Book Review: Roswell Angier, ‘Train Your Gaze’.

Train your Gaze by Roswell Angier

As I read through this book, I took the time to pause and reflect at the end of each chapter.  I made the notes below during these reflective interludes and they pick out what were for me the main points within each of the chapters.  I have subsequently supplemented these notes with hyperlinks to related sources of information.

Chapter 1:  ‘About Looking’

I found the story about Avedon photographing in complete silence quite fascinating.  I’ve really never thought of that approach before.  The author subsequently relates this approach to the slow process of making early photographs – very plausible.

In his interpretation of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still, #3, 1977, the author neatly summarises the questions the photographer generates in the mind of the viewer:

“What, or who, am I, the photographer, looking at? From where am I doing the looking? How does this position define me? How does my gaze intersect with—or fail to intersect with—the gaze of my human subject? These questions precede all others.”

Chapter 2: ‘self portrait/ no face’

Chapter 2 surprised me, I don’t think I have ever thought about the concept of a portrait with no face before.  The two Lee Friedlander examples used were very illuminating, particularly Lee Friedlander ‘New York City, 1966’ where Friedlander becomes a part of what he is looking at.

John Coplans is not a photographer I’ve encountered before but I found his Self-Portrait (Feet, Frontal), 1984 quite compelling.  As Angier Says,

“Coplans’s engagement with these details takes the notion of the portrait as a “likeness” to an exaggerated extreme, far away from social or psychological notions of personal identity. His self-portraits begin and end with solid surfaces.”

As I said earlier, I haven’t previously reflected on self-portraiture and Angier distils the key differences nicely:

“You cannot see yourself through the viewfinder, you cannot make any of the myriad of small decisions—about framing, about choosing the right moment—that make you want to press the shutter-release button. You have lost a degree of control. Because you are not behind the camera, you cannot previsualize the resulting image. That means that you may make a picture of yourself that you don’t like. Along with increasing the chances for accidents, it increases the chances that you will make a picture that you don’t understand. “

Chapter 3: ‘People at the Margin the Edge of the Frame’

This chapter made me realise the usefulness of this book.  It definitely added to my knowledge and began to supplement my way of thinking about photography.  For example, I have never before thought of framing as being ‘aggressive’, but Angier’s use of this term is perfectly valid in his comment upon a particular image by Eugene RichardsNursing Home Resident, Dorchester, Massachussetts, 1976:

“The act of photographic composition here is aggressive. The photographer’s own gesture, his act of framing, literally marginalizes his subject, implying thereby an opinion, certainly a feeling, if not a judgment, about the nature and quality of her life as represented in this moment.”

The chapter also provides some interesting additional information on famous photographers and their images.  On Cartier-Bresson the phrase, “the decisive moment,” which was the English language title of Cartier-Bresson’s1952 book, was a mistranslation of the original French title, Images à la sauvette.

“A la sauvette is a colloquialism roughly equivalent to ‘on the run,’ but …there is also an untranslatable future element involved. The instant being described is the one when you are just about to take off, the point at which the shortstop is ready to dash in any direction as he watches the batter step into the ball, or when the pickpocket waits for his victim so he can strike. Images à la sauvette is the right title because it characterizes the photographer’s actions as well as his subject’s.”

On contrasting Cartier Bresson and Winogrand

“There’s something porous about the way Cartier-Bresson frames his pictures, as if the edges of the images are being allowed to leak.”

“….Garry Winogrand, whose work is certainly in the tradition of the decisive moment, frames his pictures differently. He is more aggressive than Cartier-Bresson in terms of his willingness to invade his subject’s personal space. …Winogrand believes in the four walls of the frame. They’re solid.  Nothing leaks out. “

The section on Dorothea Lange was illuminating.  Angier’s explanation that

“The desire to communicate knowledge of the subject by means of the image (otherwise, after all, what is the point of making the picture?) leads the photographer to identify with the subject. There is a potential for bonding, which provides the rationale for a certain kind of portraiture, such as that practiced by Dorothea Lange.”

Seems valid to me.  A few years ago, I saw a vintage print of the Migrant Mother, Nippomo, California, 1936 at the Lowry Gallery in Salford.  It was presented side by side with other compositions Lange made at the scene – these paled in comparison to the famous image.  My understanding of this image has been enhanced both by Angier’s explanation but also by the quotes he provides from Lange and, in later years, one of the two boys included in the image.  There is a significant difference between the stories behind the image as told by the photographer and one of the subjects.  However, as Angier’s says

“Lacking in factual accuracy, “Migrant Mother” has nonetheless been thought to possess powerful symbolic and emotional truth”

Finally, one of the things I have noted in reading this book is that it makes me aware of photographers I might not otherwise encounter.  Ironically, the last photographer in this chapter is Boris Mikhailov who I encountered for the first time in my post on 3/1/12 about my visit to ‘New Documentary’ at Tate Modern.

