Art collecting at the National Gallery

It's incredible to think how works of art, such as Seurat's Bathers at Asnières made their way from the artist's pallet all those years ago to the walls of some of the finest buildings in the world. 


Whilst visiting London yesterday I thought it would be a good opportunity to go to the National Gallery and attempt to replicate the art gallery style of Thomas Struth. The capital during the summer holiday was bound to draw crowds of tourists, and it was exceptionally busy in the National Gallery. 


In my earlier post about Thomas Struth I referred to how the National Gallery have relaxed their rules on photographing the works of art. Partly because it was so difficult to monitor the use of smart phones taking selfies and also because it is so easy to get a copy of any painting of the web, albeit at a lower resolution. 

Without my DSLR, I relied on using my iPhone to capture the images on this blog post. I had visited this gallery many years before, when taking a photograph was considered to be like ripping the painting off the wall and hanging it in your own home. So to be allowed to photograph in there was an unusual position to be in.  


Many visitors were using their digital devices to take advantage of the National Gallery's leniency. With the click of a button you could have Van Gogh's Sunflowers on your screen and take with you. In some ways this 'art collecting' is advantageous to the a National Gallery, because these collectors will upload the art work to social networking sites such as Instagram and Twitter, tagging the gallery in the process and subsequently publicising it for others. Since the gallery is free to enter, presumably to enable more people to have the opportunity to view a piece of our history, it maybe considered aworthwhile activity, sharing the artwork across digital networks. 


However, the downside to this is that the experience for the viewer is hampered. The primary viewer, at the gallery, may find it difficult to see the paintings in their full glory. With so many people swarming around each work of art it was very difficult to take the time and look, and appreciate, what was there. Some were moving around photographing so quickly, it could have just as easily been the graffiti on the gallery walls outside that they were photographing. 


For the secondary viewer, looking at the art work on a screen does not do it justice. Some of the paintings in the gallery are huge. You really have to be there to appreciate the time and skill it took to create them. Many digital copies also exist that have not been captioned. I too have failed to take the time to identify the paintings depicted in this blog post. Without the detailed information displayed alongside the painting on the gallery wall, we view the image at a superficial level. 

Yesterday art appeared to be devalued due to a desire to duplicate and dispense something that had always been rare and unique. Hopefully the images people see will encourage them to visit these galleries to see for themselves. After all  there's nothing like being able to stand next to the original piece of art. 


Stranger happenings

I have always been intrigued by how text can be combined with an image to construct a meaningful photograph, but never really knew where to look for inspiration. Cotton (2011) offered me some inspiration in her first chapter by introducing me to the work of Gillian Wearing's 'Signs that say what you want them to say and not signs that say what someone else wants you to say'. 

Gillian Wearing approached strangers on the streets of London and asked them to write something about themselves on a white piece of card. 

Gillian Wearing approached strangers on the streets of London and asked them to write something about themselves on a white piece of card. 

Wearing's resulting photographs 'revealed the emotional stress and personal issues that were occupying their minds' (Cotton, C. 2011, p. 30) that passers by would otherwise fail to notice. 

Usually it is the portrait photographer who is in control of the subject, being able to manipulate their muse within their studio. Wearing has relinquished this control, allowing the subject self-determination of the photograph's message. Her method transcends that of traditional portrait photographers, capturing the profundity and experience of everyday life. However, Gillian Wearing is still in control of the strangers she invites to be photographed and which images will be included in the final collection.  

Shizuka Yokomizo adopts a similar method of transference of control to the subject, who is unknown to her. Yokomizo's 'Stranger' (1999) involved her sending letters to potential subjects who would be easily photographed at a ground floor window, at a particular time in the evening.  Each willing participant kept their curtains open and lights on, posed in anticipation to be photographed by a stranger. Yokomizo produced 19 photographs in which the subject dictated the pose and clothing worn. Cotton (2011) likened the windows to mirrors, as if the strangers are looking at themselves, in anticipation of being photographed. The 'mirror' marks the physical space that separates the seer from the seen.

