Friday, 20 February 2015

Annie Leibovitz: Life through a Lens

For our photography movie this week, I chose "Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens," a 2007 biography.  Partly I chose it because her photographs have become so iconic and I wanted to know more about her, and partly because I know you've been learning about portrait photography and I thought it might be relevant to that.  I buy the "Hollywood" issue of Vanity Fair magazine each year because it always features a big spread of elaborately staged celebrity photographs by her  that I find fascinating.  Had you heard of her?  Is she someone who is known more in the US, I wonder?

I was struck that she is another photographer from San Francisco (I didn't know that, nor did I know that Rolling Stone magazine started in SF in the 1960's which of course makes perfect sense).  And I found it interesting to hear her describe her progression from someone who just picked up a camera and started taking "reportage" style photographs and evolved into a thoughtful, stylized portrait photographer.  I also liked seeing that she seemed so mobile with her camera -- sure, there were assistants and lights and reflectors, but it really seemed about her and her camera more than any complicated equipment.

The movie was intended to be about her life, of course, but I was wishing there were a bit more info about the photography itself.  She talked about how she met a friend, Bea somebody, who taught her about editing her photos and I wished she'd talked more about that process and what made her hone in on one over another.  I did like hearing her talk about how she developed the concept of setting up a photograph to visually illustrate more about the person and his/her work.  It seems obvious, now, but I suppose her doing that at the time was new and innovative.  And the depth of how she does it is always intriguing to me (which, I guess, is why I go out of my way to find that Vanity Fair issue each year.)   

As the film showed various photographs, I was struck by how many I recognized and how many are part of the instantly identifiable images of certain celebrities.  Whoopi Goldberg in the milk bath.  Demi Moore's pregnant nude magazine cover.  This one of Meryl Streep.

I was intrigued at how baldly she photographed her partner, Susan Sontag, and her father when they were ill and dying. The idea of photographing during such intimate, raw moments is one that feels uncomfortable to me -- too intrusive, too private, I suppose -- yet true and touching and important at the same time. I guess it's reflective of how a photographer sees and experiences everything through a camera. 

 At any rate, I was glad to have seen this and to learn more about this interesting woman. I'll be interested to hear what you think of it.

Saturday, 14 February 2015


Dear Diane,

I was going to apologise for picking this week's film but I guess the plan is to watch them all at some stage so I guess I am off the hook for inflicting boredom on you. Or, maybe you loved it and watched it three times in succession. (But seeing as we are so much alike, I am guessing not!)

For readers benefit this week I picked the 1991 Australian film Proof with Russell Crowe
It is a tale of a blind man who takes photographs because he seems them as proof that what people are telling him about his surroundings is actually true. Of course it turns out that only works if, firstly the describer tells the truth and secondly that the blind man believes what the describer is saying when they do tell the truth. As a film is was described as a black comedy and I can recall one particularly comedic moment but generally, I thought dark and slow. Just slow and strangely stiff characters. Faces that showed no moment and so no emotion.

The concept of photography as truth is kind of interesting to me though. I think you will recall that my Dad was a Police photographer so the use of photos as evidence was instilled me as a child although I never actually got to see the dead body photos! ( If asked what kind of photography he did he likes to say, "Oh, still life. Very still life.) Now I am sometimes given photos as 'proof' in my day job. Look how happy this child was with me! Of course all that shows is that the child was happy looking at the moment the shutter closed. Or at least acting happy. Who knows how they felt at other times. Who knows what was out of the frame promoting the smile. Plus, I am thinking that with your knowledge of Aspergers you may even say that a photos of a happy child is only a photos of a happy child if one can read the body language that in our culture generally signifies happy.

I think that, photography might not be untruthful whilst at the same time never telling the whole truth. In part that's because it only shows one decisive moment in the confines of a single frame. More so, its shows how one person responded to a much bigger scene or event, and each person in that place will see different things and respond differently. They will bring to the episode different experiences and opinions through which they filter the experience. In the film when Russell Crowe's character was asked to describe people I noticed that he would mention their eye colour and it struck me that that would be meaningless to a person blind from birth yet one of the first facts a sighted person would include.

