Saturday, 21 January 2012

Looking at Art 1: Zarina Bhimji at the Whitechapel

Looking at Art: personal and opinionated rambles on what I've seen, probably with a lot of reference to my own work...

Zarina Bhimji at the Whitechapel Gallery, London - until March 9, 2012

I went to London's Whitechapel Gallery yesterday to see the Zarina Bhimji exhibition, plus a talk from the artist. I had heard her name from time to time, but wasn't overly familiar with her work.

The large scale prints give the galleries a similar feel to the recent Paul Graham and Thomas Struth shows there. It's rare to see a major photographic artist these days who doesn't shoot and print in a large format. With someone like Thomas Struth, whose images are considered, carefully composed and shot on large format film, this can work really well. With Bhimji, who seems to shoot in a much more offhand manner, the large pictures only exaggerated some of the problems I had with the prints.

Over the last year, as I have exhibited and sold my work, I have really become comfortable with shooting the images I do, and more confident in my art. It's inevitable that I'd compare other people's work to my own, if only on a personal level. It's impossible to say which art is 'better' or 'worse', as it's so subjective. However, I did note that, where for me personally, composition and object placement in the image is extremely important to, it seemed less so to Bhimji. 

In some images, focus fell out in places where you wouldn't expect it to, or something that should have been nice and square was just a bit off, not enough to look like a purposeful decision, but distracting in such large prints. In others, skewed or warped perspectives like the ones below add a vertiginous slant or a warped perspective, detracting from the strengths of the pictures.

Howling like dogs, I swallowed solid air, 2009. © Zarina Bhimji 2009. All Rights Reserved, DACS
Bapa Closed His Heart, It Was Over, 2001-6. © Zarina Bhimji. All Rights Reserved
Listening to her speak, the impression was that she is very careful about point of view, light, colour and the context of the subject matter, and this does show through in the lovely images.

The thing is, a problems like the ones above are easily solved on the day by choosing your perspective and a suitable lens. I had noted all this before the talk, but the strange thing was I didn't feel I could ask her about it, as I didn't know her work well enough - it seemed disrespectful to talk about the skewed lines and mis-centred, misaligned subjects in a show which has only around 20 pictures from a 25 year period. 

With Thomas Struth, who I saw speak last year, I was happy to ask him questions as I knew his work better. Both Struth and Bhimji are both complete strangers to me, but I feel I know Struth more on a personal level through his art.

The major part of the exhibition is Bhimji's new film 'Yellow Patch'. For me, this was streets ahead of the still images. Presented in a cinematic space with surround sound and a super-sharp image, Bhimji explores similar abandoned buildings and spaces, but with perfect dolly trails across the space, or zooms in and out, with lovely symmetry that perfectly suited the subjects. There's also an ideology behind it - see the info at the end of this post.

In fact, it's undeniable that the quality and composition of the images in the film were much more carefully composed - and the film was all the more beautiful for it. It's one of the most photographic films I've seen, shot with a wonderful, analytical, careful eye, which makes the carefree snapshot-y nature of the large prints even more of a shame. The film seemed much more reverent and respectful, and made the images much stronger and more affecting.

Upstairs, there's an earlier film 'Out of Blue' that explores similar territory - you can see some of it here. The projection there is from a DVD transfer and after immersing myself in the luscious film downstairs, it was so full of ghosting and artefacts to be almost unwatchable. What was interesting was that it features some of the compositions shown in the prints, but here they came to life and moved - for example the image below is a print downstairs - upstairs it pans left and everything comes to life. It was an interesting experience - one I don't remember seeing before.

Your Sadness is Drunk, 2001-6. © Zarina Bhimji. All Rights Reserved
One thing that came up in the talk that interested me was when the oft-repeated question about the absence of people in images was asked, Bhimji replied 'taking pictures of people is boring'. A contentious answer that raised a few laughs, but got me thinking again about why I don't have people in my own images. 

The films brought to mind Jane and Louise Wilson, who explore similar visual territory. They do feature people though, and this brings a narrative that for me, isn't always welcome. People can't help bringing their own performance into a picture - even if they are unaware of it being taken. It's why a portrait is a collaboration between the sitter and the photographer. I want control of my image, and unless a person is important to the image, I deliberately won't include them.

So, wonderful film, some nice pictures, and lots for me to think about... 

Here's some more info about Yellow Patch, from the Gallery wall -

Friday, 6 January 2012

Harvest of 2010 Part Seven - Staying Centred Amongst the Chaos

Harvest of 2010
Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five - Part Six - Part Seven

The final part of my review of 2010...

4001 - London, England, 2010
To me, a really sunny bright day in early winter is a blessing, it's a light like no other. Clear blue skies and a sharp, crisp light and shade that you just don't get in summer. It can make for more dramatic pictures, and really helps with an unfussy, straightforward subject like this.

4005 - London, England, 2010
I use those sharp shadows a lot when they fall at an angle across a wall. Here the lovely colour and shape of the lamp is enough for me, but the shadow gives it another dimension, diagonally across the straight bricks.

