William Klein [1928- ]

William Klein, 2012 (mobile phone photo)






On 28th April I attended William Klein’s lecture, made as the recipient of the Sony Outstanding Contribution to Photography  Award. Klein was being interviewed by  Simon Baker, curator of photography and international art, Tate, (ahead of a book and exhibition on Klein in October 2012).     I have put together a virtual  pin-board of a selection of Klein’s images on http://pinterest.com/lightseeker99/william-klein/

After serving with the US Army in Paris, in 1946-48, Klein dreamt of being an artist in Paris.  As a result, he attended art school with Leger. He commented that his art background, and in particular his experience of working with charcoal, meant that as a photographer, he was never bothered by blur, weak greys etc. It also influenced one of his notable techniques of producing images with soft or blurred foreground faces whilst faces in the background remained sharp.
Klein explained that in his book, New York, 1954-1955, he set out to capture the ‘something else’ of New York, not Fifth Avenue etc. He was also responsible for the book’s innovative layout which used a story boarding approach.  Klein stated that he set out to capture the most documented things in the world, Times Square, electric signs etc “in his own way”.
In 1955, Klein was contracted by Vogue, despite ‘having no training or fashion photography experience, and was an outstanding success there for the next ten years.
Klein moved on to talk about his books Moscow, and Tokyo, both published in 1964.  He observed that photo books were uncommon then and recalled that he had to publish in Paris as New York publishers considered his work to be ‘too grungy’.  His recollections of making the Tokyo photographs were interesting.  He commented that when photographing in New York, he knew that he was hitting the ‘bulls-eye’.  In Tokyo, he knew nothing about the culture and didn’t know whether his images meant anything!
Klein’s work attracted the interest of Fellini and he moved into film, becoming Fellini’s assistant, although still working in fashion photography at the same time.  He commented that:
“I thought my books were films and the next steps were to make films”
and in 1966 he directed ‘Who are you Polly Maggoo’  , an ‘excoriating satire of the fashion industry’ (IMDB)
Klein talked only briefly about his well known painted contact print images.  He said that he set out to show the sequence, in order to demonstrate that not every photograph is perfect.
Klein’s presentation attracted a large and visually sophisticated audience and I very much enjoyed the event.  Klein is one of those photographers of whom I was relatively unaware – but then recognise some of his work when I see it.  Although he is now somewhat frail, he is an engaging and forthright speaker.  In fact one of the things that I will take away from the presentation is his approach, his drive to be original and his determination to present his own view of the world as he sees it.  I shall certainly visit the exhibition at Tate Modern later in the year.

Gillian Wearing – OCA Study Visit

Before attending the study visit I had completed the pre-visit reading of link and link and so I had an initial understanding of her approach.   By the end of the visit I hope that I have formed a clearer view of Wearing and her work, albeit that my views are relatively brief.  It’s also important to place her work in the context of the time it was made.  Work such as ‘Dancing in Peckham’ seems much more commonplace in the YouTube era than it did at the time – when it was groundbreaking.
During the visit, the stills work we saw related to signs and masks.  The former had a snapshot feel to it, although it predates the wider acceptability of such an approach through Wolfgang Tilmann’s work in the 19nn.  I know that I was not alone in being instantly reminded of Bob Dylan’s video for Subterranean Homesick Blues.  Our guide referenced even further back to the extensive use of signs in paintings. This is not something I would have known and prompted much discussion during our ‘networking’ break as to whether ideas in art can ever be truly original.  Nevertheless, some of the signs images on display have a certain resonance, such as image 1 below, where a young and apparently affluent man signs that ‘I am desperate’.  Apparently, Wearing made more than 600 sign images and many of those on display have never been exhibited before.  It was suggested that the work has been heavily influenced by the work of the Canadian Sociologist Erving Goffman.
In the masks work, (images 2-6 below), the photographer was much more ‘present’ physically and intellectually.  Many of my fellow students described the work as creepy.  However what I found most interesting about the general reaction was that they all talked about her rather than the images – paradoxical for this particular artist who it seems wishes to inhabit the personality of the person portrayed.  It was also  interesting how Wearing uses presentational devices such as the colour and size of frames, image sizes and hanging heights to distinguish her work from documentary photography and, in particular, make the masks series look like a family album.
In the later masks work, 6-7 below, Wearing recreates iconic images. This is a development of the masks idea and stylistically the images are stronger – although I suspect that this strength is ‘borrowed’ from the original images.
The images referred to above are shown on my Pinterest site here.  For convenience an image of the pinboard is shown below – please note that Pinterest does not currently allow images to be re-ordered and so they are not in the same order as the above text – please follow the numbers.