I have been reading a lot of writing by David duChemin recently, having bought a job lot of his e-books and videos and physical ones for Christmas and I like how he says that a photo should not show what you saw but how you felt about what you saw. I think the photos in this film were less about what the blind man could not see as how he felt about trusting the people who were present and giving him information. the very taking of the photos said: I do not trust, I am afraid I am being lied to, cheated, hindered. They were very negative (no pun intended ) photos in term of their motivation.

If we go back to Ansel Adams I think his photographs do probably show ( by his choice of angles and lighting) what he felt about Yosemite. But is that because we knew what he felt because he told people and so we can match up the verbal information with the visual information and say, yes they are congruent. I see what he says he felt. Isn't it much harder with the Vivien Maier photos we saw? With her we have no information to be sure what she felt when she was taking them. I assumed at the time, curiosity. But it could have been disgust at the society around her. It could have been jealous or longing to have a connection with the people she photographed. It could have been anything and without the words we cannot be sure.

Of course, even with the words we can only be sure if we trust the photographer's account.

My, this post has got rather philosophical! I think I ought to have a cup of tea and recover!
I wonder what film you will pick for us next week?

Friday, 13 February 2015

Reaction to Proof

Thumbs down.  That was my reaction.  I did not like this film.

I have to confess that I might have been affected by a childhood experience seeing "Wait Until Dark," in which some weird con men torment blind Audrey Hepburn in a creepy way, taking advantage of her blindness to terrorize her.  It seemed to me the ultimate cruelty.

So, with that same vulnerability at the heart of this movie, I was sort of creeped out from the beginning.  Martin, blind from birth, is convinced that everyone is lying to him, and he can never trust that people are telling him the truth.  So he takes photos, and asks strangers to describe the photos to him.  And then there was the creepy "housekeeper," tormenting him in her own weird way -- moving furniture purposely to trip him, preventing his dog from running to him in the park so Martin is uncertain about where the dog is (you won't be surprised to her that that really bothered me. Don't mess with the dog!).  Her weird obsession was just too ... weird.

There was also a sadness to both of those characters that I found troubling.

Russell Crowe - relaxed, grinning -- was initially a welcome breath of fresh air, which of course was his character's role.  He seemed normal, honest, without a strange agenda in the background -- until that moment in the park, when he's put in the middle of that weird housekeeper's game.  Ick.   I suppose the end was meant to be hopeful.  But I was just relieved the movie was over.

As for the photography angle -- well, I have to say that the whole premise of a guy who bases his reality on other people's descriptions of his photos is odd and sad.  And yes, it points up the blind man's vulnerability and his weird attempt to gain control and figure out who he can trust.

So I'd put this on the "don't bother" list.

Here's my pick for this coming week: Annie Leibovitz: Life through a Lens.  (Looks like it's on Youtube and Amazon instant streaming and even Itunes.)

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Responding to Ansel Adams: a Documentary

Hi Diane,
I thought I was going to get my review in first this week but no, you beat me to it again! But that's OK because now I have questions to answer making my post all that easier to write !

Before I watched this all I knew about Ansel Adams was that he was 'that guy who did the black and white photos of America'. So I was interested to learn more, but I was kind of disappointed with the film that way It did tell his personal story but in a sort of factual dispassionate way. I was very aware that  my response to it was that I wanted to know far more about the people, in particular his relationship with Patsy English, his dark room assistant, who as said to be the 'love of his life' but for whom he decided not to leave his wife. I want to know if Virginia, his wife. knew Patsy was the love of his life and how she felt about that.

My reactions to his photographs were noticeably similar. They achieve exactly what he wants them to, i.e to show the vast emptiness and the size and grandeur of Yosemite, yet that was the very reason that, whilst I can see the beauty, both in the landscape and in his pictures, I don't emotionally respond to them. There are no people in them. The one photo of his that did make my heart leap a little was in fact the one you chose to illustrate your  post, Moon Over Hernandez. ( That's the second time we've done that, chosen the same photo - I think that says a lot about us, don't you?) But for me it was because it was one that said something about the people who lived in this landscape. How isolated, how remote and how so many were dead! It may have been the way the photo was panned over in the film for cinematography purposes but to be honest, I never noticed the moon. It was those white crosses that drew me.

