Two books from Aperture this summer capture the current zeitgeist for playful experimentation, writes Colin Pantall
Worried that your pictures are boring and predictable? Here’s Justine Kurland’s advice: “When a student makes conventional or cliche photographs, I suggest they do a Google image search to find how many other people have made the same pictures.”
Kurland chips away at other forms of predictability. She dreads students who make “Francesca Woodman-inspired work”, rejects commercially influenced projects, and has railed against portraits she describes as a “pinned butterfly – those perfectly centred, well-lit frontal topographies that treat subject as specimen”, she explains. “I encourage students to try to animate their subject inside the frame by using a more complicated geometry in composing the picture.”
Her approach exemplifies that of two new books from Aperture – one by Larry Fink and the other edited by Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern. Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation, part of a new series called The Photography Workshop Series, examines how the photograph can be animated through composition, engagement and passion; Fulford and Halpern’s The Photographer’s Playbook contains 307 assignments designed to inspire, enlighten and educate students, teachers and photographers.
The assignments are wide-ranging and include old-school common sense (it’s never a bad thing to look at Walker Evans or The Americans) and tongue-in-cheek tips (take the lens cap off ), but there is also an evangelical mission at its heart, a sense that it is opening up photography to a more liberated, less hair shirt approach.
The book was inspired by an invitation Fulford and Halpern received to make a contribution to Exposure, the Society for Photographic Education journal, related to teaching photography, says Halpern, in a phone conversation from his home in Rochester, New York. “We came up with the idea of making sounds that related to imagery. We made a recording that students could listen to, that would inspire them to make pictures. It worked, so we started wondering if other people had these creative assignments. We started asking for contributions, and this blossomed into the 307 assignments and the book.”
Many of the assignments are similarly whimsical, but despite their seeming playfulness, they are a fundamental attempt to re-address the way we see photographs. A common theme among the contributions is the idea that before you can get creative, you need to be destructive, which suggests established approaches have gotten tired. “What a lot of teachers try to do is get students into the routine of making a photograph in the way a photograph should look,” says Halpern. “A lot of these assignments are about getting students to look at pictures in a more playful way so they can experiment and fail, so they can pause and rethink how they think about photography.”
As Halpern’s comment suggests, The Photographer’s Playbook is a slap in the face for the obvious, the hackneyed, the over-familiar. Kurland’s assignment does it with a certain world-weariness (all those Francesca Woodmans and abstracted objects have taken their toll); Ahndraya Parlarto, meanwhile, asks students to rid themselves of preconceived ideas of what photography is through total withdrawal.
“Visually hibernate,” she says. “Try to forget what you think is a good or cool photograph. Try to forget what you’ve been taught in school.” Instead, develop a visual voice that has energy, originality, something that does not come from a preordained photographic template passed down through a top-down teaching hierarchy.
Not that everyone rejects this hierarchy, though – Joachim Schmidt uses his authority to befuddle his students, confusing them until they become empty shells who forget who they are and what they have been taught. It’s a Year Zero approach, in which Schmidt repeatedly asks questions “until they don’t have any answers any more. In my opinion, confusing students is the best thing to do,” he says. “When there are no more certainties, they can start building something from scratch.”
So it’s out with the old and in with the new – and what the new is has yet to be determined. We used to know what photography was, but now we have albums, archives, online sites, surveillance, the vernacular, scratch ’n’ sniff – and that’s without going near the darkroom, camera or photobook. Marvin Heiferman, the teacher, curator and writer, attempts to set new boundaries in his assignment, asking students to make an illustrated family tree of all the images that have influenced them over the years – “snapshots, TV, cartoons, porn, advertising, movies, packaging, magazines, posters, records, book covers, ephemera, etc”.
This assignment is about recognising where photography comes from and how it relates to wider visual culture – the idea is to embrace these worlds and make photography outward-looking and expansive. Otherwise, the medium is in danger of wallowing in a sepia- stained nostalgia for old forms of production, distribution and consumption.