Angier (2007, p.72) sums up this encounter as: 

"a zero-degree confrontation in which the pre-condition for intimacy is present, but intimacy itself is left deliberately unfulfilled." 

A stranger stands at her front window, waiting to be photographed by a stranger. 

A stranger stands at her front window, waiting to be photographed by a stranger. 

Unlike most voyeuristic portraiture, Yokomizo's subject are aware that they will be photographed by a stranger, having been informed anonymously by letter, saying:

Dear Stranger, 

I am an artist working on a photographic project which involves people I do not know...I would like to take a photograph of you standing in your front room from the street in the evening.  

Angier (2007) points out that The salutation on Yokomizo's letter is a paradox, suggesting both intimacy (Dear) and distance (stranger). 

Some portrait photographers could be considered to have an air of arrogance in knowing how the sitter should pose in order to produce the right type of image. Both Wearing and Yokomizo allow us more information about their subjects by allowing them greater influence in creating the scene.  


Angier, R. (2007). Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. Switzerland: AVA Publishing SA

Cotton, C. (2011). The photograph as contemporary art. New edition. London: Thames and Hudson.  



One day in history

The 2013 L'Iris d'Or/Sony World Photography Award for Photographer of the Year went to thirty-two year old Norwegian photographer Andrea Gjestvang. Her 'One Day in History' consists of a series of portraits of those young people who survived the July 2011 massacre on the island of Utøya.
Catherine Chermayeff, the Jury Chairman, praised the winning entry by saying:

'One Day in History' is a quiet, thoughtful and ultimately powerful voice for the children and survivors of the massacre in Norway. We were all moved by the dignity and beauty of these images.

Andrea Gjestvang's subjects have been photographed in what would appear to be surroundings that they feel safe and secure in, such as at home or with a pet. Meanwhile there are also portraits that have been taken in woodland or near water, possibly referencing back to Utøya. Some of the young people engage the viewer by looking directly at the camera, whilst others look more distant and reflective by looking away.

Around 500 survived the massacre, of whom many were badly wounded. More than half of the survivors were children and youths under the age of 18.

Knowing the context for this work and remembering all the news broadcasts about that one day in history, makes these images all the more powerful. Furthermore, each image's description includes information about the subject's own personal experience of the atrocity. This helps to complete a compelling collection of portraits.

The events of modern day life move at such an increasing rate that we are often directed to the latest headline or news flash. Previously news worthy, headline grabbing events gradually slip from the front page and replaced by something fresh and current. We rarely have the opportunity to let the dust settle and return to the scene of the crime and those most affected. Andrea Gjestvang's portraits offer this opportunity to return and provide an insight into how the victims may be rehabilitating.

Assignment 1: A portrait

 Click for Tutor Report

Brief: Drawing together your experiences in completing the projects so far, take one person as a subject and create between 5 and 7 different portraits.

In just about every card shop there are photographs of sleeping babies photographed by Anne Geddes, in all sorts of costumes. Whilst her work is very creative and very skilled (especially not to wake the baby up!), it doesn’t appeal to me. I prefer a much more natural and realistic portrait, that documents the child’s development. I preferred the work of photographers such as Jill Greenberg, who’s photographs are much more realistic. However, Greenberg’s use of light and over-processing can make the children almost doll-like. Some of her methods and motives are also questionable. In End Times, Jill Greenwood photographed the tears and distress of children who had sweets taken away from them. The purpose of this was so that she could protest at the then current presiding Bush administration in America. I believe that ‘End Times’ betrays the photographer and subject relationship. The purpose of the portrait is to satisfy the photographer’s needs at the expense of the subject’s need to be treated with respect. The contract of trust is broken. Interestingly Greenberg’s work does highlight the fact that we tend to take photographs of the happy events in our lives. Our photo albums are full of happier times, celebrating achievements and milestones.

Only yesterday (23/7/13) photographers, who had been camped outside the Lindo Wing of St. Mary’s Hospital for as long as 3 weeks, finally got ‘the picture’ of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge leaving with their baby George, the future king. There will be countless photographs of the young prince in the years to come, however this first sight of him being carried by his predecessor to the throne was an historic moment.