And of course that say something about the relationship between art and viewer, viewer and art doesn't it. whatever an artist sets out to do, whether he achieves it or not should be for him to judge because the viewer will bring to  it their own interpretations and judgements.

 Art also has a role I think in helping the view understand themselves. As we try to figure out what we see in a picture or how we feel about a sculpture, we can observe the thought and feelings they engender and that can be informative and even healing. Certainly watching this film helped me clarify that, although I am happily exploring all areas of photography as a beginner at the moment, my natural pull is to people and story telling and I should probably follow my bliss in that direction. My Dad on the other hand would love these mountains and spaces. I must send him the film and get him to write his reaction for us!

I know that you have done some traditional darkroom photography in your day but I never have, so the mysteries of exactly how Adams developed his plates ( and indeed what a glass plate even is) are lost to me. This was a documentary about the man ( in so far as that went) but I would have liked more detail about how he did his work.  I know very little about famous photographers or historical techniques but I have a mind to learn. I see that Tom Ang has a book about the history of photography and I have added that to my reading list for the future

Your comments about the darkroom work being an important part of the image making made me think of an article I read ay the gym recently by David duChemin. (Reading photography material in the iPad at the gym is my new way to make the boredom go away and David DuChemin is a Canadian humanitarian photographer whose writing really resonates with me. he conveniently blogs well and produces ebooks and an amazing magazine call Photograph via his site Craft and Vision which makes him prime gym company material!)

Anyway, he wrote an article in which he said in essence that we should stop using the term 'post-processing' to talk about the work we do in the dark room be it traditional or digital because there is no 'post' about it. It is all part of the image making, all part of the creative process.

You asked me sone questions in your post:
As I was watching this, I was imagining your seeing it and wondering what you'd think.  Can you identify a British photographer who is as famous to the UK as Adams is to the US?  Do Adams' photographs seem less relevant to you because the landscape is not a familiar one?  Is there work you know of (from any photographer) whose images capture the English landscape in such a definitive way?
I have to say (and this probably shows my aforementioned ignorance of photography and my own predilections ) I can't identify a single British landscape photographer. (The shame! More Amazon order of photography books are required clearly.) But Adam's work is not irrelevant because the landscape is to familiar. In part I think that because his work is so famous that he helped not make it unfamiliar! Its certainly very American but actually that makes it all the more appealing to me for not being familiar and therefore boring to me. The film did make me want to travel to see Yosemite, although I vote for taking the plane they filmed from for the aerial views not doing the hiking!

As for our ext film, when I am dying to watch City of God ( and its follow up which is not technically on the list!)  but I see I will have to order the DVD of that from Amazon which may take some time so until I can be sure that will arrive in time I am going to veer us away from documentaries for a while towards Proof which appears to be a black comedy about a blind photographer. Its available free on You Tube here. I had no idea until you found Born into Brothels that you could get whole movie son You Tube. Its amazing! City of God is on there so you may be able to get it but its blocked in the UK. Bah!

But, entirely unrelated to photography I was exploring and I see you can get the National Theatre production of Oklahoma here which features the actress Maureen Lipman I mentioned to you once. She plays Aunt Ella. I love her and will travel all over to see her in things.  I once saw her in a matinee at the Theatre in Bath and walked straight out of the side door of the theatre after the production, walked round into the box office and bough the last viable ticket to see that evenings performance so good was she. This production transferred to a larger theatre at a time when I was frequently working alone in London. They had 100 seats for £10 available on the day and I saw this over and over and over and over!  There was something different in it every time. It features Hugh Jackman as well which is never a bad thing now is it?

Anyway, I digress, Let me know what you think of Proof.


Friday, 6 February 2015

Ansel Adams: A Documentary

My photography  movie pick for the week was a documentary about Ansel Adams made by PBS for its series The American Experience.  (You can see the entire documentary free on Youtube, here.) 

When I think about famous photographers, Ansel Adams is probably the name that pops into my head first.  And I suspect that's true for most people, at least for us Americans.  As the documentary describes, Ansel Adams has become known for capturing images that seem quintessentially American, in showing the vast space and grandeur of the American landscape.  I knew I'd enjoy seeing more of his photography through this film.