Learning summary
So what did I learn from this visit to the Whitechapel Gallery? Certainly I learnt more about Gillian Wearing’s art and I think that I will recall her images for many years to come.  I also experienced, almost for the first time, some discomfort with both images and the artist herself – but that’s a good think, it leads to thinking through the reasons for this discomfort.  This exhibition also enabled further exploration of the relationship between photography and art – here we have work that is clearly, in my mind, art, but where the medium could be viewed as incidental.  All-in-all this was time well spent and a positive learning experience.

Roger Ballen

On April 3rd I attended Roger Ballen’s presentation for London Independent Photography’s Janet Hall Memorial Lecture.  Ballen’s work can be quite challenging as can be seen in this example, possibly his most well known image.

Image 1: Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal, 1993

Ballen describes his work as ‘about memory and consciousness’ and he seeks out ‘enigmatic qualities and motifs’. He is quite a challenging speaker and suggested to the audience that most people do not get the ‘point’ of this image which in his mind is that  viewers ‘know’  that they are ultimately related to these people, that is what horrifies them rather than the subjects within the image.
BJP described him as:
 “doggedly searching for a photography that can expand beyond the individual elements it depicts to provide something much more abstract and introspective that approaches the gut of the human condition.” [Davies, 2012].
Ballen claims that his attention is initially often caught by small details.  For example, he stated that the curl of wire caught his eye before the policeman in image 2 below.

Image 2: Sergeant F de Bruin, Department of Prisons Employee, Orange Free State, 1992

Understandably, I think, this type of work tended to be classified as ‘documentary’, although that was not Ballen’s intent and it has taken him some time to move forward from that interpretation. In the late 1990s Ballen decided not to travel but to concentrate on Johannesburg, in his own words, he “began to think of himself as more of an artist”.  He explains further:
“I’m very much a formalist and like linking aspects of pictures – form driven not content driven.
His most recent work is more conceptual.  As his work progressed, people featured less and less and rats, birds, drawings and paintings began to appear in work that is much more surreal and disturbing, more imaginary than documentary.  He explains the disappearance of people from his images as follows:
“I’ve found that no matter how hard you try, when people look at a photograph, the first thing they go after is the face.  That’s where the meaning is centralised.  If you can pull the face out, then all other aspects of the image tend to play a greater role.  They have a more interactive relationship.  I want to say they can breath; they have their own breath.  “

Image 3: Onlookers 2010 from the Asylum series

Ballen observed that “the best pictures I take, I have no understanding of. …..What you’re seeing here is ‘Roger World’.”  He views himself as coming from a generation who learnt photography on the street and not through conceptual learning at universities.
So, what did I learn from the hour or so I spent with Roger Ballen?  On reflection, I think I learnt more about him than his work.  He has a complex and controversial view of the world and is quite combative.  His work has changed significantly over the years and, without getting into any side debates, is clearly more art than photography, in my opinion.  However, Ballen’s intensity and clarity are both characteristics that I would do well to emulate to some degree as indeed is his ability to progress and move forwards.  For example, his recent video for the group Die Antwoord, ‘I fink you freeky’  has generated nearly six million hits on YouTube at the time of writing, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Uee_mcxvrwhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Uee_mcxvrw

Simon Roberts Lecture

This week, I attended Simon Roberts‘ talk at the RPS Documentary and Visual Journalism group.  After working as an agency photographer in the late 1990s and winning the Ian Parry Award, Roberts worked as an editorial photographer for the colour supplements before beginning to work solely on long term projects for books and exhibitions.  Roberts covered two of his book projects in this talk:

He also briefly touched on his first project, ‘Motherland‘.

We English (2007)

The theme of ‘We English’ is leisure. Roberts beliefs that how we spend our leisure time say a great deal about us.  He shoots 5×4 from the roof of his mobile home in order to obtain an elevated perspective that emphasises the mid-ground and removes the presence of the ‘artist’.  Roberts aims to have people one third of the frame size or smaller.     He says he is shooting “people with landscape, but the landscape is primary. ”  He consciously challenges himself to photograph things he normally wouldn’t, e.g. the car park rather than the beauty spot.