Ever since my son was born I’ve been taking hundreds of photos as he develops and explores the world around him. Whilst it is great to have so many images of his every step, it is difficult to have any one image that sticks out in my mind. The purpose of this assignment for me is to produce a set of photographs that can reflect the inquisitive nature of my son. Below are my chosen images.

1. Starting to crawl.   ISO 800   36mm   f/4   1/40

Lit by natural side-lighting, taken underneath the dining room table, this image reflects his explorative nature. From a technical point of view I was pleased about this image because it was quite shady under the table and he moves very quickly. I had an idea of what I wanted to photograph, trying to use the table legs to act as a ‘frame’. After lots of attempts to get his attention, I chose to press the shutter button just as he was looking at the camera, creating a connection with the viewer.

2. A helping hand.   ISO 200   56mm   f/8   1/90

During this assignment I was aware that I needed to include a full length portrait. This was going to be difficult because he is still learning to walk and isn’t too steady on his feet yet! With my mum and brother assisting him, I was able to photograph my son walking towards the camera. My low viewpoint enabled me capture all of him. I felt I could have waited a split second longer for him to be looking at the camera and one of his feet to be off the ground so that it is obvious what he is doing. Next time I would set my camera to ‘continuous’ so that I could select from a series of images.

3. Taking a closer look.   ISO 1250   40mm   f/4   1/80

My son was almost in the camera for this photograph. I managed to capture him bright-eyed looking directly at the camera. The more mobile he is becoming the more interested my son is becoming, for me this image reflects this inquisitive nature.

4. Going over the edge.   ISO 1000 34mm   f/4.5   1/60

I wanted to capture another image of him exploring and waited to capture him peering over the settee. It was quite a tricky low-angled shot and I needed to make sure I took the photograph before he looked at me.

5. Summer look.   ISO 100   135mm   f/7.1   1/60

At 10 months old it feels as though our son has achieved so much. This head shot was an attempt to bring the viewer closer to him.

6. Taking time out.   ISO 100   60mm   f/2.8   1/350

Similarly to photograph 4, I wanted to capture a moment when my son was on his own in a reflective mood. I shot it through the mesh of his travel cot to create an unusual texture to the final image.

Overall I’m really happy with this set of portraits. I feel they capture my son’s emerging identity. Unfortunately because he is so young it doesn’t give me an opportunity to direct him into different poses. Instead, I have had to wait for these moments to appear in my viewfinder, looking for potential photo opportunities. In addition to this, because he is not walking on his own yet, there have been limited opportunities for me to create full-length portraits.

As he gets older and more independent I will use what I am learning in P & P to give more direction. However, by not directing him and looking for opportunities, I believe has enabled me to produce more natural looking images. This process has enabled me to be more selective about the photos I take and the photos I keep.

Tutor feedback

My tutor was pleased with the technical and compositional aspects of these photographs. I found this very encouraging because it means that I am applying the skills and understanding I have acquired during TAOP and DPP. I have included the Exif information for each photograph, which my tutor asked for. My tutor also agreed that I achieved my aim of creating ‘natural, realistic portraits’. However he did suggest that photographing my son wasn’t challenging which I have to agree with him…although getting my son to stay still long enough was challenging! My tutor has encouraged me to really push myself and my ideas.

The hidden mother

As photography developed in the 1800's it became increasingly common for Victorians to want to get their portrait taken. However the long exposure time meant that the subject(s) would have to stand still for a while so that they didn't appear blurry. This would explain why the Victorians would appeared to have been a very serious and dour looking part of British history. Their portraits may not have reflected their true identity because of the way they had to pose.
Just like in modern times, the Victorians used photographs to document the birth of new additions to their family. Of course it would be impossible to rely on a Victorian baby to stay still long enough to be photographed, so one solution was to hide the baby's mother with a blanket, whilst holding her baby still.


As can be seen in the family portrait above, this 'hidden mother' technique produced some bizarre scenes. It was often very obvious that the child's mother was covered up. For the sake of a decent family photograph she may as well have been included in the portrait!