Winner’s Profile: David Favrod

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BAOUMMM. The sounds of the explosions and of the B-29s are very important parts of the war memories of my grandparents during WWII. Baoummm, as painted on the print, is the onomatopoeia of an explosion. From the series “Hikari” © David Favrod. 1st place, Portfolio Category, 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards

Editor’s Note: David Favrod’s series won 1st prize in the Portfolio Category at the 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards. Be sure to see all the other winners’ and finalists’ work on our dedicated winners’ page. And if you can, join us in London on April 3rd for our exhibition of all the winners and finalists, “31 Contemporary Photographers“.

David Favrod entered art school as an industrial designer. But when he was forced to take a photography class as part of his foundational year, he immediately took to the new medium. What Favrod found different in photography as opposed to other mediums was that “even if the images are fully retouched, in the end, it will still be a fragment of reality.”

After graduating, he was free to pursue whatever kind of work he wanted. He realized that he wanted to produce a work that nobody else in the world could make. So, he began work on “Gaijin“ a series of photographs about his mother.

From there, he realized how rich his family’s history was. After talking to his grandparents about their experiences during the Second World War, he began work on his award-winning series “Hikari“. The project ended up combining photography with painting and printmaking. The other mediums were particularly useful as Favrod tried to find ways to represent his grandparents’ less material memories. For example, many of his grandparents’ experiences were tied to sound, forcing Favrod to think about how to incorporate sound with image. He turned to manga, one of his visual influences, and the use of onomatopoeias. Airplanes, explosions, machine-gun fire — all of these became rendered into sight through painted representations.

Favrod acknowledges the strong influence that his two natives cultures, Swiss and Japanese, have on his aesthetic. From Japanese writers and manga artists, to European painters, to American photographers, Favrod draws inspiration constantly from the world around him. Favrod will continue working on the subject of his family but his next project will require a lot of research and preparation. In the mean time, he plans to venture into a more spontaneous vein.

—Alexander Strecker

Winner’s Profile: Chee Keong Lim

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Playing © Chee Keong Lim. 1st place, Single Image Category, 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards

Editor’s Note: Chee Keong Lim’s image won 1st prize in the Single Image Category at the 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards. Be sure to see all the other winners’ and finalists’ work on our dedicated winner’s page. And if you can, join us in London on April 3rd for our exhibition of all the winners and finalists, “31 Contemporary Photographers“.

 

CK Lim has been interested in art and photography for a long time. It began during high school, when he felt an urge to record the beauty of the world and started to learn the craft of photography. At first, he was pursuing photography on the side while helping his father take care of the family business. In 1998, he was able to pursue it as a full-time career.

While Lim has always regretted his inability to draw well, the camera was able to replace the pen for him. Lim has a strong belief in the power of images: they are able to transcend language, background, nationality. Through photography, Lim finds it easiest to express his thoughts. In Lim’s words, “Painting is the art of addition: the artist adds colors to his painting and builds up the image. Photography is the art of reduction: we try to pull out a simple beauty from the complex world around us.”

Due to the increasingly low price and widespread popularity of digital cameras, photography is becoming commonplace in Malaysia, Lim’s home, and all over Southeast Asia. On the one hand, this helps promote photography. On the other, Lim finds that photographic newcomers often shoot blindly, without thinking. As these photographers lack basic knowledge in photographic and artistic principles, their work cannot achieve the simplifying clarity towards which Lim strives. Thus, Lim is a strong believer in the importance of visual education and technical mastery.

Lim particularly enjoys capturing humanity and landscape on the road. Asian countries have always been a draw for him: the people are warm and simple and the culture suits his personality. His favorite country to photograph in is Myanmar. After two trips there, he has plans to start organizing more regular photography trips to explore the place more deeply.

—Alexander Strecker

Winner’s Profile: Yijun Liao

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Try to live like a pair of Siamese twins. From the series “Experimental Relationship” © Yijun Liao. 2nd place, Portfolio Category, 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards

Editor’s Note: Yijun Liao’s series won 2nd prize in the Portfolio Category at the 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards. Be sure to see all the other winners’ and finalists’ work on our dedicated winner’s page. And if you can, join us in London on April 3rd for our exhibition of all the winners and finalists, “31 Contemporary Photographers“.