Finally, whilst I do not normally quote from the exercises at the end of this book’s chapters, I will make an exception for this chapter which I found thought provoking:

“You might actually photograph a homeless person, or someone else whom you perceive to be helpless or marginalised.  Think about the implications of where you locate your subject in the frame.  If you situate your subject at the edge of the frame, will that imply something about his or her social position as a ‘marginalised’ person?  By framing a photograph thus, will you simply be adding insult to injury?  Conversely, what might it mean if you place your subject at the centre of the frame?  Is it respectful to engage your subject so directly?  Or do you thereby turn your subject into a specimen?”

Chapter 4: ‘behaviour in the moment: picturing eventfulness’

This chapter focuses upon two main aspects, that photographers select one instant out of a continuum and that viewers ‘skew’ meaning in the act of interpreting photographs.  It considers the difference between taking and making photographs by comparing examples by Weegee, Robert Frank and Helen Levitt.  Taking the first of these, Weegee

‘was just as likely to turn his camera on marginal details as he was to point his camera at the criminal or murder victim’

Robert Frank photographed his own perception of the spiritual and social condition of Americans in the 1950s.  Referring to the ‘Bell Isle, Detroit’ example given in the book:

“while the picture implies a judgement about the quality of these people’s lives, it is literally about nothing much”

The Americans is about alienation.

Helen Levitt’s work from the 1940s is frequently based around visual rhymes.  She predates Frank but her work is all about ‘poise’

“..about her own poise in finding and framing moment of ballet-like precision, and about the poise that seems to inhere in the body language, expressions and spatial disposition of her subjects on the city sidewalks.”

The chapter closes commenting on the carefully constructed work of Jeff Wall, whose work I had enjoyed in my post on the V&As ‘Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism’ exhibition in 2011.

Chapter 5: ‘You spy: voyeurism and surveillance’

I understand that this is one of the more controversial chapters in this book and that some find some of the images controversial. Well, I’ve read it and formed my own  opinion.  Something that surprised me was the number of examples of work on voyeurism made by female photographers – as Angier says. ‘voyeurism is usually assumed to be a male activity’. The presentation of some of the work was interesting – Diane Baylis’s use of small images designed to draw spectators into  intimacy with the images seems very apt – especially given that they would be very aware of people around them noticing what they were doing.

Daniela Rossell’s use of a person’s environment to put ‘distance’ between the viewer and the subject is an interest idea and worth bearing in mind for the future.

I related to Walker Evans’ work on the subway and have tried some of this myself whilst commuting – see my scrap book.  I experienced very similar technical limitations, even in this day and age, and interestingly resorted to the same remedy – waiting for the train to stop, (albeit whilst using an app that minimized any camera shake!).

Harry Callahan’s work surprised me – I’m so used to the philosophy of shooting the street with a wide angle lens that the concept of a portfolio built up using a telephoto seemed different.  Similarly, I was surprised to learn that Cartier-Bresson regarded a 50mm as the only focal length lens for street photography.

Finally, and using the cover image of the book as the example, Shizuka Yokomizo introduced a  whole new take.  Her ‘Dear Stranger’ series involved sending an anonymous letter asking strangers to stand in their windows whilst she photographed them, without meeting them, from the street.  What a clever idea – photographing a stranger, whilst visibile as a photographer, and remaining an anonymous stranger. To quote Angier. “ ‘Dear Stranger’ is paradoxical, because it suggests both intimacy and distance’.

Chapter 6: ‘Portrait, Mirror, Masquerade’

This chapter focuses on the question of identity and its centrality to portrait photography revolves around two questions:

  • Who am I looking at?
  • Who is doing the looking?

It revisits the idea that in the 1840’s, (the daguerreotype era), the photographer was a technician concentrating only on the first point and that Julia Margaret Cameron (linked to my post) was one of the first to ‘try to get under the skin’ of the subject.

The chapter then moves into very new territory for me when it begins to explore the idea that:

“identity is something constructed, something neither given nor found lurking in some ‘inner’ region beneath the social surface.” p80

The more controversial idea that our perception of gender roles is also a construct is also explored at some length.  In particular, examples are provided and discussed, typically involving self-portraits and double self-portraits, to explore the idea that being female is a performance and therefore a constructed role.  I found this particular explanation helpful in understanding this chapter:

“Sex and gender are no longer assumed to be synonymous, the former being a biological given, while the latter, (often connected to racial and ethnic stereotypes), is considered to be a cultural construction.  Accordingly, male may be reflected as male (and white as black), or the reverse.  The two images of identity are deeply connected, as in a mirror, but discontinuously so.  Sameness is difference, and vice versa.”

