Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Under Construction

In the main, I favour "straight" photography i.e. images resulting from a direct, unmanipulated encounter with reality. In the straightest of straight photographs, the natural light reflected from a real-life scene has entered the camera, been recorded, and then re-rendered in the darkroom or computer by the photographer with a minimum of manipulation. Simple, honest, true. Well, as good as, anyway.

However, there is obviously enormous scope for alteration and improvement at every stage of the process
. A scene may be artificially-lit, for a start. Most professional work is done this way, ranging from a convenient bystander's white-shirted back used as a reflector to fill in deep shadows to a full-on studio lighting rig. Even the straightest of straight photographers would not hesitate to use simple manipulations like "dodging and burning" in the darkroom, and the scope offered by Photoshop to enhance digital photographs is enormous -- knowing when to stop has always been a large part of the game.

But, when I am in the mood, I quite like the small-scale "constructed" photograph, which can be as simple as a traditional still life, or more complex miniature constructions, sometimes combining two-dimensional images as backgrounds for three-dimensional objects. Curiously, it's quite a gendered approach, in that its best practitioners tend to be women. Male "constructors" tend to be either grandiose stage set managers like Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall, or nerdy hobbyists, modelling individual blades of grass. Women simply seem to be better-suited to mining their imaginations without resorting to heavy-handed surrealism or complex model-making.

Not so much constructed, as found

This is not an area I've explored much myself yet, but I have always had it on my rainy-day list, and as a fallback should wandering around in hunter-gatherer mode ever start to get boring or unproductive. Here are a few people whose work I enjoy.

Mari Mahr : her book A Few Days in Geneva (another beautiful Travelling Light production from the 1980s) can be picked up very cheap. In common with most constructors, she explores areas of personal significance, placing precious mementos or objects of symbolic significance in dream-like contexts, where scale and depth are confused.

Camille Solyagua : More at the still-life end of the spectrum, Solyagua is clearly very interested in the way the act of photographing can invest negligible objects with significance. I like her use of old picture mounts to frame natural debris like insect wings or leaves, but she does occasionally tip over into the sort of up-market kitsch you might find in a Southwold gallery. Solyagua happens to be the partner of zen-landscapist and night photographer Michael Kenna. I'm not sure I'd want to visit their house: too much good taste can give me a headache.

Lori Nix : Nix is, unusually, a female nerd, building careful little scenes to photograph, but I like her sense of humour, as displayed in the "Accidentally Kansas" series where floods, fires and traffic accidents are crafted like bizarre model railway scenarios. Her use of shallow depth of field is also interesting.

Bethany de Forest : Lori's strange little sister... If you think you can bear an immersion into a fairy-tale alternative universe that appears to be constructed out of sugar and spice and populated by crustaceans, check out Bethany's work. She makes clever use of the huge depth of field and tiny size of her home-made pinhole cameras to add a hyperreal dimension to her constructions. A little does go a long way, though.

Kahn / Selesnick : Just to show the typical male angle, here are the Gilbert & George of constructed photography, the strangely strange but oddly normal Kahn / Selesnick. Enter with caution: surrealists at work. I rather like their steam-punk "Apollo Prophecies", but work like "Scotlandfuturebog" is hilarious, especially when you realise that they are deadly serious in their earnestly over-extended whimsicality. You'd have to be, to put in that much effort.

Mike & Doug Starn : But this is how it's really done. The Starn twins are an incredibly creative pair, impossible to categorise. I am in awe of their series "Attracted to Light", very large-scale, composite, constructed photographs made from micro-photographs of moths (have I ever mentioned my one-time obsession with moths?). Tones, textures, photographic qualities combined with fine art values, de-familiarised insects like alien fighter aircraft -- simply amazing, and the book of the series produced by Blind Spot in 2004 is one of my all-time favourites.

Not so much found, or constructed, as exploded


Gavin McL said...

Thank you for this post - some great photographs and the moths are something special.

Mike C. said...


The thing it's easy to miss on the website or looking at the book is the scale -- most are 4 or 5 feet across but some of those composites are 14 feet across! I haven't seen them "live", but it must be pretty overwhelming.


Kent Wiley said...

Hmmm... Are these two pics really Mike C. photos? Never seen a red or a yellow border before. Different, and leaving me scratching my head.

Mike C. said...


What, you mean you think I might have stolen them from someone else? No, they're just old -- when I first started the blog, I used to put coloured borders on (I can't even remember why I thought this was a good idea).

They may also look different because taken with an Olympus 5050 -- it's interesting how different manufacturers each get a different "look" into their colour processing. The best "out of the camera" look, imho, is Fuji -- shame they stopped making proper cameras, though that new X100 could be a killer, if they've got it right this time.


Kent Wiley said...

Sorry, Mike, I can't get dragged into a gear head conversation about cameras. You know - I'm still (not as much) using a 5 x 4. What's a X100?

Mike C. said...


Ha! Got me there... Though I think a little gear-headery doesn't do anyone any harm from time to time...

The Fuji X100 is (potentially) the most attractive and cleverly designed little camera anyone has put on the market in recent years, though it will be *way* too expensive for the likes of us.