Friday, 10 June 2016

RWA


From the RWA

Despite having walked past it many times, I'd never actually been into the Royal West of England Academy – billed as "Bristol's first art gallery" – until this week. I was finally tempted inside by an exhibition, "Inquisitive Eyes: Slade Painters in Edwardian Wessex, 1900 - 1914". It is a curious show, largely made up of those small, low-key, quasi-Impressionistic oil landscapes that you'd probably walk past in most large galleries on the way to see something more striking. However, the subject matter being "Wessex" – which is to say Dorset, in the main, and Swanage in particular – the show was of great potential interest to me, as this was the location of many of our family holidays in the early 1960s. Although there is an obvious difference between our bucket-and-spade adventures on the beach and the tweedy Edwardian forays of the New English Art Club into a Purbeck landscape still innocent of slot-machine arcades and caravan sites.

However, the exhibition turned out to be in a side gallery extremely dimly-lit for conservation reasons and, as a consequence, rather hard to see. This is never a good thing in an art exhibition, especially when so many of the paintings are sombre, sketchy exercises in a limited, muddy palette. That, combined with a surprisingly large contingent of visitors for a show nearing its close, meant that I spent less time in there than I had intended. But to get to it you had to pass through the main gallery, which is an astounding open space, more like a gym than a gallery, brilliantly lit with daylight from overhead, and populated with another show, "Imagined Landscapes", which I found much more interesting. In more ways than one.

I've already said my piece about contemporary landscape photography (Bye, Bye Landscape Photography, Dear) and nothing in this group show of more general contemporary artistic approaches to the landscape changed my mind on that score. Of the works I found most compelling, several had set out from a photographic starting-point, or included actual photographic images – I really liked a couple of tiny works by Paul Fieldsend-Danks, and a collaboration between artist Will Maclean and poet John Burnside resulting in a set of ten paired prints and poems, A Catechism of the Laws of Storms  – but the straight photographic work on display struck me as dull and, ultimately, rather unsatisfying. I found myself in the position of the sort of person who says, yes, very nice, but it's just a photograph, isn't it? Which, to say the least, felt a bit weird.

In the RWA

On the RWA

Now, I've known the work of photographer Jem Southam for a long time, ever since 1992, when – pushing my son in his baby-buggy around Reading town centre while my partner was giving an Open University tutorial there – I came across a copy of The Red River in a bookshop. A few years later I had the good fortune to do a Duckspool workshop with him, just at the point he was moving away from a hand-held medium-format camera (the extraordinary Plaubel Makina) to a more static large-format view camera, and producing the brilliant series of cliff rockfalls, river-mouths and dew-ponds that brought him to much deserved wider attention. We've stayed in touch, intermittently, and I consider myself a fan. So, it was with pleasure I spotted four Southam prints on the wall.

It turned out they were from the "Pond at Upton Pyne" series. Now, I should say I don't consider this series among his finest work, especially compared with the similar but, to my eyes, vastly superior series known as "The Painter's Pool". There's something peculiar about the composition and especially the colour balance in all the prints and reproductions of "Upton Pyne" I've seen, and they simply don't work for me. These prints in particular were very large indeed, each one roughly four feet or so across, and hung in a two-by-two grid. You can't help but get close – too close – to such large pictures and the inherent weaknesses of photography, particularly colour analogue photography, are then staring you in the face.

Chief among these are what I think of as a lack of "fractalness" evident in over-enlarged photographic mark-making. A good drawing or painting is fascinating all the way down to the smallest twitch of a pencil-point or dab of a brush-stroke. I would have loved to have got really up-close and personal with some of the pencil portraits in the "Inquisitive Eyes" exhibition, or taken a couple of the paintings off the wall and examined them more closely in broad daylight, ideally out on the terrace with a cup of coffee. But, with any photograph, there is a point beyond which enlargement simply diminishes the image by blurring and exposing the incoherence of its inherent "grain". Even a large-format negative is not best served by enlarging it to four or more feet across.  Frankly, it's an approach best reserved for hotel lobbies, restaurants, and travel agencies with a blank wall to enliven.  On the contrary, if you want to be hit in the eye by the sheer magic of photography, absolutely nothing can beat an 8" x 10" contact print from an 8" x 10" negative. And I have yet to see a purely photographic image from any size of negative or digital file that has been enlarged beyond, say, a modest 12" x 16" that gained anything from the extra size that it did not lose in the "tautness" of the image-quality and in particular that unique illusion of intimate presence that good photography endows.

I suppose these may simply be the reflections of someone who has – temporarily – fallen somewhat out of love with the medium. Or perhaps I don't love photography for the same qualities its mainstream admirers see in it. A case of it's not you, photography, it's me... But to find myself in the presence of work by one of my most admired artists and thinking, "yes, very nice, but it's just a photograph, isn't it?" was both disappointing and disturbing.

Although I will admit to feeling a compensating rush of cockiness, pleasurably close to hubris: This work is as good as it gets, I thought, and yet I don't feel humbled by it, as I might before an old master drawing or the Rembrandt self-portraits I saw in Amsterdam last year ... Perhaps I really am bloody good at this photography lark! What a shame so few people seem to have realised it so far!