Yijun Liao (or Pixy, as she calls herself), came to the US in 2005, to study photography. After a childhood in China in which she focused on “high scores” and “getting into a good university,” at 25 she was free to do things her way. So, for the first time in her life, she decided to study something she was really interested in. This simple, free-loving passion is reflected in her photographs. In Pixy’s words, “I photograph what I really wanna see in a photograph. It genuinely reflects who I am and what I’m interested in.”

For Pixy, photography is a tool to understand herself. After a few years of photographing landscapes, she realized that what she valued in photography was making images that were completely unique to her own perspective, images that only she could make. Thus arose the idea of photographing her relationship.

Moro, her younger, Japanese boyfriend turned out to be the perfect muse. Besides subverting gender norms, toppling relationship standards, and making a life in country that was foreign to both of them, Pixy and Moro also got to have fun together. Pixy always retained final creative control of the photographs, but Moro improvised and played an active part in the shoots.

Pixy is happy to be living and working in the United States, as she feels a continuing freedom in her new homeland. She particularly appreciates the open-mindedness of her audience, the wide-ranging acceptance that her work has received.

Her biggest influence in life is Bjork. Among visual artists, she likes Sophie Calle and Elina Brotherus. Their works are personal, intensely emotional, and resonate with Pixy’s own feelings.

—Alexander Strecker

Winner’s Profile: Richard Tuschman

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Woman and Man on a Bed. From the series “Hopper Meditations” © Richard Tuschman.
3rd place, Portfolio Category, 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards

Editor’s Note: Richard Tuschman’s series won 3rd prize in the Portfolio Category at the 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards. Be sure to see all the other winners’ and finalists’ work on our dedicated winner’s page. And if you can, join us in London on April 3rd for our party and exhibition of all the winners and finalists, “31 Contemporary Photographers“.

Richard Tuschman followed a long and varied road on his way to pursuing a full-time career in fine art. Growing up in Cleveland, Tuschman long depended on reproductions to access the great historical works of art. When he finally arrived in New York for the first time, in college, he was amazed to see the originals: “I almost couldn’t believe that these paintings actually existed.”

At art school, he focused on painting and printmaking. He liked photography but struggled in the darkroom. What he liked most was being able to draw on or scratch the negative — this allowed him to give his photographs a more painterly feel. After graduating, he fell into a successful commercial career, first as a graphic designer, then as a photo illustrator.

At the age of 50, he decided that if he was going to become an artist, “it was now or never.” He knew that he wanted to work primarily with light, as he had always admired the work of the Old Masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. But in particular, he found himself drawn to Edward Hopper and his “bare, intimate, psychologically charged scenes.” Both Hopper and photography use light to elicit an emotional response, meaning that the painter and Tuschman’s method had a natural sympathy.

With a lot of different experiences behind him, Tuschman had skills in a variety of hands-on fields — printmaking, painting, model-making — as well as a strong aptitude for digital processes. He would use all of these in constructing his series “Hopper Meditations.”

First, Tuschman constructed dollhouse-sized sets and photographed their interiors. Then, he photographed his human models in a variety of poses, lights, and positions. Based on what his models had done, he went back to his miniature sets and readjusted accordingly. Occasionally, he found a model’s pose or look so striking, he custom-built a diorama specifically for that moment. In the end, he created digital compositions, placing the models in their custom-built environments, producing the final, beautiful work.

The series combined many of Tuschman’s different interests and talents and was thus a very gratifying series to produce. Still, when asked about what set photography apart from his other interests, Tuschman stated:

I like the way that, paradoxically, the presentation of a particular moment frozen in time at once both mirrors and transcends the very temporal and fragile nature of our own existence. And more than any other medium, photography elicits an immediate emotional response to the visual richness of our physical world; its poetry, its beauty, its tragedy. And last, but not least, it is a great medium for telling stories — and who doesn’t love stories?

—Alexander Strecker

Winner’s Profile: Julia Gunther

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From the series “Rainbow Girls” © Julia Gunther. 2nd place, Single Image Category, 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards

Editor’s Note: Julia Gunther’s image won 2nd prize in the Single Image Category at the 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards. Be sure to see all the other winners’ and finalists’ work on our dedicated winner’s page. And if you can, join us in London on April 3rd for our exhibition of all the winners and finalists, “31 Contemporary Photographers“.

