Camped out in Vélez-Blanco

We were sitting outside in the early-evening warmth at the Bar Rinconcillo, in the town of Vélez-Blanco, in southern Spain.

I went into the bar to order drinks and tapas. Inside there were no tourists, just a few locals oblivious to the glorious weather, and happy to have their daily, post-siesta chat.

On the large television at one end of the small bar was a live bull-fight. It was obvious from the state of the animal that the fight and it were almost at an end.

Every few seconds the camera would cut to a roving interviewer, grabbing comments at the edge of the arena from the extremely glamorous-looking patrons. It was like Wimbledon Centre-Court, but with swords instead of racquets.

Each time the exhausted animal would charge through the matador’s cape, the matador would snap his heels together, arch his back, stick out his bum, throw back his head and beam at the adoring crowd. His costume, dyed hair and painted eyebrows added to the sense of this being, to the untutored eye, a kind of theatre macabre.

I took our drinks order outside and thought nothing more of it.

Then, later, it struck me that what I had seen was not just an apparent macho display of one man’s control over a very large and dangerous animal. But, with its pomp and circumstance, its makeup, costume and its exaggerated gestures, what I had also witnessed – particularly so if you imagine it without sound – might be viewed as a display of Camp.

Among its many definitions, the dictionary defines Camp as “effeminate, affected in mannerisms and/or dress, as well as exaggerated or mannered.” To the non-Spanish eye, what I witnessed was all of the above.

In her essay on Camp, Susan Sontag goes further; she argues that Camp is also a sensibility. Furthermore, she regards a sensibility (as distinct from an idea) as one of the hardest things to talk about. This is because camp, as Sontag sees it, is not a natural mode of sensibility. “The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

She cites examples from “…the canon of Camp” listing; Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley drawings, “Swan Lake”, Bellini operas and King Kong in a long list of candidates. But, no mention of bull-fighting…

And this despite a passage where she makes a case for the androgynous characteristic of Camp. She writes: “…..Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility.”

Is there a case to be made for Camp and the bull-fighter? Sontag believes that Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”. “To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theatre.”

So, is it matador or “matador”? Is this display of men in tights – OK, men in tights, cropped tight trousers and sequined jackets – a manifestation of Camp? Or, is it something else entirely?

Perhaps the answer lies in Sontag’s notion of “sensibility”. She argues that most people’s idea of sensibility or taste falls within “…the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason.” What Sontag does not postulate is if these “…mysterious attractions…” can be culture-specific.

Sontag isn’t just writing from an urban, North-American perspective, she is writing from Sontag’s own perspective. What she perceives as Camp falls very much within the orbit of her experience and interests. If the posturing and presentation of the matador can be deemed Camp, it’s not even up for consideration chez Sontag.

Looking at the matador through Northern eyes, it is reasonable to see the “…artifice…the love of the exaggerated…flamboyant mannerism suggestive of a double interpretation.” But, that his through Northern eyes.

Defining something as Camp has to make allowances for cultural differences. (Can the operas of Richard Strauss really be seen as Camp by a central-European audience, as Sontag says they are for her?) We become attuned to a socio-specific notion of Camp. Recognition of Camp is a personal or locally group-centered truth. It is not a universal one.

The matador represents a blend influences (Spanish, African, Eastern) which together form a confection that is beyond the realm of Central-European and North-American comprehension.

Contrary to what Sontag wrote, there is no “…democratic esprit of Camp…”. It is in the eye of the beholder.

#Camp #SusanSontag #Sontag #art #Spain #Bullfighting #matador #Photography

“Curiouser and curiouser!” Cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English).”

The above, very small image, (it measures 132mm x 82mm) is a family heirloom of my wife’s family.

No one knows when it was taken, nor who the subject is. But, the image arouses curiosity for many other reasons, not just its unknown subject and the date of its capture.

The camera on the tripod looks like an old 2 1/4″ x 2 1/4″ Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex, or similar. But, the viewing hood on the top, which the photographer would look down into to focus and compose the image, is clearly closed; so, either it has already done its work, or is about to.

The subject herself (a First Communion celebrant?) makes no attempt to engage with the camera which has captured this moment. Nor, indeed, does she make any eye-contact with the camera on the tripod. Her attention is firmly fixed, off-camera, to the right of frame, on something, or towards someone we cannot see. Clearly, the photograph we see is a document on the part of the photographer, a testament to having been there in true Instagram-style (albeit, pre-all-things-digital, not just Instagram!) of having witnessed the occasion as is so often the case, without the consent, knowledge or input of the participants.

The apparent honesty and frankness of the moment and, in particular, of the subject, recalls the writing of Susan Sontag and her note from On Photography is worth recalling…

“There is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do [know]…their expressions are private ones, not those they would offer to the camera.” p.37

But, the most interesting enigma in this image is the child’s pose. She stands ethereal, appearing to almost hover above the ground. In addition, her veil, despite there being no apparent wind in her hair, fans out behind her. (Bear in mind that this is very much a time before Photoshop.)