Later the chapter references the work of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan who proposed that the initial recognition of the self as an “I” occurs between the ages of six and 18 months.  The child recognises an image or reflection of itself as an “ideal I” and strives for the rest of life to reconnect with this “ideal I”.  This idea as a metaphor of self establishes the ego as fundamentally dependent on external imagery and images of others. Angier suggests that

“some self-portraits’ can be seen as attempts to reconstruct the original mirror-image to transform the Ideal I into something else something like an alternate identity”.

The chapter closes looking into work with which I am more familiar, Nan Goldwin’s ‘The Ballad of Sexual Dependency’ (1982).  Angier however, does pull out detail that I had not previously noticed, for example, the inclusion  on one Goldwin photograph in the background of another, frames within frames.  With these examples the author brings us full circle arguing that Goldwin and her circle do not simply live their lives but they perform them.

Overall this was a long and complex chapter – perhaps the most challenging of the book so far.

Chapter 7: ‘Confrontation: Looking through the Bull’s Eye’

After an explanation of zen archery, Angier explains that the point is to make pictures in which the act of framing/aiming becomes invisible.

“If you’re not distracted by the possibility of adjustments to framing and composition, you can concentrate completely on minute variations of gesture, facial expression and body language…..The resulting image will present itself as a momentary seemingly unmediated exchange between you and your subject”

As an example of this approach, Angier cites the work of Manabu Yamanaka whose nude photographs of very elderly women are described by the artist as “a Buddhist exercise in compassionate contemplation.”

The author moves on to the work of August Sander, with which I am more familiar.  Whilst I have thought of them in terms of social types before, the author’s suggestion that they are a throwback to the daguerroypist’s method, rendering the photographer as a technician was new to me.  Although Angier has linked to daguerrotypes several times earlier in the book.  In the previous chapter Angier explored the idea of ‘performance’ and this is repeated here.

“The photographs then read as records of performances – countering the assertion that the bodies are inherently linked to each individual’s profession.”

The Bull’s Eye mentioned in the chapter title refers to the camera viewfinder which is inherently designed to temp the user to position the subject centrally.  The idea of ‘confrontation’ is considered by revisiting the work of Walker Evans and then moving on to Diane Arbus who makes use of centrally positioned subjects within a square format.

Thomas Ruff, whose work I have seen in galleries, is explored at some length, particularly his notion that ‘photography is incapable of accurately rendering reality’.  Interestingly, Angier suggest Ruff’s image of ‘Betty’ is a clear reference to the soft-focus technique of early 20th century pictorialism.

I found the analysis of Rineke Dijkstra’s images most interesting.  I have seen these first hand, possibly at the National Portrait Gallery, Angier’s states:

“It proves that hitting the target – the face in the center of the viewfinder – can have an unanticipated result.  Instead of producing knowledge, or encouraging wide-ranging speculation about the lives of their subjects, the pictures resolutely remain pictures.  We have to dig hard, and mostly on our own, for their social implications.”

The analysis of Dikjstra’s methods is interesting, the lens axis coinciding with the subject’s navel, the upward tilt of the camera (I struggled in part one of this course to work out the best approach to camera height and whether or not to tilt), and the horizon line bisecting the hips.

I particularly like the following statement by Angier concluding his review of Dikstrka :

“I think the key perception here is that the portrait photographer is not obliged to get her subjects to do anything.  The pose should be an empty structure.”

The final element of this chapter that I found useful was the ‘note on backgrounds’.

“In the sense that they contextualize and actively direct our responses to what we see, all backgrounds function as stage sets.  It doesn’t matter whether the settings are carefully fabricated or found by chance.  They should all be treated as constructions, because they are the bearers of meaning.  They are never neutral.”

Chapter 8: ‘Out of focus: The Disappearing Subject’

I found this chapter illuminating.  All my life I have followed the ‘convention’ of having sharp foregrounds, (and often with sharp backgrounds too), and yet here’s a chapter that concentrates on inverting this /convention’.  Certainly I had not thought of examples of Klein’s and Frank’s work in this way before.

I like the logic of the impact of breaking out of this convention:

“…you create confusion and ambiguity….you force the viewer to ask…The experience of looking changes from passive to interrogative.  “

“blurry images often enter into our own interior space, sometimes without our permission.  We become engaged with them; we cannot look at them dispassionately.  They become more like metaphors than expository descriptions.”