 

Julia Gunther began her creative career in film (studying at the London College of Communication, in fact). Her switch to photography began, like many great things, as an accident. She traveled to Cape Town to take a job in a film production house. After a year, she grew frustrated with the work, while at the same time falling in love with the city and the country. Feeling the need to take sole responsibility for a project, rather than working on film crews, she bought her first photo camera and began searching for stories in Cape Town and the surroundings.

Gunther began photographing women in South Africa from the very start. Her first work was a portrait series of a female friend battling cancer. To take breaks from this intense experienec, she began exploring the neigbhorhoods nearby the hospital. There, she discovered Ruthy and began a series on the local church brigade.

Once she became tapped into the gay network of Cape Town, a whole world opened up to her. She was getting phone calls from strangers asking to be photographed, hearing about lesbian beauty pageants and diving into academic research from all over the world.

One day, Gunther received a phone call and was told about an interesting subject for a portrait. The person over the phone said, “I used to play football with her — she must be gay.” Although Tara and Gunther had never met, Tara invited her into her home. The two immediately clicked and an award-winning photograph was made.

The work is currently being exhibited at the Public Library in Amsterdam, in the International Homo-Lesbian Information Center and Archive. Gunther would love to show the work in Cape Town or somewhere else in South Africa because she believes the work needs to be shown in its home, where it was made. Although South Africa is a positive frontrunner for gay rights in Africa, there is, of course, much work left to be done. In Gunther’s words, “The more people that try to point at these issues, from all different perspectives, and can share that work with the world, the better it will be for everyone involved.”

—Alexander Strecker

Winner’s Profile: Zoran Marinovic

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Child Soldiers. From the series “Kids” © Zoran Marinovic. 3rd place, Single Image Category, 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards

Editor’s Note: Zoran Marinovic’s image won 3rd prize in the Single Image Category at the 2013 LensCulture Exposure Awards. Be sure to see all the other winners’ and finalists’ work on our dedicated winner’s page. And if you can, join us in London on April 3rd for our exhibition of all the winners and finalists, “31 Contemporary Photographers“.

 

At the age of 18, Zoran Marinovic took part in the Croatian War of Independence. From there, Marinovic’s lifelong focus on conflict and documentary was born. He started his career as a cameraman. His first film project was shot in Sierra Leone, titled “Diamonds from Hell.” Since then, Marinovic has had a long-running involvement with the African continent but his work has taken him far and wide: he filmed interviews with General Prado (the man who captured Che Guevara), talked about the film industry with Francis Ford Coppola and documented people’s stories from around the world.

As a photographer, Marinovic believes his goal is “to seek with eyes wide open, to explore the world, and testify to the times.” While he has spent a lifetime working in documentary and photo- (or film)journalism, he does not believe in non-intervention. He always strives to extend his connection with his subject after clicking the shutter button. For example, in Congo, he helped support a literacy program dedicated to the female victims of war.

Indeed, the Democratic Republic of Congo has become the main focus of Marinovic’s work in the past few years. As one of the most violent (but resource-rich) countries in the world, Marinovic feels a strong sense of importance when working in the country. “It is a corner of the world where a twelve year-old boy’s only toy is a Kalashnikov, a place where you can buy immortality for a handful of dollars from a local priest. A place where hungry Pygmies become food to the stronger ones among them, where diamond mines are full of slaves captured in any number of numerous wars. A place where every year hundreds of children are being burned on charges of witchcraft.

While Marinovic has made both films and photographs, he believes that the photographic image has a special power. In Marinovic’s words, “Photography, in a single instant, has the ability to tell the fate of a whole nation.” Although documentary photography promises to proliferate even more in the coming years with the universal spread of digital cameras, Marinovic believes in the power of narrative and involvement. A certain attitude, a subjective approach, an infinite patience will always be important, no matter how many photographs are made.

—Alexander Strecker

Grozny: 9 Cities & Multimedia Storytelling

In the past few years, we have seen multimedia/interactive documentary experiences proliferate across mainstream media. From NYTimes Op Docs to the Guardian’s interactive, informational guides, artists and photojournalists are striving to combine the power of visual storytelling with an immersive and informative digital experience.

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Men attend screening of a football game in a cafe in downtown Grozny. City of Men.

