonline.com/features/photographer-interviews/qa-alex-webb-on-street-photography-as-exploration-and-discovery-with-the-camera/ (Accessed  12/11/2019).

Subotzky, M. (s.d.) Beaufort West works / MIKHAEL SUBOTZKY ARCHIVE. At: http://www.subotzkystudio.com/works/beaufort-west-works/ (Accessed  14/11/2019).

Webb, A. (2004) Istanbul: City of 100 Names (A.W.) — Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/istanbul-city-of-100-names (Accessed  12/11/2019).

 

Illustrations

Figure 1. Webb, A. (2001) Istanbul: City of 100 Names (A.W.) — Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/istanbul-city-of-100-names#4 (Accessed on 12 November 2019)

Figure 2. Webb, A. (2004) Istanbul: City of 100 Names (A.W.) — Alex Webb & Rebecca Norris Webb. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/istanbul-city-of-100-names#5 (Accessed on 12 November 2019)

Figure 3. Webb, A. (1987) Under a Grudging Sun: Port-au-Prince, Haiti. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/under-a-grudging-sun#9 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figure 4. Webb, A. (1986) Under a Grudging Sun: Etroits, La Gonave, Haiti. At: https://www.webbnorriswebb.co/book/alex/under-a-grudging-sun#4 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figure 5. Lasthein, J.O. (2011) Grozny, Chechnya 2011 from Meanwhile Across the Mountain. At: https://www.lasthein.se/meanwhileacrossthemountain/image/0 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figure 6. Lasthein, J.O. (2014) Balakhani, Azerbaijan 2014 – Meanwhile Across the Mountains. At: https://www.lasthein.se/meanwhileacrossthemountain/image/66 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figure 7-8. van Duyvendijk, M. (s.d.) Mongolia. At: https://www.marcovanduyvendijk.nl/portfolio/mongolia/ (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figures 9-12. Cheung, P. (s.d.) COMMISSIONS. At: https://www.philipcheungphoto.com/commissions/y2cj1e7dbx9i9kggkboure9jrpcgj5 (Accessed on 13 November 2019)

Figures 13-15. Subotzky, M. (s.d.) Beaufort West works / MIKHAEL SUBOTZKY ARCHIVE. At: http://www.subotzkystudio.com/works/beaufort-west-works/ (Accessed on 14 November 2019)

Exercise: We English – Simon Roberts

I reviewed Simon Roberts’s We English project during the Landscape module (post here), but don’t mind this repetition as I really like Simon Roberts’s work. We are asked to read Max Houghton’s article on We English in Foto8 Issue 25 and also Stephen Daniels essay that appeared in the We English Monograph and write a reflective commentary.

Houghton touches on the fact that Roberts’s first major work, Motherland, was a self-funded project with no publishing deal in sight at the start of the project. This book, however, was sold out and its success enabled Roberts’s subsequent project, We English to be launched. The project took about five months to make: Roberts traveled around England in a camper van with his wife and child. Houghton also touches on Roberts’s marketing strategies for his project. He made use of his personal contacts (picture editor of BBC news website), launched a website requesting the public to send him interesting locations/activities to photograph in response to a weekly dispatch by The Times who announced his impending location. Key to representation was the idea that Roberts wanted to hear from the public on what was relevant to them. The website gathered the ideas that served as inspiration for his work. All of these techniques are well thought of by various sponsors. Roberts believes in building good relationships with his sponsors and also provided prints to the National Media Museum.

Simon Roberts had a few definitive criteria that he set when starting out the project:

  • he used a 5×4 camera
  • he was drawn to the idea of the collective use of the landscape and wanted to document how people interact with it
  • he wanted to document how the English spent their leisure time
  • compositionally, he had a rule that people should not occupy more than one third of the frame.

His work contains a theme that runs through the photographs, i.e. boundaries (natural boundaries between sea/sky/land and path and fields. Much of his work triggered personal memories for him as some of the places he photographed were places he had visited as a child and which he could introduce to his wife and child.

Stephen Daniels offers a brief history of the impact of photography on tourism and the role photography has played in determining a cultural character and identity for England. There are several ways in which the relationship between land and leisure can be characterized:

  1. Romantic approach: large scenes with very few or no people present
  2. Picturesque: old fashioned scenes that indicate a human presence, e.g. cottages, haystacks
  3. Then there is the documentary approach which includes people and landscape, showing people going about their business and leisure activities.

Looking at the contact sheets for this work, it is quite clear that Roberts’s work falls in the documentary category, but the work has a picturesque aesthetic too.

From We English contact sheets by Simon Roberts

Taking the reader through the progression from the upsurge in landscape art in the eighteenth century, the effect that steam trains had on tourism and leisure activities, to the collective, social pleasure of enjoying the outdoors, to the use of the outdoors for ideological purposes in our current decade, Daniels makes it clear that although places and activities that were pursued in the past may have changed over the last one hundred years, many of the activities and places visited have remained fashionable to visit and questions how much can be attributed to ‘national or patriotic identity’.

 

Bibliography

Daniels, S. (2010) Simon Roberts | The English Outdoors | We English Monograph. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Stephen-Daniels-We-English-essay.pdf. (Accessed 10 November, 2019)

Houghton, M. (2009) ‘Work in Progress | Simon Roberts | We English’ In: Foto8 (25) 2009 pp.25–33.

Roberts, S. (2007-2008) We English. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/We-English-Plates.pdf (Accessed 10 November, 2019)