As a child towards the end of the 60s and early 70s I had my first camera – it was a Diana and so I was pleased to see the work of Nancy Rexroth using a Diana in the same period.  What most struck me about Rexroth’s work was her thinking.

“For me a photograph of Iowa doesn’t necessarily have to be about Iowa.  Iowa is flat and clean and has a lot of sunshine.  In dreams and memories it becomes distorted.  Dark evenings, hot-cold sunlight, diffused windows and hallways..Through the Diana they become memories of a place I maight have been before.”

However, my favourite images in this section were those of Uta Barth and I shall certainly attempt to make some images of my own in this style.  These images:

‘register only that which is incidental and ephemeral, implied’….slowly it becomes clear that we are presented with a sort of empty container and it is at that point that people begin to ‘project’ into this space”.

Chapter 9: ‘Darkness’

I found this chapter very interesting and encountered both new photographers and techniques.  Gary Schneider’s work and techniques, (he uses exposures of greater than one hour, placing his subjects in pitch darkness and selectively illuminating them with a flashlight), are quite extraordinary.  Schneider’s aim is to

“undermine the tendency of contemporary portrait subjects to instinctively put on their camera face.”

The long exposure time intensifies the collaborative commitment, and because the subject is inevitably moving during the exposure, the image becomes

“an accumulation of the secretion  of all the expressions that they were making during the exposure – what they were thinking, what they were feeling or what they were projecting”

Scheider uses five foot high prints to ensure that these accumulations are visible to the viewer.

The chapter goes on to consider portraits of and by blind people.  Angier explains that:

‘Blind people cannot look back at the camera.  The proof of the subject’s consent, the eye contact that is the usual underpinning of formal portraits is missing’.

He quotes from the writer Rebecca Solnit:

“…Thus the photographer and by extension the image and its viewers are never acknowledged…..Blind people are subjects who shift the power of [the] gaze.  They remind us of a desire to be seen and acknowledged, and they remind us by its very absence.”

The photographer Nicholas Nixon’s work shows him using photography to describe some of the non-visual ways they blind experience the world – a very challenging project.

Finally the chapter closes with work considering a different aspect of darkness – a condition of being.  Joel-Peter Witkin’s work is indeed dark and challenging to look at and interpret.

The chapter closes takes a look at photographic syntax:

“…the syntax is never invisible, Sometimes it becomes a significant part of what the image is about.”

Chapter 10: ‘Flash’

This was perhaps one of the weaker chapters in the book.  Angier devotes too much of the content to explaining basic flash techniques.  There were interesting points – the movement away from ‘the available light credo’ and the use of flash to mimic behaviour of ambient light.  I was of course introduced to photographers new to me; Mark Cohen extremely close (less than two feet), flash lit images are startling, both for the subject and the viewer.  His preference was to photograph at night:

“when you take a flash picture of somebody at night you get a much more distinct and compact event.”

Also of interest was a further development of the idea of the ‘syntax of the camera’.  This was illustrated through Chauncey Hare’s work in which the even spread of bright light ‘obliterates nuance and eliminates the singling out of select details for dramatic emphasis’.

“Open flash”, (the use of a slow shutter speed to capture some of the subject and its movement by ambient light) is discussed extensively and illustrated with Bruce Gilden’s work.  These images are amongst the most interesting in this chapter with darkly shadowed areas contrasting sharply with bright highlights of areas close to the flash. Like Cohen, Gilden photographs very close to his subject in the belief that, ‘I think by geeting closer I say more’.

Continuing the theme of how the use of artificial lighting has evolved, Angier considers the work of Gregory Crewdson – using examples with which I am familiar.  This ‘new look’ emphasises smooth production values, particularly apparent in Crewdson’s staged tableaux (see also my review of Red Saunders).  Angier describes the particular images as:

‘non-events that have a seductive patina of significance’.

Finally, Angier covers the relatively recent work of Philip-Lorca DiCorcia.  These photographs made using a remote strobe are also non-events but the dramatic lighting makes them seem full of ‘enigmatic significance’.

Chapter 11: ‘Figures in a landscape: Tableaux’

Tableaux refer back to tableau vivant the climactic point in a play ‘when the actors on stage formed a clearly composed visual image, (a tableau), at which point they would freeze, and hold their positions until the curtain came down.

In this chapter, Angier covers each of the selected phographers in much more detail than usual.  Beginning with August Sander, he looks at ‘Young Farmers, 1914’ in which the featureless background resembles a stage set for his stationary subjects.  This is an unsettling image with the suited farmers looking uncomfortable in their suits and incongruous in the landscape – this contributes to what Angier refers to as a sense of ‘eventfulness’.