Meanwhile, Chechnya has been represented in photojournalistic efforts repeatedly in the past two decades: from Stanley Greene’s masterpiece Open Wound all the way to the recently published Spasibo by Davide Monteleone. Because of the region’s complex history, multi-layered identities, and bellwether status vis-à-vis Russian expansionism, the region has been a lightning rod for photojournalists. And yet, even the best attempts at photographically cataloguing the region have fallen short or, at least, revealed deficits in the medium’s capacity for representation.

At LensCulture, we are interested not only in photography as such, but in the intersections between photography, storytelling, technology — in short, in the ever-evolving global visual language. We will be highlighting several multimedia presentations in the coming months, but I wanted to begin with a project titled “Grozny: 9 Cities”. Chechnya, as a region rife with cultural, religious, political, and historical complexities serves as the perfect subject for such a multi-faceted approach. At its conceptual heart, “Grozny: 9 Cities” embraces its subject’s many-layered nature. The project was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s book, Theophilus North, and centers on the idea of nine cities being hidden in one. The concept allowed the project’s artists to explore many specific aspects of contemporary Grozny without feeling like any one view was wholly defining.

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A Russian lady sitting inside a Russian Orthodox church in downtown Grozny after the Christmas service. City of Strangers.

The nine cities, ranging from the city of war, to the city of women, to the city of strangers, are represented in the project through differing but parallel photos, videos and texts. In other words, a variety of perspectives on a city and a place which cannot be captured from just one viewpoint. The newly built interactive web platform allows for a self-directed, multimedia exploration through the complicated nature of Grozny and modern-day Chechnya.

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Girls wearing T-shirts with picture of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. City of Servants.

Although the still image, with all of its instantaneous force and clarifying vision will continue to play a central role in photography, photojournalism, and all visual storytelling, the future of multimedia narrativity is an exciting one which we intend to follow with great enthusiasm.

—Alexander Strecker


Editor’s Note: Besides exploring the web platform, be sure to check out the project’s Facebook page for more information about the project — contact information, upcoming exhibitions and so on.

We are happy to see how far this project has progressed since it won the Grand Prize in the Multimedia category at the 2011 Exposure Awards. Congratulations to the artists for their dedication, perseverance and continuing success!

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Small dancers are dancing for the security forces during World War II Victory Day celebrations in Grozny. City of Servants.

Paris and Brassaï: Romanticism & Reality, Past & Present

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Tour Eiffel © Estate Brassaï

Paris, as usual, has no shortage of worthwhile photography exhibitions to see at the moment: a Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective at the Pompidou Center, a Robert Adams exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, and a soon-to-open show featuring Martin Parr’s work at the MEP. Meanwhile, at the Hotel de Ville, Paris’ city hall, a small but persistently mobbed exhibition has been showing since the start of November. Hoping to avoid the crowds, I arrived at the exhibition on a Monday morning, 5 minutes before opening. I quickly found myself at the end of an already snaking line. From my spot, I could barely make out the words on a distant sign which read, “From this point, expect a 30 minute wait”.

So, what was the cause for these endless lines and adoring crowds? “Brassaï: For the Love of Paris”. For a city that welcomes more tourists than any other and trades so heavily in nostalgia and charm, the match between the exhibition’s promise (see the advertising image below) and the audience’s desires (romance in The City of Love) was a strong one — and thus, the crowds.

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Couple d’amoureux dans un bistrot, rue Saint-Denis © Estate Brassaï

The exhibition tips its nostalgic hand early. In the first room, it is revealed that Brassaï’s love affair with Paris began as a very young child. Although Brassaï spent most of his youth in Transylvania, with the name Gyula Halász, he spent a year of his childhood in Paris at the turn of the century — “The Paris of Marcel Proust”. With his father installed for a year as a literature professor at the Sorbonne, the young Brassaï was free to play in the Luxembourg gardens and luxuriate in the city’s abounding elegance. Once Brassaï returned to Paris at the age of 25, he would never again to return to his native land.

Among his many photographic interests, Brassaï was intent on trying to recapture or recreate the golden images of his youth. Many of his photos are attempts of finding remnants of the Belle Epoque city which he remembered so fondly. Thus, we see venerable, monocle-wearing gentleman at the racetrack or romantic photographs of children pushing boats in the Luxembourg gardens. These pictures from the 20s and 30s hang next to dozens of vintage prints from the Halász family collection which date from the late 19th century. Even more quaintly than Brassaï’s work, these early photographs convey the driving force behind Brassaï’s hunt for the past.