Was she asked to stand on something hidden beneath her in order to make her dress form a perfect, unruffled circle around her, and for her to appear to float angelically above the ground? As she stood to pose, did her veil become caught in the bushes behind her? Or, was its placement part of the same knowing ruse to create a suitably beatific atmosphere?

Undoubtedly, the effect, if it was deliberate, is successful. The impression is of someone added to the image post facto; a kind of perfect ghostly manifestation. And, if it wasn’t a deliberate attempt to conjure up something other-worldly, then the chance occurrence that we witness, in all its eerie luminescence,  is all the more uncanny.

We may never know what the intentions were of those present on that day. But, Lewis Carroll would have approved.


	

Improving the Product – Firmware Updates…

I use Canon and Hasselblad cameras.

Today’s digital cameras, even basic ones, are capable of extremely high image quality (at least up to a reasonable size, say, A4 – more than most of us need 90% of the time) that is the match of old-school large-format photography. In addition, most phones can now shoot broadcast quality HD video.

Higher-end digital-single-lens-reflex (DSLR) and medium-format digital cameras will, with careful handling, match the quality of large-format film photography at even greater enlargements.

In short, for comparably less than what medium-format or large-format film cameras used to cost, a high-end DSLR will all but make your breakfast.

The catch with the relatively cheap price of the camera is with the add-ons. When you buy a brand (Hasselblad, Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc.) for the most part, you are locked into its Eco-system. Measured against the cost of the camera, the relative cost of manufacturer’s own lenses is extortionate. Lenses are now designed and built by computers – not by craftsmen in workshops grinding glass. Compared with the computer-that-happens-to-take-photographs that is a digital camera body, a lens is pretty basic; though I accept that there is the issue of volume sales, and some popular lenses are priced accordingly.

Fortunately, the mechanized production of high-end lenses, in particular, isn’t the exclusive domain of the camera manufacturers. Lens manufacturers such as Sigma (with, for example, their Art series of lenses) have shifted the goalposts in favour of the photographer. Lenses chosen judiciously with the aid of sites such as DXOMark can be at least the equal of, and sometimes exceed, the equivalent made by the camera’s manufacturers.

But, my main gripe with camera makers is their relative performance in after-sales service, and particularly in relation to firmware updates.

Simply put, in a camera the firmware is the inbuilt software which runs the camera’s hardware. Anyone who owns a computer or a mobile phone is aware of the regular software updates that are required. These updates (usually) improve the product’s compatibility between the different software packages running on the product and the overall performance of the phone or computer.

Firmware updates for a digital camera can eliminate bugs (very rare, admittedly) and, more usually, add new features. Some manufacturers are better than others when it comes to this; Sony are good, Hasselblad are superb while Canon, in my experience, are poor.

Hasselblad’s X1D camera is one of the most talked-about cameras of the last few years (no, I don’t own one, but I wish I did). Since its release it has had, by my calculation, six firmware updates all free of charge. These have added a host of features to the camera, many as a result of user-feedback. What started as a very high-spec camera gets even better with every update.

Canon, on the other hand, have released three firmware updates for the 5D Mark IV camera since its launch about two years ago. Two of these addressed a few bugs in the camera as well as adding in-camera support for new Canon lenses.

The second release issued mid-2017 offered C-Log exposure for video shooters. Essentially, video in a DSLR is capturing motion at 25 Jpegs per second. The problem is that setting exposure for video capture is a delicate operation with little margin for error. C-Log allows the user to override the camera’s in-built settings and take more control over the exposure.

The catch with this update is twofold; 1. You have to bring your camera to a Canon dealership, thus losing the use of it for a few hours at least – usually, firmware updates are user-activated. 2. Canon charge almost €100 for the privilege – about 3% of the cost of the camera. Not good enough.

It should be noted that Hasselblad’s X1D is about three times the price of a Canon 5D Mark IV. But, Sony’s a7R lll is cheaper than Canon’s 5D Mark IV and offers a high-resolution 4-shot capture feature that is akin to that of Hasselblad.

The key point is some of Canon’s competitors’ constant drive to improve their products with firmware updates, rather than simply waiting for new hardware releases. While the likes of Magic Lantern hint at the massive potential Canon cameras, albeit without Canon’s imprimatur and at a risk to the user’s camera. If only Canon included some of these features.

Canon, please take note.

#photography #Canon #Hasselblad #Sony #firmware

August Sander

“I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects.” August Sander

London gallery Hauser & Wirth is currently hosting an exhibition (until July 28) of the work of German proto-Conceptualist photographer August Sander (1876-1964) entitled “August Sander Men Without Masks.”

Hauser Wirth August Sander Install View_b

Born in 1876 into relative poverty in Herdorf, east of Cologne, Sander would go on to become, arguably, one of the most influential figures in 20th century German and European photography.

August Sander adopted and refined a photographic style that had it roots in the work of American photographers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis W. Hine.