© Simon Roberts, Blackgang Chine Viewpoint, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, 23rd June 2008

The full ‘We English’ project can be seen here.

The Election Project (2010)

Commissioned by Parliament as the official election artist, Roberts used Egglestone’s ‘Election Eve‘ as his starting point. He aimed for one photograph per day, each on a different theme, although in practice he exceeded this target.  Once again he used the 5×4 from the roof of his mobile home enabling him to provide context by capturing the melees of press photographers.  He also showed the mundane realities of ordinary politicians fighting for their seats.

Roberts provided an interesting insight into his working practices – he plans meticulously.  For example, in order to cover the election, for which he would have no advance notice of its announcement,  he spent 3 months pre- planning.  This included using google street view to pre-plan which street in Redcar would have a view of the closed steel plant at its end – key to making his point in his image of Redcar.


© Simon Roberts, Ian Swales, Liberal Democrats, Redcar, 19th April 2010 Redcar constituency

Roberts mentioned that two of the images in the series were montages.  One he discussed, the other has yet to be ”detected’ by anyone – now there’s a challenge to work out which one it is!

The Election Project can be seen in full here.  My favourite image from the series is Nick Clegg below.

© Simon Roberts, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrats, Warrington, 16th April 2010 Sheffield Hallam constituency/ Photograph taken in Warrington South constituency

Motherland (2004)

This project was only covered very briefly.  Some of Roberts approach tied in nicely to my current reading of Train Y our Gaze.  Roberts says his portraits in Russia were inspired by August Sander and for this reason he ensured he didn’t enter into any dialogue prior to making the portrait.  The example he discussed is below.

© Simon Roberts, Identical twins, Elena and Vera Karnova, Magadan, Far East Russia, August 2004

The full Motherland project can be see here.

All in all this was a very worthwhile evening.  Roberts is an engaging  speaker and he’s particular good at explaining his aims and thinking processes both for his projects and the individual images.

The Power of Photography II

Day two of the RPS Contemporary Group’s ‘The Power of Photography’ weekend at Birmingham City University.  The photographers speaking were:

Brijesh Patel

Roy Robertson

Mitra Tabrizian

John Davies

Brijesh Patel

Brijesh Patel is an editorial  photographer who funds his projects through a mixture of grants and his corporate work.  He produces exquisite hand-made books of his work to accompany his exhibitions.  He is even looking into making his own paper.  Although he touched on some of his UK projects, 1948 Olympians and military marching bands, most of his projects concern India and his attempts to understand the land of his birth.  Three projects were shown:

  • A Dreamed Place
  • Scavengers
  • SALT
Patel’s approach is to spend time with the people he wishes to photograph, build a relationship with them and then make images. He tests the technicalities and aesthetics of his images in the UK before travelling out to India to make them.  Patel likes to explore ‘the idea of India’ and adopts an immersive working style.  For the ‘salt’ project, he followed the route of Gandhi’s salt march and made photographs in synch with the places at which Gandi wrote during the work.  A very engaging project.  Patel has a separate website for his Indian art photography and the salt project can be seen here.

Roy Robertson

Newly elected president of the RPS, Roy Robertson showed a portfolio of excellent dance images.  Black and white slow shutter speed images made by ambient light were a tour de force.

Mitra Tabrizian

An Iranian-British photographer, Tabrizian explained that her work focuses on ‘the crisis of contemporary culture’.  Tabrizian’s highly collaborative work consists of large clever orchestrated scenes.  Her work from Tehran is layered with meaning and allegorically illustrates the incomplete results of the revolution.  Censorship means that Iranians often cannot ‘talk’ directly and so small subjects are treated allegorically to comment upon bigger issues.  I found one example of her London work particularly striking where Tabrizian photographed a large group of bankers at J.P. Morgan’s headquarters – each person instructed not to look at the camera or communicate with others.  It’s a very striking image that can be read in different ways – in my case I could see isolation, dis-functionality and even fear. The image can be found here

John Davies

I know John Davies’s early work well and this presentation was a good chance to catch up on his more recent projects.  Davies has begun to re-photograph some of the scenes of his well-known images from the 1980s and 90s.  The changes this demonstrates are startling.  Davies is now based in Liverpool and turning his lens once again on a UK city – looking at how it has reinvented itself.  He has also become more of an activist and is engaged supporting campaigns against the increase in public access spaces being sold off for private development.  More details about Davies’ ‘Our Ground’ project can be seen on http://www.johndavies.uk.com/