This idea comes across in Richard Barnes’ and John Baldessari’s assignments, too. Barnes’ contribution, Subverting the Document, acknowledges that photography has a tradition of interaction with other fields – he mentions Victorian collaborations in neurology, criminology and psychology, and advises his readers to collaborate with someone working in another field. Baldessari does something similar but bases his assignment on specific experiments, such as how bread moulds. For Baldessari and Barnes, photography is only part of a process that involves research, evidence and an immersion in a foreign working practice.
Working with the internet might seem a million miles aways from this 19th-century work, but the assignments of Doug Rickard, Fred Ritchin and Erik Kessels take a similar tack. Kessels writes about an assignment on which his students assumed false identities and visited the Hot or Not website, their photographic alter egos ebbing and flowing over the course of the project. “The purpose of this assignment is to look at the identities of yourself and others, and how you can manipulate these,” writes Kessels.
Both Rickard and Ritchin set an assignment in which students select and edit available photographs into a narrative that will reveal, as Ritchin puts it, “a bit of the texture and the mystery of the everyday”.
Kessels’ Hot or Not experiment has a performative aspect, something shared by several other assignments. In Linda Flemming’s assignment, the reader is advised to create an alter ego with a different artistic, social and psychological background, for example, then make work in the style of that artist. “I was actually given it as a student and it was a fun assignment,” says Halpern. “It was co-written by Larry Sultan, who was a wonderful, playful and self-deprecating teacher. We all took chances; it didn’t matter if you fell on your ass, because if you did, it wasn’t you who failed, it was your alter ego. Getting into someone else’s shoes, or giving yourself a new name, is tremendously liberating.”
This idea is expanded upon by Dan Abbe, who extends the alter-ego exercise into the whole photographic endeavour. Being a photographer, making work and then selling it is a game, suggests Abbe. “Figure out what game you are playing,” he writes. “Teach yourself about that game and then, once you have learned the rules, forget them. Then you are a photographer.”
There is a lightness about this kind of assignment, one that is not always apparent in a photographic culture that can include pain, suffering and anguish as part of the learning experience. “I teach, and it’s not always that light,” says Halpern. “I’m not sure why that is. I sometimes think it’s because we ask our students to produce work and then defend it verbally in critiques. So they make work defensively to meet the assignment. That makes it hard to make work through instinct because if you do that you run the risk of getting a bad critique.
“I think we all get into our routines of what is working and what we think we should be doing,” Halpern continues. “I was looking through the assignments and I saw one by Bruno Ceschel which says ‘do something that makes you happy’. That’s something no teacher in art school would ever say. That simple idea forces you to do a 180 and look at life from a new perspective.”
That sense of pleasure in making pictures is evident in other assignments, too. Tierney Gearon recommends making your own space and throwing a party; “instead of being a person, become a camera. Let the camera mingle with the guests”. Eileen Cowin says you should photograph something beautiful and make a beautiful photograph, while Nicholas Nixon recommends you “photograph several people who you would like to sleep with, but who do not know you want to sleep with them”.
Composition and Improvisation
This sense of engagement with photography, giving it a heart and a soul and a connection to pleasure and passion, also comes across in Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation. “I started teaching back in the days of the revolution,” says Fink in a phone conversation from his farm. “I started teaching in 1963 in Harlem with the anti-poverty programmes that were revolutionary in their intent. The people I was teaching had fire in their bellies.
“All I see now is photographic democracy to the point of mediocrity. I want to arouse people’s passions through visual means, but now I teach privileged kids, so there’s not that hunger. My heart and how I express myself is about the potential to live passionately through photography.”
His book focuses on how to address that passion and express it through the photographic frame; it shows a series of Fink’s pictures captioned with his thoughts on themes such as composition, deceit and desire. One section shows a picture of a couple embracing in a doorway, and Fink talks about empathy in the accompanying caption. “Sometimes it’s easy to empathise with the subject; it comes to you in an inordinate surge,” he writes.
