Sunday, July 08, 2007

Impressions from Month of Photography 2007

I went back to City Hall today to have a leisurely look at three of the Month of Photography exhibitions. I have not seen the Raymond Depardon exhibition yet as the Alliance Francaise gallery is closed on Sunday.

I started with the Objectifs Paris exhibition as they were having the opening speeches there the first time I was there. There was a varied selection of images through time and photographers. Some of the expected greats were there by Henri-Cartier Bresson and Robert Doisneau. However, the images from the great photographers that caught my eye the most was those by Andre Kertsez. The first image by Kertsez that you may see is two statues starring out of a window. It is a surreal image. But what I do like about this image and other images by Kertsez is his strong sense of design in his images. They are always graphic and impactful. There were some images in the exhibition which leave me cold. A view of church towers through a dirty window by a Japanese photographer. A couple of studies of wall textures. I guess that they were not great photographs to me and brought no new insight into the city that is Paris for me. But what was going through my head was that someone cared enough to take these photos and promote them. Some curator thought that the images were important enough to purchase and put into a traveling exhibition of Paris. Food for thought.

Towards the end of the exhibition are images by Atget, who took pictures of Paris and a contemporary photographer who took the same places again from the same angle. I found the comparison of the old pictures and the new ones very interesting. There were three sets in the exhibition. The first two sets were amazingly almost the same except the facades of the buildings had different paint, posters etc on them. The last pairing showed completely different scenes. In Singapore, where none of our buildings are really old and everything is in a constant state of flux, it was interesting to see how a great city like Paris could actually keep so much of its buildings for so many years.

One thing to note about the images in Objectifs Paris is that about 90% of the images were black and white. And what I noticed was that in general, the smooth tonality of the images were preferred over contrasty sharp images. Some of the images even came across as dull, but showed a wealth of believable detail.

I next went through Martin Parr's retrospective again. I guess that my eye is more commercial and Martin Parr has not really made an impact on me previously. But there were things in the Martin Parr retrospective that inspired me and got me thinking. Parr studied photography at Manchester polytechnic. His earlier years were spent shooting black and white documentary photographs of ordinary towns in England. He was inspired by Bresson and some of his work would not have looked out of place in the Objectifs Paris exhibition.

Parr slowly built a name for himself. It appeared to me that his biggest leap was going from black and white photography to colour photography. He used a medium format Plaubel camera with colour film. This gave his photographs a sharp and saturated look. And it somehow managed to bring across the tacky nature of the scenes of consumerism in ordinary life that he was trying to bring across. In one of his more famous series, Common Sense, he printed pictures on Colour Xerox paper, enhancing the plastic colour nature of what he was shooting. And what he was shooting was fast food, consumer excess and the packing it came in.

Martin Parr's photography is well composed, but not overly stylised. He is still very documentary and you can even say that his photography is practical. But because of the sense of humour and irony in his images, the relatively simple framing of his photographs lets the wit of his images come through more clearly.

I enjoyed Martin Parr's photography because of his astute comment on consumerism and his witty treatment of images. And I loved it that it did not seem like he was preaching or being condescending to the viewers. I also loved it that his images do not appear to be doom and gloom either. I think that he is such a master for bringing such important messages to a larger audience in such an approachable manner.

And I must admit that Parr's images are forcing me to rethink my own projects. I think a lot of my images are more pretty right now. I will continue to take such images, but I do want more than ever, to take images that bring more insight into the human condition, more social commentary. And with any luck, I want to do it with the humour that Martin Parr has as well. Humour in any art form seems to be the hardest thing to do well.

Out of Focus, a presentation of images my Sha Ying and Matthew Yeo did not leave a good impression with me. Sha Ying is an experienced photojournalist and his images of tourists taking pictures near the Merlion had potential, but I feel that his framing failed to bring out the humour in the situation. Good idea, but the execution was lacking. Matthew Yeo's image of Bukit Batok boys, his friends, were badly taken, badly printed, and seemed a totally self-indulgent frivolous exercise to me. Yes, images of bloodied boys, and phlegm discharging from a nose are shocking. But because the images are so obvious, there is nothing more to recommend them. If you want to look at images of death and distortion, look to the work of Peter Joel-Witkin. There is so much more depth and narrative in Witkins work. If you want to look at images that speak of living, look at numerous photo journalistic accounts of children living on the streets all over the world. It is too easy to take shocking images, find a way to engage the audience more please.

One other technical note I want to mention is that Sha Ying's and Matthew Yeo's images were shot on digital. Most of the other images were shot on film. Regardless of the sharpness of the images, the digital images looked flat. Some of the images were tack sharp, but they were flat. I believe this to be a result of the limited tonality of the DSLR sensors. I do know that the results from medium format sensors look better, the have a much higher bit depth. But with the pixel count stabilizing, I hope that we get more bit depth and tonality out of the DSLRs in future generations. We need more real looking images that film gave us. This exhibition showed up the limitations of modern technology, especially in inexperienced hands.

1 comment:

Andy Oh said...

Hi Heng,

Parr is definitely a genius. He is my favourite photographer among many. You should see his images of tupperware party and Mcdonalds in Russia too. Retrospective is a good book to buy. It shows how his work has evolved over time

His work is strong and original. But God knows how much scoldings he got to endure from the people whom he snapped for such social documentary work. Some photographer think he is a obnoxious photographer, making a mockery out of people. And Henri Cartier Bresson certainly loathed his work. He once called Parr a photographer from another planet.

But I like him. I think his work is probably the most difficult to achieve but he had made it possible.

Andy Oh