Archive for the ‘Photography Culture’ tag
This year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery has been awarded to the British fine art photographer David Chancellor and his photograph Huntress with Buck. In the photograph we can see a young woman sitting on a horse looking down into the camera. The photograph appears to be slightly manipulated, as the area near the head of the main subject seems to be brightened to increase her aura. The low vantage point of the camera and the elevated position of the huntress have the effect that she looks grand and statuesque. In his photograph, Chancellor evokes the iconography and visual culture of equestrian statues depicting knights, gods and military leaders. The central relationship is not between the huntress and her horse, but between the huntress and the buck lying dead across the horse’s back. The symbolism here is pretty clear: the horse is alive, the buck is dead, their bodies crossing each other where the huntress is sitting. The huntress is portrayed as killer as much as a nurturer.
In a sense, the huntress is at a crossroad herself: she is neither girl nor woman. Without the caption provided, the androgynous looks of the subject also fail to indicate a clear gender identity. It is perhaps an ungendered performance that is possible in the ‘wild’ settings the photograph was taken in. This notion of inbetweeness in the representation of gender is further emphasized by the lighting: photographed when the sun was kissing the horizon, it is neither day, nor is it night. The low sunlight has the effect that all elements in the photograph come visually together as, for a brief moment, everything is steeped in a deep red colour.
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“Shutter chance”, that is the Japanese expression borrowed from the English language that best describes the photographs of the Japanese street photographer Kayo Ume. Take above photograph as an example. A young couple makes an evening visit to a local chemist. They are dressed casually, knowing that their trip would only last a few minutes. They find what they were looking for, go to the cashiers and pay. The harsh artificial lighting and the products on the shelves are deeply reminiscent of Andreas Gursky’s iconic photograph “99 Cents” depicting a giant supermarket. In this claustrophobic space of consumerism, there, on the linoleum floor, is a pigeon blocking the way to the exit. The young couple look down in awe at this unusual and unexpected sight. What they don’t see is that out on the street is a young photographer, born in 1981, who has been watching the pigeon and their very own actions from the beginning. It’s a chance encounter and Kayo Ume knows when to press the shutter. Ume’s observations are relentless. In the photograph we can see the joy on faces of the young couple while the shop clerk’s blank expression is perhaps evidence for a long day at work. The young woman so delighted about the pigeon is wearing an eye patch, further contextualizing her visit to the chemist. In the foreground of the photograph, on the far right, is the silhouette of a person passing by and holding, what appears to be, an umbrella. In this single photograph, Ume supplies the viewer with an abundance of information that supports a greater narrative of the everyday.
Other photographs from Kayo Ume’s massively successful book Ume-me, which sold over 100.000 copies in her native Japan, tell similarly intriguing stories. There is for example the slightly tragic moment when five elderly people are desperately trying to open a locker in a train station. The strength in these photographs is that they bridge the tragic with the comic, but also the voyeuristic with the mundane. These photographs are made possible by Ume’s pathological dedication to the medium photography, working in the tradition of Henri Cartier-Bresson or even Jacques Henri Lartigue. The sheer volume of her photographic archive might also provoke comparisons with fellow Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama. Unlike Moriyama’s dark photographs of urban dystopia, Ume’s photographs are a far brighter, optimistic and also funnier depiction of life in Japan.
Ume is predominantly known for her photographs of young kids pulling grimaces and playing on Tokyo’s back streets. However, simply categorizing Ume’s photographs as slapstick humor would not do her practice justice. The photograph of a young man dressed in camouflaged military clothing as he approaches an elderly lady is an example for the drama that Ume also uncovers. The woman’s body language and her facial expression, as she is standing with her back to the wall, signifies her intimidation vis-a-vis the significantly taller man. But is that the whole story? Ume’s photographs offer many alternative readings and the one above is no exception. From the side of his mouth, the man can be seen smiling – a facial expression that stands in opposition to the woman’s reaction. Also, the man seems to be holding a pink toy, perhaps suggesting that his approach is more innocent than it first appears. All the time, Kayo Ume herself seems to be operating like the proverbial fly-on-the-wall so often attributed to photographers working in the tradition of social documentary. Magically, Ume herself remains invisible in these odd encounters with the comic and the tragic of the everyday.
The tragedy that the urban environment offers street photographers like Kayo Ume is maybe most apparent in the photograph of a man fallen to the ground on a train. The sight of the so-called salaryman sleeping on the ground after a hard day of work, or drinking, or both, is so common in Tokyo that such sightings have provoked a facebook group dedicated to this subject. The subject in Ume’s photograph is therefore not necessarily the fallen man, but rather, the many other passengers that ignore his, and Ume’s presence. Life continues as normal in spite of the out-of-orderness of the passenger lying on the ground. Whether or not he is just sleeping or suffering a heart attack is another ambiguity in Ume’s photograph. Unlike the other passengers, Ume is not ignoring the situation and photographs the tragic and comical offered by dense urban living.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
Let me introduce you to one of the most iconic photographs of post-war Germany: the politician Uwe Barschel found dead in a bathtub in a hotel in Geneva. I was nine years old when this photograph was imprinted in my memory. It was taken by journalists working for Stern magazine as they checked up on Barschel in his hotel room. It is a highly voyeuristic image and one can only assume that the journalists decided to pull back the shower curtain in order to get a better view of Barschel. The strong flashlight of the camera captures every little detail: Barschel lies fully clothed in a bathtub, his body submerged in water, his head leaning towards the side. A few details of the photograph are intriguing: his collar button is opened and his tie is loosened, his hair is wet despite being above water and his wristwatch peaks out from his sleeve. The non-water proof wristwatch would later give an indication of Barschel’s time of death. All these elements further raised the intrigue of what happened to Barschel.
Until this day, the circumstances of Barschel’s death have not been resolved. One line of investigation has been suicide as several drugs have been found in the room and in Barschel’s body. Another theory involves the Isreali secret service Mossad who were weary of Barschel’s knowledge of an arms deal between Isreal and Iran. The mysteriousness of Barschel’s last living moments coupled with the paradoxical representation of his death had the effect that this photograph gained iconographic status and remains well remembered in the German psyche.
The German photographer Thomas Demand who is well-known for his reconstructions of iconographic images, rebuilt the bathtub in room 317 of the Hotel Beau-Rivage in paper and cardboard. There is no trace of Barschel himself in Demand’s reconstruction, yet the vantage point of the camera, the bathroom tiles, even the water level in the bathtub remain strikingly similar to the original photograph published by Stern magazine. As if to grant the deceased subject more privacy, Demand drew the curtain slightly closed. Demand’s image is a comment on the role of photography in the production and consumption of memory.
But it is not only photographic memory that is referred to here. Jacques Louis David’s painting of Marat lying dead in a bathtub is part of this visual iconography in the construction of memory. I hesitate to assume that the Stern journalists were aware of David’s painting. Nor do I think that Stern readers immediately think of the Death of Marat when they see the photograph of Barschel. Nevertheless, the striking similarities between David’s painting and the Barschel photograph might explain why the latter has become one of the most iconic images in recent German history. Marat was assassinated while Barschel, as many believe, might also have been the victim of political plot. Like Marat’s note held in his left hand, Barschel’s wristwatch signifies the immediacy of his death.