“You’re walking down the avenue and, for one reason or another, you feel quite well. And you see a couple, or a mother with her baby, and you go, ‘Isn’t life wonderful?’ and you make a picture from that perspective. It happens to me often because life is wonderful, just by the mere fact that I’m alive and other people are too.”
Fink’s famous picture of Jean Sabatine carrying a cake while a boy gestures to the camera is an example of this empathy, of showing “the inner workings of her soul”. But for Fink, empathy can also relate to negative emotions. “Often people think about empathy in flattering terms, but humans are more interesting than that,” he says. “Generally speaking, humans are flawed and they can be assholes. I have that in me. I understand the nature of evil. I’m happy to go beyond the nature of goodness to the nature of evil.”
This human understanding comes across in Fink’s shot of a business-like embrace from one man to another. “The picture is from an Oscars party, and he looks like he’s completely depleted of spiritual energy,” says Fink. “He looks like he’s about to make some kind of deal, but he’s empty. He’s so shallow – he’s patting him on the back, but he might as well have a knife in his hand.”
All emotions are fair game for Fink, and photography has a way of handling anger as well as love. “As humans, we have to accept that we ourselves can also repulse,” he says. “We are all ugly; we are all beautiful. To recognise the ugliness and the beauty in others, you must first accept those qualities in yourself. As an exercise in empathy and photography, go out into the world and try to photograph a whole palette of human emotions and breadth of experience.”
Composition plays a huge role in how Fink photographs work, and in his book he connects composition to the psychology of space and the way in which we read the frame. The most beautiful and simple example shows a boxer huddled in the corner of a room – in the right foreground the view is blocked by the triangular block of his trainer, but in the left corner there is a small edge of table that, though small, transforms the picture.
“That little piece of corner gives a sense of the space,” says Fink. “Put it in there and all of a sudden he’s in this vacuum, he’s more vulnerable. Composition tells you how to structure a picture so it feels like you’ve been there. I’ve studied painting so my pictures are very graphic; you need to allow culture to infiltrate deeper into your consciousness so you photograph from a pre-visualised state, you’re lying in wait for miracles to happen.”
Composition and lighting also create drama, he continues, allowing a story to be constructed in which the photographer does not have complete control, in which something is left to the mysteries of the frame. “The structure of the pictures is the language used to tell the story, but there has to be an ambiguity,” he says. “The photographer has to understand that there are elements in the picture that can’t be told. But there has to be some level of ambiguity so the picture stays alive as an energy force.”
Outside the box
If the goal is to make something different, then different influences must come into play. In The Photographer’s Playbook, Roger Ballen tells people to “turn your eyeballs around toward the inside of your head… photograph what you see”. Fink does the same thing but recognises that his picture-making is also informed by a huge resource of social and cultural influences. “I work on a pre-conscious level but also on a conscious level – because otherwise you’re a bug,” he says. “Your influences are your life. That’s why there are about 500 references at the back of the book to painters, composers and musicians who have influenced me.”
The idea is that photography is nothing if it stays in a little box, that there is a big wide world out there and photography needs to engage with it. “I don’t get tired of life, and I don’t get tired of pictures,” says Fink. “It’s just that sometimes I don’t want to look at them. Life is about experiences, not pictures.”
And if there is a message in The Photographer’s Playbook, it’s the same – the idea that life ranks above photography. In the end it’s a very simple approach and best summed up by Chris Killip: “Live in an affordable place, keeping your overhead low. You should be genuinely interested in this place, and want to make work there.”
The Photographer’s Playbook: 307 Assignments and Ideas, edited by Jason Fulford and Gregory Halpern, is priced at $24.95. Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation is part of The Photography Workshop Series and is priced at $29.95. Both books will soon be available from Aperture.
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