But I knew little about his life and was surprised to learn that he was born and lived for most of his life (when he wasn't in Yosemite) in San Francisco. I'm surprised that there isn't an Ansel Adams museum or some other such thing in SF -- I just went and looked on Google and it appears there isn't.  Odd, yes?  Apparently there are some of his prints at the SF Museum of Modern Art and the SFMOMA site has an interactive feature about his work on its site which I will go play with when I finish this entry.  Anyway.  I found it fascinating that he was a child during SF's 1906 earthquake -- and after being told that his nose veered sharply to the left after it was broken in a fall during the earthquake, did you find yourself looking at his nose in every picture of him as he aged?! I did.  I also had no idea that he was as obsessed with playing the piano as he was with photography, and that he'd aimed at becoming a concert pianist.  When someone  on the film described how he'd spend part of the year at his home in SF playing piano feverishly, then head up to Yosemite in spring and summer to take photographs, I thought: "Multipotentialite!"  Apparently we are not the only ones drawn to various different creative endeavors!

Of course, Adams is synonymous with Yosemite and I enjoyed learning about his discovery of Yosemite.  I've been to Yosemite a number of times and I've been to the small Ansel Adams gallery there.  So hearing him talk about Yosemite felt personal to me, as things do when you have your own personal connection.  But I found it fascinating to hear how Adams' goal was to create images of Yosemite that didn't just capture the detail of how things look -- he was trying to capture images that conveyed the way the place made him feel.  There it is again, that concept of a photograph conveying an emotion as well as an image that I've just started thinking about via the Vivian Maier film.  (This probably seems obvious to most photographers.  I think it's something I've always responded to in photographs I like, even when choosing ones I've taken myself -- but I never articulated it this way for myself.)

And that of course leads to the way Adams used his darkroom processing to affect the resulting photographic image when he printed it.  When people complain about using Photoshop or other digital processing devices to enhance images, I've often heard Ansel Adams' processing used as the justification -- "he did it, Photoshop is just another tool to do the same dark room processing."  And it's true.  I think that most people who take pictures casually think that Ansel Adams just had a particular knack for pointing his camera at something beautiful at the right moment, having no idea at how much adding filters and manipulating the tones of the image through dodging and burning were key to the images that resulted.  That one woman (his editor, I think) estimated that 40-50% of the work (or artistry) on the image was done in the dark room processing.

And that brings me back to the concept of processing a photograph to highlight what you want to say about an image.  I liked hearing Adams and the experts talk about how it was that he did that.  Making the sky darker to create drama, bringing out the lights and darks of the striations in the rock faces to illustrate strength, etc. It reminds me that the art of photography isn't just in knowing how to adjust the settings to get the depth of focus you want, or in composing the image to define the boundaries of the image.  It's also about using color and light and tones to allow the photograph to say what you want it to, so it illustrates the truth you were feeling at the moment you clicked the shutter. 

The film also made me appreciate the total freedom we have today with digital cameras.  I loved hearing Adams' son talk about his taking his famous Moonrise over Hernandez, NM photo.

 How he spotted the scene, pulled the car over, and was racing to get his camera set up while the light was still illuminating the town -- and those cemetery crosses -- so beautifully.  How he had one photographic plate left, so he had one chance to get the exposure right.  How, as one expert said, he had hours and hours and hours of experience setting up shots, knowing how to get the effects he wanted, so it wasn't luck -- it was his expertise and skill that allowed him to get this in one shot.  (So it reminded me of that question people ask artists a lot: How long did it take you to do this?  And the real answer is a lifetime of work.)

As I was watching this, I was imagining your seeing it and wondering what you'd think.  Can you identify a British photographer who is as famous to the UK as Adams is to the US?  Do Adams' photographs seem less relevant to you because the landscape is not a familiar one?  Is there work you know of (from any photographer) whose images capture the English landscape in such a definitive way?

I'll be interested to hear what you think of this.

And what's your pick for next week?

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Responding to Born Into Brothels

Dear Diane,

Well you beat me to watching my own pick of film, but I got there in the end! Dennis refused to watch this with me saying a tale of children living in an Indian Red Light District would make him sad, cameras or no cameras. And he was right.