A note here about the composition - I hear a lot about never putting things in the centre of a composition - it's one of the 'rules of photography'. After 20 years of taking pictures, I don't really see the need, or even the use of these rules, particularly for beginners - it's up to the photographer to make those decisions on the spot. For me, something will sometimes benefit from being central, sometimes not, sometimes closer, sometimes further away, sometimes with something else, sometimes on it's own. It all depends on the 'weight' of the elements in the composition, and I can't really explain what I mean by that.

4007 - London, England, 2010
Another delightful shadow. There's an absence here that seems even lonelier when something else nearby is reaching out with a dark shadow, raking across the empty surface through the day. Not vague or fuzzy, a crisp outline with those definite edges. There's an epic quality to the minute details on the wall, putting them into focus like this creates drama from the craters and cracks.

4008 - London, England, 2010
An endlessly interesting picture. So ordered - evenly composed paving stones, a 4x4 red grid nice and square, the glass ascending so perfectly 4,6,8. So chaotic - the greenery out of control, one window pane missing, one broken, two replaced out of symmetry, the vent on the roof off centre, the reflection all over the place. Such a mess, and still so ordered.

4015 - London, England, 2010
I think one of the best things that has happened to my photography in the last few years is the branching out in so many new directions. Part of this may be down to going digital in 2009 - more scope for experimentation without keeping one eye on the costs. Anyway, here's a composition I couldn't see myself trying just a few years before. In the past, I've been all about straight-on shots, organised images. This one is all over the place, and all the better for it - it seems very much in motion. Like some images coming next, it looks like a composite of different images put together - it's not, but the situation there did feel like two worlds meeting, and completely ignoring each other.

4018 - London, England, 2010
I took a few shots of these pipes - all those colours were just fantastic. You can still see some drips on the fence for the recent rain, and otherwise dull and dirty colours are often heightened and brightened by being wet. It was really interesting making and choosing compositions - this was my favourite of them.

4019 - London, England, 2010

4021 - London, England, 2010
These two shots are more like records of strange, but real things. The first, 4019, looked almost as weird as this in reality, but stranger still here with most of the sky taken away. Like 4008 above, what seems at first to be a very balanced image soon falls apart the longer you look.
And 4021 - who knows what happened here? You can make your own story, but what we are left with is an illustration of ingenuity, and I hope, an interesting composition.

4022 - London, England, 2010
Absence again. Something has been here, but there's nothing left of any use. When a picture is as white as this, you work all the harder to find detail I think. And there's that central composition again - clearly becoming a major concern for me in late 2010.

4023 - Lymington, Hampshire, England, 2010
Like a lot of the pictures we've looked at in Harvest of 2010, here you get half a story - why is this like it is?

4037 - Lymington, Hampshire, England, 2010
More so than many of my images, I can't help seeing this one more meaningfully - a thoughtful image about pathways, decisions and alternatives.

4038 - Lymington, Hampshire, England, 2010
Busy, busy, busy. A total mess of road markings, it's been so many things, so many colours, over the years. Here I've brought a bit of order to show the disorder.

4040 - Lymington, Hampshire, England, 2010
Dynamic compositions are sometimes made for me, and I just can't pass them by - even if it means standing in heavy traffic, waiting for a car free shot. With all my road marking images, I'm fascinated by how often the bold layouts and clear designs are fudged by globs of paint and uneven lines from a brush or machine.

4042 - London, England, 2010
As I mentioned in Part Three, peeling paint can be dodgy ground for a photographer, an easy option leading to a creative dead end. But of course, as I said, rules are made to broken. A lovely patch of paint. It's initially hard to say whether the blue or white is underneath, or which is dominant. The directions and volume of the peel keeps this one interesting for me - I also find the false perspective a little confusing.

4046 - London, England, 2010
At the end of 2010, with a few weeks to go until my first Doors and Windows exhibition, I was keeping an eye out for new ones to include. But trying to create them, rather than letting them occur naturally down the years didn't really work. This was the best of them I think - a nice, balanced image - and even this one didn't make the show!

4048 - London, England, 2010
I like how the doorbell is central here, which throws the tiles off centre. Another neat meeting of two worlds - this time the poetic and the practical.

4051 - London, England, 2010
For some of you, I won't need to explain what this resembles. This (to me anyway) says something about the demise of film, and it makes me feel a little sad.

4052 - London, England, 2010
I like the drama in this shot. I had the focus fall off on the right to show the wall coming in at an angle, the bare wood shooting in like lightning. A bell entry system like the one in 4048 above has here become an annoyance I think. Painted over in uniform blue in the hope that everyone will forget about it.

4053 - London, England, 2010
One of the themes of this part seems to have been making sense of chaos, using photography to apply order and make compositions I enjoy, taking small sections of disorder and getting them in line, sometimes literally. Again, this one seems constructed, but it's not, not by me anyway. It's been created by someone with a pipe to fit, someone with green paint, someone with white paint, someone with blue paint, people with stickers and pens, a bit a weather, a bit of dirt and a bit of use. I just took the picture.

And so we come to the end of 2010 - I hope you enjoyed it! Feel free to comment below - let me know any favourites, or any thoughts on the images in this part - do you agree or disagree with what I've said? I'll be doing Harvest of 2011 slightly differently, so any input now will be helpful.

I love discussing my pictures at fairs and galleries, it really helps me to think about my work - so talk to me here - if you want!

Harvest of 2010
Part One - Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five - Part Six - Part Seven