Although these comparisons are interesting, they seem to confirm the charge of Paris as a museum city. The remarkable sameness present in the Halász snapshots, Brassaï’s photographs and my own images of iconic Parisian landmarks underscored the unchanging aspect of the city. Was Brassaï merely photographing a postcard fantasy? For every shot of a couple in sweet embrace, I thought savagely, “She’s probably a prostitute”.

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 © Estate Brassaï

But quickly, Brassaï and the exhibition reach past the gleam and glow of the city’s mythologized façade. By the time the exhibition showcases Brassaï’s obsession with the city’s graffiti, it becomes clear that something more interesting is going on. Brassaï, in studying and cataloguing the rudimentary markings found around the city, thought he had discovered the world’s greatest gallery of primitive art. A bit later, another picturesque couple share a stolen kiss on a bench. On the other side of the same bench lies an easily overlooked, but central pile of rags: a homeless man trying to get some sleep. While the more immediately beautiful pictures seem to conjure up a bygone era, Brassaï was also confronting and capturing the modern city that surrounded him.

One of the most captivating photographs in the whole exhibition comes from backstage at the Folies-Bergere. Brassaï captures the performers on one side and their mirrored reflection on the other. In the reflection, we can see how the performers’ figures interplay against the painted backdrop. The performers, even when casually and naturally relaxing backstage, begin to transform into the picturesque before our very eyes — the line between appearance and reality becomes blurry, dream-like.

FoliesBergere2Backstage at the Folies-Bergere © Estate Brassaï

This layering effect holds just as true today. The cobblestones are still on the streets and many of the facades have not changed much since Proust’s day. In some places, 1894, 1934 and 2014 are not so different. For example, Place de Concorde has had its iconic Egyptian obelisk since 1836. And yet, the Paris that exists in our heads as a romanticized backdrop is fronted by a living, changing urban fabric. While the Egyptian obelisk hasn’t moved in 180 years, the carriages have turned into motorcars have turned into Smartcars while a metro rumbles below.

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Place de la Concorde, Obélisque © Estate Brassaï

Brassaï, in writing about Proust at the end of his life, revealed his obsession with the passing of time. Thus, what turns out to be the most telling photograph of all is a self-portrait of the photographer from 1930. In the picture, Brassaï is both present and already disappearing. With photography, he was able to momentarily arrest the march of time, even while acknowledging (in his own disappearing self-portrait), that this is impossible. And fitting that this photo should be taken in Paris — nowhere else does time seem to stand still so beautifully as in the City of Light. But even if the city iconically, romantically endures, it is also inevitably disappearing, changing, growing in front of our eyes. Although “For the Love of Paris” has whiffs of the postcard, the cheesy love letter, the cheap souvenir, it is, more fundamentally, a beautiful, aching reminder of our constant, impossible longing to make time stand still, if only for a moment.

—Alexander Strecker

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Autoportrait, 1930 © Estate of Brassaï

Lessons from a First Time Portfolio Reviewer

Hugo Aymar, City Inside Paris

City Inside Paris © Hugo Aymar

This past Sunday, I took part in the portfolio reviews offered in conjunction with the Circulation(s) festival in Paris. In the span of four hours, I met 11 different photographers. They ranged in age, experience, and interests: from a young, recently graduated photojournalist, to a middle-aged hobbyist who had become deeply invested in a single project. Despite their diversity, there were a few themes which ran through many of my discussions. Although no advice applies to every photographer, I hope that different bits might be helpful to people in different stages of their photographic passions.

1) Do it for yourself.

Many of the photographers I met were anxious to learn how to “make it”. They wanted to know how to find a book publisher or a galleryist. They were focused on supporting themselves solely as professional photographers. I told each of them: do it for yourself.

The happiest person I met at the review began pursuing photography two years ago after a career in publishing. She showed me the beginnings of several different projects: a documentary series, conceptual self-portraits, photographs of caged animals. She was exploring the field and exploring herself. To support herself, she had found a part-time job. Before quitting her publishing career and pursuing photography, she had been nervous about living on a part-time salary and dedicating so much time to something that wouldn’t make any money. She discovered she could support herself comfortably and was happier than ever. She knew that she had a lot of work ahead of her but she didn’t seem in a rush to “make it”. She was doing it for herself and loving it.