The very end made me sad, but it was not actually the fact of where the children had been living that made me feel that way. I mean no one wants to see children in a bad environment but maybe as a child protection lawyer I am a bit inured to that now. What made me weep a little at the end was the fact that some of the parents did not want their children to leave for better things. Of course, if you love your child it must be hard to let them go away to school. I understand that. But all the same it was sad to know that some children had a chance for better and those adults who should want the world for them chose to deny it to them.

Aside from that, thought, I found it quite an uplifting programme. I loved how the children found interesting things to take photographs of everywhere they went. They clearly took on board the tuition about composition and the like but they seemed primarily to take photos out of joy and curiosity and to bear witness. I can think of no better reasons.

By Gour
By Suchitra

The children were also so wise and thoughtful about their work. I paused the film to note what one child who had taken a picture of unwashed dishes and junk on the floor said about his work:
I take photographs to show how people live in this city. People live in chaos. In the village people may have a mud house but they are happy. Nobody lives as filthily as we do in our country. Wherever there are dirty plates we find shoes next to them. In no other country have I seen this. That is why I like photography. I want to put across the behaviour of man.

Also, it was amazing what a good eye the children had for composition. Or, maybe its only amazing because we as adults have made composition a thing of conferences and tuition DVDs when in fact its a matter of looking and seeing what looks good. You actually chose the same photo to illustrate your post as I again paused the video to look at for a good long time.
By Suchitra

This is a fabulous photo, taken against washing on a brothel roof with a basic camera by a child who was being nagged by a friend to take her picture. I love the strip of detail down the right hand side an the pastel colours and how the negative space on the left balances the business of the rest of the picture.

Did it involve a drone and a mega-pixel camera? No. Did it require a degree and a high tech lighting rig? No. It didn't even involve the use of a cheap portable reflector and a changeable lens. It required the love of photography and a willingness to find a place to place the friend and the effort to have the camera to hand and put it to her eye. There is so much we can from these kids.
I wanted to look at their images more so I ordered a copy of their book. You can find it here in the UK and here in the US.
So, now I am looking forward to watching the Ansel Adams film which should be totally different!
Until Next time,

Friday, 30 January 2015

Born into Brothels

Helen's pick for #2 in our photography movie series was "Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids," a 2005 Academy Award winning documentary film from filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman.  I have to confess, I was apprehensive at first, not appreciating what it would have to do with photography as I knew nothing about it before I started watching.  I hunted it down -- finally found it available (in full, for free!) on Youtube, here.

Documentary filmmaker Zana Briski went to photograph and film the prostitutes of Calcutta's red light district. But along the way, she realized that kids were everywhere living in the brothels.  She started a photography class, giving the kids cameras and teaching them how to use them, how to compose, what makes a good photograph.

And Helen, I have to say -- I loved this movie. In terms of photography, I loved that it said a lot about what photography can do.  How each person's view of his or her life is important.  How (as one kid says) a photo may show something hard to look at, but we have to look because it's true.  How holding a camera is empowering, and can lead to the realization that our view of the world is valuable.  The film work in this movie captured the chaos, the crowding, the noise, the dirt, the grim reality of life in that place, too.  So there was the added layer of movie cameras filming, and saying on a bigger level what the kids were saying with their own photos.

It was hard not to get attached to each of the kids -- some so lively and quick, some serious and worried, seeing the reality of their likely futures.  And so watching as "Zana Auntie" tries to find schools who will take them, tries to get one talented boy a passport so he can travel to another country as an award for his artistic ability -- was poignant and gripping.  I'd love to know where those children are today.  (Actually, I went and looked to see if there was any information.  There's an update from November, 2006 here and another from 2010 here.)

I found it hard to separate my emotional reaction to the content from the film and imagery -- which I guess is what good film-making and photography are all about, eh?

By the way, maybe you need to team up with your lawyer/photographer friends to do an exhibit at your friend Nisha's restaurant, to raise money for Kids with Cameras!

So, great pick. I don't think I'd have heard of this movie but for it being on the list and your picking it for us to watch!

Oh - and here's my pick for this coming week:  Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film (2002).  It's also available, in full, on Youtube here.