The Power of Photography I

Today I attended the first day of the RPS Contemporary Group’s ‘The Power of Photography’ weekend at Birmingham City University.  The photographers speaking today were:

Zed Nelson

Zed showed his ‘Gun Nation’ and ‘Love Me‘ projects.  ‘Gun Nation’concerns the USA’s obsession with the right to bear arms.  It includes traditional family portraits in which, for a UK audience, the presence of a gun in the hands of those portrayed comes as something of a shock.  Zed’s strategies during this project included deliberately setting out to make the images everyday in order to make the contrast between the people and the guns more striking.  Guns and bullets were photographed in a glossy product advertisement style emphasising their desirability to consumers.  In order to maintain his own outsider’s view of the US gun culture, Zed made several short visits to the States and so managed to remain detached.

‘Love me’ considers the global beauty industry for both women and, increasingly, men.  Nelson visited 18 different countries for this project  photographing beauty queens, body-building, plastic surgery and the people and industries behind these.  Some of the images, notably of a tummy tuck are graphic and difficult viewing – but they show the industry for what it is.  I left the lecture clearly understanding Nelson’s point of view that increasingly, in some parts of the world, it is those who have not had cosmetic surgery who seem to be the odd ones out.

Sirkka-Lissa Konitten

Konitten showed her Byker revisited work – where she returned to the Byker area of Newcastle some 30 years after she had first lived and photographed there.  I was familiar with some of this work from the recent BBC4 documentary about it – but it definitely helped to hear of her experiences first hand.  What particularly struck me was Konitten’s very considerate approach to building a relationship with the subject, gaining the subject’s involvement in the project and building consensus before the images are made.

Tim Smith

Tim Smith has photographed the Yemeni community in the UK and back in Yemen for his book Coal, Frankincense and Myrrh.  He stated that the most important lessons he had learnt in photography were:

  • where, (where you stand) and
  • when, (when you press the shutter).
Simple but great advice.  Like Konitten, key to Smith’s approach is spending time in a place and getting to know the people.

Don McCullin’s Southern Roman Frontiers

Last night I went to see renowned photographer Don McCullin talking about his new book, ‘Southern Roman Frontiers‘.  McCullin made these images in Lebanon, Syria, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya despite suffering a stroke shortly before he went, (McCullin is 76).  These luminous grainy black and white images capture the fierce light and textures of these ancient sites.  His images of Baalbek in Lebanon are simply stunning.   McCullin stated he was looking for:

“sheer beauty and freedom …. a landscape with a history and culture attached.”

As I would expect of McCullin, the images were in black and white.  A member of the (400 strong) audience asked if he had considered using colour.  McCullin explained that he believes that black and white conveys the cost and energy of these sites in terms of human lives, however he capped that by saying:

“colour is like VAT really!”

I think he made his point.

McCullin worked on this book with publisher Barnaby Rogerson, he suggested that this may be his last book – I hope not.

Thomas Struth Study Visit

One of my objectives in undertaking the OCA course is to increase the range of photographers I have been exposed to, and in so doing, obtain a deeper understanding of that work.  This naturally sets in motion a process of making links between the work of many photographers.  Attending the OCA study visits, (this is the second one I have attended), helps a great deal:

  • I get to hear the expert views of the gallery staff which definitely helps with understanding the contexts and background to the work
  • I meet up with some of the other students and hear their views and their experiences
  • I am introduced to photographers and galleries I might not otherwise have visited.
Before the Struth visit, I knew of his name but relatively little of his work. I had come across the work of Bernd Becher, Struth’s professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf , in various exhibitions and lectures over the years.  I was also somewhat familiar with the work of one of his contemporaries, Andreas Gursky, having attended the opening of his exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery some years ago.  However, having completed the pre-visit reading, I was unsure of what to expect.  I understood what I took to be the idea of “The New Pictures from Paradise” – the irresolvable detail that leaves the viewer hunting around the image, trying to resolve it only to eventually realise that the very essence of the image is that it cannot be resolved.   As the Geoff Dyer article stated:
“the tropical foliage was often so dense and lush as to resist the scrutiny the images compelled.”
So, what impressions did Struth’s work leave me with, having attended Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978 – 2010?