I also met a photographer who had just published his first photobook. How? He bought a small black journal from a stationary store and pasted in an entire series onto the small pages. Presto! Photobook. He was very pleased with the book’s intimacy and its obvious hand-made feeling. Again, a project he did for himself.

Everyone needs to make enough money to support themselves — and that amount can vary a lot depending on an individual’s circumstances. And for many, photography will not provide that money in the short run. In fact, financially self-sustaining photography might have to wait for one, two, ten years. It might never happen. In the meanwhile, the daily goal and motivation shouldn’t be the big financial break — it should be about finding ways to pursue your creative expression and doing something for yourself, regardless of the financial gain.

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                                         Automne 2013  © Jimmy Seng

2) Look at other photographer’s work.

Many of the photographers I met were coming to the field from an amateur background. Some were nervous about their lack of formal art education. I told them that a university degree is not a requirement for a career in photography. But I did notice one thing: many of these people were lacking in a photographic vocabulary. The best way to begin building your sense of the language of photography is to look at other photographer’s work.

Even if you find your inspiration comes from cinema or literature or your personal experiences, it’s essential to look at other photographers’ work. Even if you don’t feel directly influenced or inspired by them, it’s important to understand what others are doing and how they’re doing it. If you have any hope of sharing your photographic expression with others, it’s important to understand the ways in which other people are communicating their ideas through photographs, in the photographic language.

There are many ways to begin learning more about photography. Of course, there’s LensCulture, a daily dose of the best in contemporary photography from around the world. Besides, there are a host of other great websites that focus on more specific genres. It’s also important to see work in person, in printed form. Go to museum exhibitions or gallery shows whenever you get the chance. Although these tend to focus on bigger names, they are important for giving you a sense of the history and development in the medium. To look at work more intimately, try to find photobooks. These might be at a bookstore or a museum gift shop. Wherever you can find them, photobooks are an essential way to understand how established professional photographers conceive of their finished projects.

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Boy Toys © Alex Morvan

3) Collaborate

Throughout my day of reviewing, photographers told me again and again how happy they were to talk about their work, even if only for 20 minutes. This told me that a lot of photographers lack for opportunities to share their work with others. This is especially true for those who didn’t have the opportuntiy to obtain a degree and work closely with a small group for a long period of time.

This is where photography workshops can be very valuable. These workshops, offered by photography professionals all over the world, on all sorts of different subjects, create the feeling of a full-time university course while demanding a much smaller investment of time and money. The workshop gives you the chance to collaborate with a small group of people who share your passion in the span of a week or even a few days. The benefits of a workshop do not have to end when the workshop is over. The lasting effects are that you meet other people who share your love for photography and who you can continue to collaborate with after you’ve returned to your daily life.

Although a lot of artistic work feels like a personal journey and an intensely introspective process, it’s invaluable to talk about your ideas with others. These conversations bring you different inspiration and keep the ideas fresh and alive in your mind. Pursue collaboration and stimulating relationships wherever you can.

 

Finally, portfolio reviews are an excellent way to push yourself. At Circulation(s), each photographer had the chance to meet 3-5 reviewers in a single day — magazine editors, gallery owners, festival curators and so on. In a few hours, they received intense but varied feedback on their work from many different perspectives. Every participant I met was so happy that they took part.

The photographs in this post are just a tiny fraction of what I saw while reviewing portfolios — and only in the span of a single day! So, look out for portfolio reviews near you and share these tidbits with other impassioned photographers out there.

—Alexander Strecker

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10 Years After Kabul © Sandra Calligaro

The Place We Live: Tension and Balance in Robert Adams’ Work

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Northeast of Keota, Colorado © Robert Adams

“…a landscape into which all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly”

—Robert Adams

With these words opens the latest retrospective on Robert Adams’ work, “The Place We Live”. The argument of the exhibition, which curator Joshua Chuang is at pains to emphasize over and over again, is that Robert Adams’ work is dictated by balance, makes attempts at documentary neutrality, is marked by mixtures (rather than absolutes), and is dedicated “to discover[ing] a tension so exact that it is peace”. Does Adams’ work, and the exhibition, achieve what it sets out to do? There is plenty of tension in this exhibition, but the kind of perfect tension towards which Adams strives — the exact, peaceful kind — is only achieved sporadically, in his very best works.