Jacob Riis’ “How the Other Half Lives” exposed with brutal lack of sentiment the lives and living conditions of an entire underclass of the New York of the 1880s. Lewis W. Hine documented in great detail what American children committed to child labour were subjected to. Not only did he photograph them, but as a campaigning children’s rights activist he published his work widely in an effort to bring about legislative change in American child labour law.

Both Riis and Hine were early adopters of photography as a means of social criticism. Both were also involved with their subject matter in ways that transcended mere concept or aesthetics. They didn’t merely wish to show or represent; they wanted to change. This is where they differ most from August Sander.

August Sander, widely read and very well informed, became part of what was termed the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. This style was developed in Germany and concerned itself with, as David Bate writes in “Photography – The Key Concepts, 2nd Edition”, “….a systematized photographic method of observation. Sander developed a typology (or taxonomic) model of portrait photography where the sitter was – photographed – defined and categorized by their social role (work) through [a] standardized set of photographic techniques.” p.62/3

Boxers - August Sander_b

 Sander did not set out to initiate a social or political campaign. Yet, as Bate points out, the work was “…thoroughly democratic…since whoever was photographed…had the same visual treatment.”(p.63). Bate reinforces his point citing Walter Benjamin who wrote of Sander’s work…

‘Sander goes from farmers, the earthbound men, and takes the viewer through all levels and professions up on the one hand to the highest representatives of civilization and down on the other to idiots. The creator came to the task not as a scholar nor instructed by racial theoreticians or social researchers, but, as the publisher says, “from direct experience.”‘ Walter Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography” 1931.

The critic John Berger described Sander’s working method as “translucently documentary” (It is not clear what he meant by the term except to say that he wrote, “When a place (subject?) is found it is found somewhere on the frontier between nature (real, documented life?) and art.” John Berger, “The Shape of a Pocket” 2001)  and also felt need to refer to Walter Benjamin when he (Berger) was looking at the work of Sander.

‘It was indeed unprejudiced observation, bold and at the same time delicate, very much in the spirit of Goethe’s remark: “There is a delicate mode of the empirical which identifies itself so intimately with its objects that it thereby becomes theory.”‘ from “About Looking”, John Berger, 1980

The influence of this clinical, non-interventionist approach to documentary photography is clearly visible in the typological subject matter of the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, scions of the German School of Photography which evolved at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf

072_PHOTO_NY_Oct11_16-87.pdf

…and also in the work of their pupil Thomas Ruff…

Portrait 1986 (Stoya) 1986 Thomas Ruff born 1958 Purchased 1998 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78091

Zirkusartistin (Circus Artiste) August Sander 1926-1932_b

The August Sander exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, some of which forms part of what he termed his “Portfolio of Archetypes” project, which he began in 1910, comprises prints made by Sander’s son Gunther (1907-87) for inclusion in an exhibition at the Mannheimer Kunstverein in 1973.

The prints are described as “…a unique oversize format” (Sander worked in 4″x5″ and 5″x7″ negative formats, so there is no issue with maintaining detail in the enlargements.).

The images are hung, single file, in an evenly spaced line. The placement of the subject categories – the exhibition blurb mentions ‘The Farmer’, ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, ‘The Woman’, ‘The Artists’, etc., amongst the ‘archetypes’ – appears to be randomly chosen.

This curatorial intervention has the effect of forcing Sander’s work to echo the later (and similarly systemically printed and displayed) work of the likes of the Bechers and Thomas Ruff. Whether this is successful or not is both interesting and debatable.

Would Sander have printed all the images the same size? Would he have printed any or all of the images as large as this? Does this curatorial imposition of a one-size-fits-all approach help or hinder the series of images?

Undoubtedly, some of the images succeed at this scale and some do not. What is interesting about what the scale of some of the images reveals is that, not alone do they show us that August Sander initiated much of what the so-called German School of photography was to become; but also, his non-classical approach to composition, combined with a desire to record and show (that ‘…delicate mode of the empirical…’, Benjamin) presage the much later school of the “snap-shot aesthetic” and the work of artists such as Ed Ruscha and Nan Goldin.

August Sander set himself a creative instruction, in the mould of the Bechers. His intention and his working method were both pre-determined. But, unlike the Bechers, he was dealing with live subjects, not still-lives. Undoubtedly, he succeeded in avoiding creating “…sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects.” (It is interesting to consider how, a few short years later, the Nazis sought to categorize in a similarly unsentimental way. In “Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before”, Michael Fried writes: “Against the racist physiognomics (sic.) already prevalent in Germany, Sander emphasized sociological factors virtually to the exclusion of all others.” This comment begs the question; but, didn’t he emphasize Aryan sociological factors to the exclusion of all others?)

However, whatever its success as a social document, and its immense influence on later generations of photographic artists, the uncompromising rigour of his approach produced images which, in their varying success as photographs (“Baker”, not in this exhibition, is a masterpiece that recalls Rembrandt or Rubens) agitate rather than complement one another; and the question of curatorial interventions in the artist’s work remain awkward and unanswered.