A level lesson plan:
What happens when stuff gets in the way.
From Jon Nicholls, Thomas Tallis School
The formal and visual elements that constitute part of the 'grammar' of photography (such as line, shape, repetition, rhythm, balance etc.) are shared with other works of art. But photographs also have a specific grammar - flatness, frame, time, focus etc. ‘Mistakes’ in photography are often associated with (breaking) the ‘rules’ and expectations of this grammar e.g. out of focus, subject cropped, blur etc. Because of the flattening effect of photographs, things in reality are juxtaposed in unusual ways. Things in the distance (in reality) can appear to be on the same level as things closer to the camera. Some photographers have exploited the inherent surreality of this effect, what we might think of as a deliberate attempt to disorientate the viewer for artistic purposes. Other photographers and artists are more interested in the accidental disorientation caused by this phenomenon, a feature of the equipment (or apparatus) being used.
Take these examples by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Joel Meyerowitz, Saul Leiter and Matt Stuart. These photographers have exploited the flatness of photographs to make witty, gently surreal images that generate a smile in the mind.
Some questions to consider:
- What skills does a photographer need to make pictures like these?
- What do pictures like these tell us about the characteristics of photographs?
- How important is humour in photography?
Ray Metzker 'Pictus Interruptus'
Metzker is known for his unconventional street photographs. More abstract than either Cartier-Bresson and Meyerowitz, Metzker exploits and exaggerates the properties of still photography - odd framing, multiple exposures, deep contrast, and, in this series, the interruption of various objects placed between the lens and the 'subject'. Metzker seems to want to deliberately disorientate the viewer and question the indexical relationship between photography and the world.
It becomes clearer...that I am looking for the unknown which in fact disturbs, is foreign in subject but hauntingly right for the picture, the workings of which seem inexplicable, at the very least, a surprise.
-- Ray Metzker
Kurt Caviezel 'Animals'
Caviezel takes images made by public video surveillance cameras that can be viewed live on the Internet. The 'Animals' series documents landscape views disrupted by birds and insects roosting on or crawling across the camera's lens. He raises interesting questions about what the subject(s) of these photographs might be and what happens when nature and technology collide.
The series of insects and birds in my encyclopedia investigate the properties of the apparatus as a thing, as hardware, and the impact these properties have on the image. More often than not, the lenses and sensor are mounted in their box high up onto a wall that is only accessible by means of cranes or ladders for men. They are exposed to all kinds of weather and wildlife. Profiting from the situation, insects and birds turn the boxes into their habitat. Spiders spin their nets in front of the lens; flies and mosquitos crawl about the lens; bird rest on the boxes with their tail feathers hanging into the images. Needless to say, it was never the camera operators’ intention to photograph these animals. The animals and apparatus, however, could not care less about the agenda of the operators. They create images and aesthetics that a photographer with his or her own camera cannot produce unless they take pictures with a camera inhabited by moths.
Stephen Gill 'Talking to Ants'
Stephen Gill is exactly the sort of photographer who might keep moths in his camera. Gill's practice is rooted in the urban landscape of London's East End. He has utilised a variety of strategies for capturing the beauty of mundane reality, offering viewers new visions and surprising perspectives. In this series he disrupts his chosen views by introducing small objects into the body of the camera itself. The resulting photographs are chance arrangements of photogram-like abstractions seemingly superimposed on unremarkable sections of the Hackney landscape.
The photographs in this series were made in East London between 2009 and 2013. They feature objects and creatures that I sourced from the local surroundings and placed into the body of my camera. I hoped through this method to encourage the spirit of the place to clamber aboard the images and be encapsulated in the film emulsion, like objects embedded in amber. My aim was to evoke the feeling of the area at the same time as describing its appearance as the subject was both in front and behind the camera lens at the same moment.
I like to think of these photographs as in-camera photograms in which conflict or harmony has been randomly formed in the final image depending on where the objects landed.
-- Stephen Gill
Akihiko Miyoshi 'Abstract Photographs'
Miyoshi is fascinated by the relationship between analogue and digital photography, between the indexicality of light and the abstraction of pixels. In this series he uses a large format camera, a mirror and coloured tape, creating disrupted self-portraits. Our sense of spatial relationships is confused. Initially, we are unable to trust what we see. Slowly, we are able to disentangle the visual clues in order to make sense of the picture. In the process we are reminded of the elements of photographic grammar. Abstraction can often be more effective way to remind us that we are looking at a photograph, an artificial construct rather than a faithful facsimile of the world.
- The photographs are taken facing a mirror with coloured tape adhered to the front of the camera's lens as they attempt to unpack the structural mechanics of photographic representation. The tapes obstruct the lens creating a field of colour that cloud over the frame and the reflection of the artist. The photographs are on the verge of becoming abstract recalling colour field paintings. Yet paradoxically it simultaneously reinforces its photographic origins by insisting on its own indexicality.
- -- Akihiko Miyoshi
Adrian Diubaldo 'Broke Work'
Diabuldo is Bipolar. This series of photographs is a deliberate attempt to capture the fracturing of reality that occurs when he experiences a manic episode. It is interesting, in the context of this project, that his chosen technique was to disrupt ordinary views with an object, itself a fractured optical device. In these pictures, we are looking at the world through two pieces of glass which return a recognisable but warped and disturbing view of the world. It's a reminder that reality is largely subjective, affected by our mental states and relative wellbeing. We all see the world differently and photography can be a useful means to communicate our individual visions.
When I shot these photographs, I used a piece of broken glass brick to interrupt a sense of full verisimilitude in the images. The visual effect is meant to signify the trouble with getting back to a sense of “reality” that those faced with Bipolar constantly re-learn to achieve, each time they heal from a manic episode.
-- Adrian Diubaldo
Some suggested activities:
- Students attempt to take a series of photographs in which they alter their viewpoint, camera angle and framing in order to juxtapose two or more objects that are distant in reality but become closely associated through the flattening effect of photography.
- Students could creatively explore one of the cardinal mistakes of photography by deliberately placing their finger in front of the lens. What effects can be achieved by this intentional disruption?
- Students apply strips of coloured tape (or similar) to a piece of clear plastic E.g. acetate. They then take a series of photographs looking through this disrupted surface, experimenting with focus and depth of field. Mirrors could be used to create abstract self-portraits and paint could provide a less structured alternative or addition to the strips of tape.
- Students gather a selection of small scraps of paper that may contain random text or graphic elements. They take a series of pictures in which the scraps of paper interrupt the view. Further experiments could be undertaken with other small objects.
- Students are given a small stack of Post It notes. They are instructed to find a large-ish window on which to stick the notes so that they can photograph through them. They should experiment with the arrangement of the notes and with focus and depth of field.