Tensions were ever-present throughout Robert Adams’s intellectual and creative development. At a young age, he professed a desire to become a minister. After abandoning this dream, he studied for a PhD and became a college English professor. He settled down to university life in Colorado Springs, Colorado, while innocently taking up photography as a hobby. After just a couple of years, his pastime became serious. Within a few years, he would stop teaching altogether. The turning point came upon returning to Colorado after a trip to Sweden, when he saw the environment around his home in a new light. In particular, he felt that nature’s delicate balance was in jeopardy (or had been destroyed already) in the quickly developing, booming western United States. Whereas his American landscape photographer forefathers (Timothy O’SullivanWilliam Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams) captured unspoiled, unparalleled beauty, Robert Adams was confronted by rampant commercialization, short-sighted greed, and insatiable materialism.

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Pikes Peak, Colorado Springs, Colorado © Robert Adams

But Adams, from his very earliest works, knew that he wanted to capture not only what man had destroyed but what remained of nature. He wanted to show how nature adapts and how we could become better stewards. In short, he wanted to show how “all fragments, no matter how imperfect, fit perfectly.”

Try as he might, his long career is a testament to the difficulty of expressing this delicate aesthetic vision. His attempts at striking the perfect balance between judgment and impersonal critique, hope and despair, equanimity and anger reach varying degrees of success.

At their worst, or least balanced, Adams’ photographs are argumentative, definitive, and self-righteous. Whether overtly partaking in environmental, political campaigns or judging an entire region’s way of life, these photographs sound an undeniable note of judgment. Despite my personal agreement with his opinions, the pictures that he makes in the name of a cause, to stake out an argument, or for a single purpose are consistently flat, mean, and sad. Whether one-linerish (“man litters, man is bad”), old-fashioned, or isolationist, these photos present nothing new to the viewer. A picture of a chopped down tree, while certainly a tragedy, is not necessarily a good picture. The cover (below) of his seminal book What We Bought epitomizes this strain in his work: while the series overall contains many great, balanced, subtle photos, the front cover shows a trash littered fast-food restaurant parking lot. Are fast-food parking lots pathetic monuments to human waste? Absolutely. Is taking an ugly, angry picture the best way to do something about it though?

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Untitled, cover of the book “What We Bought” © Robert Adams

No. At his best, Adams presents a balanced, calming way forward. In these photos, we can feel that he is at peace with his surroundings, and in turn, he makes us feel at peace too. What’s particularly striking about Adams’ masterpieces is how they perfectly, better than any words, convey Adams’ description of a “tension so exact that it is peace”. While his “angry” photos contain the very straightforward tension of argumentation, the best photos are immeasurably simpler and more complex.

While all the prints in the exhibition are quite small (especially given the landscape genre), the best photos are unparalleled, compact studies in composition, form and light. These masterpieces, although simple at first glance, work their magic at any distance. They are harmonious wholes whether scrutinized inch by inch or taken as a grandly (yet minutely) unified whole. They contain equal measures of hope and despair and yet leave us feeling refreshed and enlightened on the other side. They neither fume nor rage, they merely present — and in doing so, leave us the better for our short time spent with them.

Colorado
New tracts, west edge of Denver, Colorado © Robert Adams

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Oven Bird”, ends with some relevant lines:

The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

For straightforward, unabashed splendor, Ansel Adams’ luscious landscapes have few peers. For mind-numbing, extravagantly presented environmental crusading, the work of Edward Burtynsky is an excellent place to start. But when Robert Adams is able to harness his (justified) anger and find a way to balance and mix it with the fragmentary beauty that remains in this world, he achieves something much more nuanced than zealous, monocular change-mongering. He counsels us in peace, calm, acceptance and balance. His best pictures, “in all but words” help us feel our way towards what to make of a diminished thing.

—Alexander Strecker

Adams Ocean
Southwest from the South Jetty, Clatsop County, Oregon © Robert Adams

Editor’s note: The exhibition is accompanied by an impressively comprehensive catalogue, “The Place We Live: A Retrospective Selection of Photographs,”, published by Steidl.