The work of Joel Sternfeld is considered at some length.  I hadn’t previously appreciated that he works in 10 x 8 which explains the more formal qualities of his work.  Sternfeld makes very large prints and the images in the book were too small to easily pick out the quite small details on which they turn.  Again, like Sander, there is a visual tension – the viewer senses that the people in the images do not really belong.  Angier refers to this as ‘a sympathetic dissonance, provided by the tension between pose and surroundings’.  Angier also usefully places Sternfeld into context as:

“less detached than Evans, and less jarring than Frank…..Instead of focusing on socially marginalised people, he worked at the margins of the landscape itself.”

Jeff Wall’s work, an example of which I recently saw at the V&A, is presented as very large back-lit transparencies.  The figures in the images appear to be on about the same scale as the viewer – which makes the viewer feel present in the image. Wall’s images are carefully constructed, the figures are posed and placed, the location carefully researched and, as Angier points out, elements in the image cross reference important paintings.

Angier then considers the work of Tina Barney – whose work is new to me.  Barney uses a view camera to re-enact family snapshots.  Again these are printed very large and present a public manifestation of private lives. The text raises interesting questions about whether Barney can maintain critical distance from her subjects in the context of photographing friends and family, (a witness v a participant).

The next photographer, Barbara Norfleet, apparently succeeds at maintaining this critical distance.  Although I have not experienced the type of project she undertakes I can relate to some of the points she makes:

‘If you’re going to make it successful, you have to interact with the people tremendously while not interacting with them at all’

‘..but yet they’re used to my being there, they will behave as though I’m not there”.

Finally, the chapter concludes with the work of Larry Sultan, with which I have some familiarity.  However, I have only seen individual images in isolation and so hadn’t made the connection of how the images interrelate and ‘encapsulate an entire career’.

“Imagine then, the difficulty of undertaking a portrait project with your own parents as subjects, in which the exercise of critical awareness and compassion alike, become part of a collaborative enterprise.”

Text plays an important role in this project and the iterative ‘conversation’ between father and son about how they feel about the project is key to understanding it.  Clearly a book I will have to borrow.

Chapter 12: ‘Commentary: Digital Personae’

Chapter 12 links in nicely with the work I did on Barthes, by initially considering the studium and the punctum.  The text moves on to consider the way in which some digital artists contradict the perfection achievable through post production by using manipulation to create entirely fabricated life forms, (for want of a better descriptor) and chimera.  The example used is work by Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cucher.

The chapter moves on to consider the work of Nancy Burson, responsible for developing software that simulates ageing, who has also created images using ‘electronic averaging’ software.  Her work culminated in the development of ‘The Human Race Machine’ which enabled viewers to digitally alter their ages, ethnicities and facial features.  Angier contrasts this nicely with the work of August Sander.  The latter makes thousand of discrete portraits whilst Burson uses thousands of source images to create the single image output from the software.

Jeff Wall is the photographer given the most prominence in this chapter.  I have seen his well known ‘Mimic, 1982’ in galleries and in the press but it remains a striking example of a staged tableaux.  Similarly, I have seen ‘Dead Troops Talk’ but had been unaware of how ie was put together – a similar approach to that used by Red Saunders whose exhibition I reviewed.  Unfortunately, the printed version of this image has much less impact and is considerably more difficult to view than the 4m plus backlit transparency in a gallery.  One of Angier’s paragraphs on this image is worth quoting in full:

“As a photographic object, “Dead Troops Talk” has a peculiar relationship to the physical reality that it depicts.  Not only is it an enactment of the aftermath of a fictional event, it is also an image that has been constructed out of many images.  Although, it may be said to represent a single scene, it does not represent a single instant.  It is a montage of different moments.  This spreading out of time, across the whole field of view, might seem to constitute a challenge to the basic nature of photography, breaking the customary link between the picture and its single temporal reference point.  Wall does not think so.

“I don’t think it’s really broken, because everything in [it] is a photograph.  The montage is composed of acts of photography, even if there is no simple photographed moment.  I don’t think any photographic qualities are eliminated except the single moment in which the entire image was made.  I admit that that may be the decisive absence, but I like to make a picture that derives from that absence and contemplates it””

Angier then links the image back to art historical reference points and then, most elegantly of all in my opinion, takes the chapter as a whole full circle by cross referencing Wall’s work from the 1980s to Oscar Rejlander’s composite print from 1858, “The Two Ways of Life”.

It is of course worth noting that digital imaging has moved on hugely from the examples used in this chapter. The CGI technologies available today make some of the earlier examples used look fairly primitive.  I wonder what an update version of the book would have to say about todays 3D imaging?

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