Initial project proposal
I sent the following project brief to my tutor before starting the project:
I’d like to use this assignment as an exploration of unnoticed, un-photographed but essential elements of our man-altered landscape. I’d like to try and continue the adage of the New Topographic movement in the modern day in which every detail is documented. I plan on documenting the undersides of bridges, street-side bins and bus shelters. I’d like to show how man-made structures with the same purpose can differ.
In particular, I had this idea when listening to the words of Lewis Baltz. His photography captured, “material that people filtered out” and “things that were marginalised … things that were off of the scene, that were never observed, were never spoken about because they were so ordinary and quotidian, because they were so commonplace.”.
I will be using my local county of Sussex, which includes a variety of different environments within a relatively accessible distance. I can choose from Chichester to Brighton and up to Horsham.
I will be exploring urban spaces on foot and more rural locations in my car. I will use the internet -in particular, Google Maps- to scout out locations and how to access them. Aside from some bridges, everywhere I shoot will be publicly accessible.
I’d like to explore the commonalities and differences in man-made structures that share the same purpose.
My tutor responded, “Your proposal is fine, I’m intrigued to see how you get on.”
The idea for this assignment grew from my appreciation of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work in the New Topographic movement. I spoke about them in detail during Assignment 4.
A comment in the Guardian stood out to me during my earlier research into the couple. “The Bechers approached photography the way a botanist might approach the cataloguing of flora and fauna.” (O’Hagan, 2014) When I began the ‘Landscape’ unit, I was under the impression that the format of the work would be exclusively rural and classic. Discovering the Bechers widened my eyes to the extent of what landscape photography could encompass. Their work is so unusual within the genre and that distancing and uniqueness really appealed to my own creativity.
As part of the New Topographic movement in the 1970s, the Bechers explored the effect of man on nature through photographs of urban development. In particular, they shot the industrial architecture that was popping up across the previously empty natural landscape.
The Bechers approached this work using typology, the collation of multiple singular subjects within a single set of photographs. Their impact lies within “[prompting] us to pause to reflect on similarities and subtle differences” (Photographic Typologies: The Study of Types, 2012) in similar buildings, items, places etc. “Typologies not only recorded a moment in time, they prompted the viewer to consider the subject’s place in the world.” (Photographic Typologies: The Study of Types, 2012) For the Bechers in 20th Century America, this meant subjects like the water towers and gas tanks that were increasingly common across the country.
Interestingly, whilst the Bechers had a number of photographers as students of their school, ‘Kunstakademie Dusseldorf’ none of them continued with that typology approach.“Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Axel Hutte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth modified the approach of their teachers by applying new technical possibilities and a personal and contemporary vision, while retaining the documentary method their tutors propounded.” (Dusseldorf School of Photography, n.d.) In fact, whilst the Bechers “defined a style [that] made them one of the most dominant influences in contemporary European photography and art” (O’Hagan, 2014) in the 20th Century, the use of ‘typology’ has been largely forgotten. There are however, still a handful of photographers who use the format today.
One of those is American photographer Jeff Brouws who has in his own words, “compiled a visual survey of America’s evolving rural, urban and suburban cultural landscapes … compiling typologies to index the nation’s character.” (Brouws, n.d.) In his typological work, ‘Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations’ Brouws copies the idea of (another New Topographic member) Ed Ruscha in capturing these structures across America. The two works “share an aesthetic sensibility in the way both artists employ a deadpan, neutral gaze”. (Jeff Brouws Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations, 2016)
Another example is Oxford-based Steve Tyler who has used typology outside landscapes. He instead photographs typologies of ‘Mass Consumption’; discarded cigarettes, can openers and crumpled receipts to name a few.
What is unseen anymore?
The world in the 21st Century is vastly different from the 20th- with the proliferation of mobile phones with cameras and social media. Every aspect of life is recorded and documented. Kait Williamson of Georgetown University states, “Today, many use photography as an obsession and norm of documentation” (Silverman, 2015) which can be seen en masse on applications such as Instagram and Facebook. In the Guardian, Jacob Silverman writes, “The cultural premium now placed on recording and broadcasting one’s life … means that Facebook timelines are suffused with postings about meals, workouts, the weather, recent purchases [etc].” (Williamson, 2014)
To say that that every single item and experience in the world has been documented by photography is no-longer an overstatement. Silverman sums up the thinking behind this all-encompassing documentation as, “what matters is not so much the content of your updates but their existing at all.” (Williamson, 2014) As such, when I began to consider what the modern equivalent of the Becher’s new frontier of photography would be, I struggled. I asked myself “What is not photographed?”
After a lot of thought, I settled on the topic of infrastructure, specifically public bins, bus shelters and the undersides of bridges; their supports. I noticed that generally these weren’t recorded, perhaps because our interaction with them is so different than the more positive elements of life that generally people want to express.
Form Follows Function
‘Form follows function’ is a principle that was developed in the 20th Century to express how architectural design should work. This meant that the design of a building or structure should first and foremost reflect its intended use. ‘Form’ was far less important.
As society has modernised so has architecture with it. We now see more and more buildings designed with looks in mind. As we have perfected our standard blocks of structures we have moved into changing their form. These days it’s as important to focus on aesthetics as it is to cover the function of a building.
What becomes apparent when exploring the urban environment is that certain aspects of our infrastructure are given greater aesthetic importance than others. Buildings and skyscrapers offer a visual premium compared to the smaller, less-interacted-with elements of daily life. A question I found myself asking was, “does infrastructure attempt to be visually pleasing?”