Though I calmed down when I realised I'd been walking around all morning with the Fuji's exposure compensation dial accidentally set to minus two stops...  Doh! Luckily, like Jeeves, the camera seems to know what I want better than I do.

Beside the RWA

6 comments:

Thomas Rink said...

There is lots of food for thought in this post. As you just finished a book project which took you quite some time and into which you put a lot of intellectual and emotional effort, you probably went far from the traditional "single, master photograph" approach. There has to be more - either a collection of pictures with a narrative, but pictures together with poems is interesting, too. Pictures together with music is also something I thought about for a long time (combines two of my passions). Today's cameras take perfect pictures under any circumstances (even with the exposure compensation messed up ;^), so there is nothing special in a perfect picture; moving beyond this is probably beyond the resources of a lot of us amateurs. It's a pity that our copyright legislation makes meshing up our photography with existing art from other genres such a daunting undertaking.

Re the Jem Southam prints: I believe that the colour in a picture is like a smell; it is perceived on a subliminal, non-rational level. In German, we say of someone we dislike "ich kann ihn nicht riechen" (I just can't stand his smell). If a picture comes across a bit odd, it's often the colours, and nothing else is going to fix it. It probably doesn't help to extract four pictures from a sequence within which they have been intended to be seen, either. I agree with your stance on smaller, intimate prints, too.

Interesting post.

Best, Thomas

PS: The picture with the lamb which accompanies the Brexit posting shows that you didn't lose your photographic mojo.

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

Interesting comment about the smell. One of the Upton Pyne prints pops up a lot, e.g. on Ebay, as it was offered in the journal Blind Spot's print programme. Whenever I see it, I experience the same negative reaction -- it screams "too much cyan!!"

I didn't mention it in the post, but one of the things I noticed in these huge prints was the amount of colour-fringing around backlit twigs and the like, something one would routinely "correct" in a digital context, but which is impossible to deal with in the darkroom. I wonder if one would even have noticed it before?

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Mike, I believe we are all a bit spoiled with perfectionism these days. Digital photography in conjunction with the world wide web brought up a cult of perfection. It is difficult to evade this. I took up photography in 1982, b/w in 35 mm. A negative was "sharp" for me when I was able to produce a nice 30x45 cm print; it never came to my mind to question my lenses. I never gave a thought to the Zone System either, when I liked the picture it was good. Then came a longer hiatus (employment, family, you know). I started with digital in 2010 using a Nikon D90 with kit lens, and since I didn't know anything about digital, I started to look around in the web. The obvious places (LuLa, for example), and I bought books like "Take your photography to the next level".

Big mistake.

First they planted doubt about my humble little camera and lens. One needs at least full frame and Zeiss lenses, you know. Of course, a Phase One or Hassy is better. And then came the commandmends: Thou shalt not blow thy highlights! Thou shalt expose to the right! And so on. I'm still struggling to shake this shit off.

Some time ago, I attended a show similar to the one you described. And all photographs on display were technically challenged. Some weren't sharp, digital prints, on the other hand, looked oversharpened. They had a couple of big prints by Simone Nieweg, and they fell apart on close inspection, too, just as you described. BTW: I recently bought her new book (Der Wald, die Bäume, das Licht). You know what? She takes pictures at noon, consequently, her highlights are blown; on other pictures, the skies are bland and have an unhealthy magenta cast (probably to keep the greens in the foliage at bay). The pictures work nevertheless (except for the magenta cast, this I can't stand).

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

Exactly so. But I do think there's a huge difference between the mindless perfectionism of the gearhead, and a legitimate expectation of technical mastery. I mean, really... Blown highlights, colour casts? It reduces the overall visual standard when we accept that the idea always trumps the execution. You need both!

But then I, too, started out in the 80s, learning the craft of monochrome printing in the darkroom from some true masters, and I suppose I have brought those "craft" ideas with me. It still shocks me when I read that people farm out their printing to some industrial unit somewhere, just because they want impractically huge prints.

Harumph... Mind you, the same problem affects drawing and painting, too, though in different ways. It is hilarious to me that Tracey Emin was appointed Professor of Drawing at the Royal Academy. If you don't know her work, try a Google image search on "Tracey Emin drawing", and prepare to be amazed...

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Mike,

I just had a look at Ms. Emin's drawings. On first sight, they appear shockingly primitive and unmasterful. Then I remembered a visit at the Emil Schumacher Museum over at Hagen, and I had to think of his drawings of North African architecture - had I seen them on the web, I would have balked, too. But seeing them on the wall, surrounded by his other work, I was deeply impressed by their emotional power, the vigour and passion coming out from them. My prior impression of modern art was that it was rather dry and academic, like Josef Albers' squares (he has a museum dedicated to him at Bottrop, not far from here), but Mr. Schumacher's work really moved me. To come full circle: Dismissing technique just to set oneself apart is hollow, just as practicing technique for its own sake. I think it is the small technical glitches and imperfections which make an emotionally appealing work even more interesting. But it is a delicate balance to strike.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

Your fair-mindedness is exemplary! I suppose what I find hilarious is that someone whose drawing style is so, ah, idiosyncratic should be elevated to such an august position in the RA. But then I have an idiosyncratic sense of humour...

Mike