Experiencing the real without the narrative

Struth’s 2010 images of high technology , for example Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail, Max Planck IPP, Greifswaldplace, place the viewer in a situation where even though the photograph’s label states what it is, this does not help the viewer to understand the image.  The viewer is unable to relate any ‘story’ or narrative to the scene before them and as a result finds the mind struggling to find its way around the image.  This approach is also strongly apparent in the more recent work, “The New Pictures from Paradise”.  I’m not sure however, what the logical outcome of this approach might be.  In the Paradise images, one can imagine a future reality where the Earth has returned to primordial jungle and little or no trace of man and the “order” imposed by mankind remains.  Does a similar idea apply to the technology images – perhaps they serve to highlight our own lack of understanding, perhaps they show technology as a means to an end but then leave the question of “to what end and what ultimate purpose?” hanging in the air.


Struth’s colour images are large, very large.  I estimated the size of “Semi Submersible Rig DSME Shipyard” as approximately 6m wide by 4m high.  This huge image makes the viewer feel that they are viewing some Lilliputian scene as the huge rig strains at the relatively feeble looking, (but probably immense in reality), chains that hold it in place.  Similarly, the images in the Museum series, often from an elevated viewpoint, render the scale of the onlookers very small in comparison to the monumental structures they are viewing.  This is particularly true in the images of the Pantheon and Notre Dame.

Rules and exceptions to rules
Struth sets himself rules but then, infrequently, chooses to break them – a pragmatic approach that I believe works.  For example, most of his images are not ‘staged’, the museum visitors are bona fide visitors.  However, in the film accompanying the exhibition, Struth explains that for various reasons, this approach just wasn’t working for his image of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.  In the case of that image, he drafted in 150 extras and directed the scene.
The family photos
I particularly liked the “family” series of photographs.  The rules applied, which Struth also explained in the film, were that the family must look at the lens, and that he would set the frame and tell them where it’s boundaries were.  The family were then left to their own devices to choose how they organised and presented themselves with the frame.  The families depicted were those with whom Struth had stayed and were drawn from many continents.  As a result, these particular images tell the viewer much about relationships within the family, status and power, and how the individuals and group choose to be presented to the world.  Struth apparently believes in Gestalt theory, that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and for this series I believe it to be true.  The families perhaps reveal more of themselves than had they been directed by the photographer.  Struth makes an interesting observation that the viewer of these images makes direct eye contact with the subjects’ eyes making them feel more engaged  In reality of course, the subjects did not make eye contact with Struth but looked into the lens instead – an example of the manipulation of reality by the photographer/photographic process.

Making links to the work of other photographers

As I viewed Struth’s work I made connections to other photographer’s I have studied.  In Struth’s early black and white images of streets I could detect echoes of Atget in the central perspective people free photographs.  I particularly liked “Clinton Road, London” which is one of the thumbnails available on this page.  Naturally, I could also see links to his contemporary Andreas Gursky, particularly in the images Struth made in Korea with the repetition of windows and muted colours.  However, unlike Gursky’s work – which is substantially created within Photoshop, Struth is presenting the real scene, as he found it. Finally, I could also make links to the work of other photographers I have studied, John Davies and Thomas Joshua Cooper.  I don’t necessarily think that these are explicit links but I could see common ground in the approaches and preoccupations.  Davies with his monochrome landscapes of the North West of England has some commonality with Struth’s early street work.  Thomas Joshua Cooper’s “Point of No Return”, although different, has some thinking in common with Struth’s “The New Pictures from Paradise”.


Overall this was a very worthwhile study visit, I learnt a great deal and made progress against my objectives.  A day well spent!

Street photography podcast

Whilst travelling this morning I listened to quite an interesting podcast on the practicalities of street photography. You can hear Grant Scott and Sean Samuels from Photography Monthly here.

As usual, I jotted down a few learning points from the podcast, these were:

  • Consider two approaches to street photography
    1. The ‘Cartier-Bresson’ find a location and wait approach, (to my mind this is superior).
    2. the keep walking and looking approach.
  • Appear confident not furtive.
  • Consider capturing the eye of those in candid shots.
  • Look for a recurring theme
  • Don’t use a zoom lens.
One street photographers mentioned who is certainly worth looking up is Magnum’s Trent Parke (Australia)