When researching my topics of choice it became apparent that the things we interact with less look worse than those we see or interact with more. The bus shelters are by far the most engineered, the simple ‘box’ design built in many different ways. Our time spent around and inside these shelters give more importance to the design, which has lead to them being designed more sympathetically. On the other hand, public bins are entirely built around their limited function. As a society, we don’t interact with bins for any meaningful amount of time, which is reflected by their lack of alternate designs. Taking this further, the undersides and supports for road bridges are purely mechanical and seperate from our use above.
It is our interaction and the amount of it that dictates design in the modern day. Whilst road bridges are generally concrete blocks on supports, pedestrian bridges are increasingly more design-lead.
Response to Brief
At its simplest, I wish to put my own stamp on typology and in some ways ‘modernise’ the approach that the Bechers had originally. Their work was compositionally simple, monochrome and brightly lit. My work is typically long-exposure based and with the strong colouring that that brings with it. As such, I plan on using the Becher ‘framework’ of infrastructure topography whilst shooting with my typical style.
Whilst the Bechers photographed large industrial buildings, I’ve chosen to focus on the smaller, more integrated parts of infrastructure.
I’m hoping that the outcome will be a sense that topography can work in the 21st century and that it won’t seem so unusual in print.
My work would exist in a gallery space and likely be seen by the average visitor to that type of establishment. I’m not sure that the work is original or interesting enough to draw more of a specialist crowd than that. I think that, in terms of mindset, I’d be looking to advertise my work to millennials, particularly those who generally document their lives through Instagram etc, as I mentioned earlier.
In terms of the treatment, I will be using different equipment depending on the subject as I’m aware some will be closer or further from me and some will be lit quite differently. For the bridges at night, a mix of a 55mm and a 21mm will be used depending on how close I can get to them. For the bins, I am confident of where I can stand to photograph them, so I will exclusively rely on the 55mm. For the bus stops in the daytime, a 24-70mm zoom should allow me to shoot regardless of situation. In addition, for the night photography I will use a tripod to steady the shots.
My budget needs only to cover any petrol I’ll need- likely one single refill which would cost approximately £35. I won’t incur any costs in presenting the work as it will be entirely digital.
I have done extensive research into finding each subject and mapping them into the best routes possible for me to complete each set.
I’m unsure about the lack of creativity that may show though if I rigidly stick to the classic Becher format of documentation; of all subjects from the same angle. I won’t be sure of how much of a problem this would be until putting the sets together after having taken the photographs.
Reading about the ‘White Cube’ earlier in the unit reinforced it as my favourite way to present photographs. The absolute core of this work is my variation on the Becher’s original work. With so much of this assignment being based on their work, how better to present the topography than to emulate their presentation. This means approaching it from ‘the white cube’ and laying out the sets separately in grids.
Still not totally sure of how I wanted the bus shelter set to look when finished, I made sure to take each subject from multiple angles. This gave me more options in post than I’ve had during previous assignments.
Taking my tutor’s previous advice about restricting myself less, I decided to take multiple angles of each subject. The Bechers did in fact occasionally photograph from different angles but these shots aren’t nearly as distinctive or well known. I found that the alternate angles I went for didn’t work well visually- perhaps because they seem less ‘typical’.
Anxiety, stress, depression. I never had an escape from myself until I bought my first camera. What began as an occasional hobby has become an integral part of my life- I explore the world through my camera, with which I have the most unusual experiences and adventures. My night-time long-exposure photography lets me capture the night as clear as day and often gives a unique perspective on scenes seen many times before.
In this set, titled “Becher’s Belief” I’ve begun to think about how my personal voice can develop when considering the work of other practitioners. Using the New Topographic photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher as a template, I have put my stamp on the banality of some of our modern-day infrastructure.
Here are the completed sets:
Each singular shot can be found in greater detail here.
It’s impossible to assess the sets I’ve taken without direct comparison to the original work of the Bechers. Whilst I’ve piggy-backed on their ideas and made a general ‘modern’ take on their ideas, I can’t help but realise that my sets are a poor facsimile. To compare something so important and defining as their work to my own vague variant seems almost distasteful. I have succeeded in what I set out to, but the sets feel empty without the important artistic heft of the originals.
I’d hazard a guess that the shots can be looked at more favourably within a gallery context; the overall theme taking some of the weight that the singular shots can’t carry.
The bridge set works best because visually they are the closest to the originals. The subjects in their locations contain less background noise and are more akin to the stand-alone structures that the Bechers photographed.
Initially I felt that my interest and comfort in night photography would make a difference to some of the work; the lighting and colour differences giving my versions their ‘stamp’. Instead the time of day feels unnecessary and doesn’t give any real extra meaning or personal context. I wonder if they would look less out of place if I had made the Bus Shelter set in colour rather than monochrome. These Bins now look out of place in a overarching piece of work that should show differences in similarities. I’ve missed the mark there.
I was disappointed when I found that many of the bins were so similar. Originally I had imagined that whilst they all look the same, their immediate environment would differ. If I were completing the assignment again, I’d spread myself out more; learn the dates of bin collection to capture some overflowing and cast a wider net in terms of the area I shot in.
I took my shots of the bridges on two separate occasions and whilst the natural ambient lighting was the same, my ability to interact with the scenes changed from one outing to another. On the first, I was able to light the bridges with a torch. What I found with my second set was that the roads were too busy to light without causing trouble for drivers. This has lead to some of the shots not quite matching in terms of lighting. I would attempt to capture the second set at a much later time and avoid any traffic.
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