Thursday, 13 February 2014

Writing Analytically - Exercise - Research and Analyse

Following on from the exercise to analyse one of my own photographs the task now is to write a similar analysis on one of the following photographs.
  • Pikes Peak Park, Colorado Springs, Colorado 1970 Robert Adams
  • London Street 1951 Robert Frank
  • Shell-shocked Soldier, Hue 1968 Don McCullin
  • Afghan Girl 1984 Steve McCurry     
My choice is London Street 1951, Robert Frank. I briefly looked  at them all with a small amount of research, remembering that they are all iconic photographs only to return to what was my first choice based on its impact. My second choice was Afghan Girl 1984, Steve McCurry.
Robert Frank (1924 - ) was born in Switzerland and emigrated to the USA in 1947.His first work as a photographer (after showing then his 40 Fotos) was for Harpers Bazaar magazine and he traveled widely during the early 1950's particularly in London and Wales. The photographs from that period were not seem until the 1970's well after his seminal work The Americans, 1958, for which he became famous.

Frank is a man of few words, seldom gives interviews and it is difficult to find research material that can be directly attributed to him. He was interviewed in 2004 by Saun O'Hagen of The Observer prior to a retrospective exhibition at Tate Modern, Frank said of of his own work

 "'The kind of photography I did is gone,' he says. 'It's old. There's no point in it anymore for me, and I get no satisfaction from trying to do it.'

and of his wife's work as an artist.
'I envy her freedom', he says, 'to sit down in front of a blank page with no machine to get in the way. That is freedom. Photography is not freedom'.

For the same exhibition the The South Bank Show, ITV with director Gerald Fox made the documentary film Leaving Home, Coming Home: A portrait of of Robert Frank. Frank comes across as a sad man who would rather be left alone than talk about his work. 

Frank, R. London Street,1951, Museum no. Ph.1229-1980 Copyright Victoria and Albert Museum

The first impression drew me to this photograph rather than any of the others I could have used for this exercise. It has an immediate graphic quality with the black side of the hearse and the bright strip of reflected light at a slight diagonal. This leads to the open door and then to the edge of the road and then on to the wet pavement and the child running away. The tapering of the houses on the far side of the road leading down to the lorry which forms a solid point to stop and acts as a complementary background to the drama of the main components, which at first seem all unrelated. Diagonal elements are adding to the drama unfolding in the street.The composition is similar to others in the series and I feel a coherence of style across the work.
A number of versions of the photograph can be seen online and a few have the distant elements "burned in" to show detail of the buildings beyond while the version above from the V&A collection is almost burn out in a hazy fog. For the purpose of this exercise I will assume the V&A version to be printed correctly. 

The image is a mix of genre, as are all images when subjected to close scrutiny.  It is partly a landscape of the urban street, maybe architectural if the houses are being recorded but it should be seen as photo journalistic with the hearse, the action and the  funereal atmosphere. We know through the research that Frank spent time in London walking the streets and photographing people. His intention was to capture London and coming upon the hearse he would wanted to see and record the moment. He says in the film Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank "If you have some brain and some feeling for people you are going to be a good photographer" and this image demonstrates his empathy with place, the people and the situation.

During 1951 to 1953  Frank spent time photographing in London and Wales, seeing the two places as opposites from a socioeconomic point of view and making the contrast between city bankers and miners appealed to him. His interest in the "Haves and the Have Nots" a theme that runs through much of his work.

Frank would have come across this scene entirely by chance, and took a few frames while the hearse was parked. There doesn't appear to be a coffin inside so we assume one is being collected and brought out and the rear door is open ready. Capturing the child running away is fortuitous and without that element the image would not have the same impact. The image is one of fear once the running child is included. Other photographs show the girl closer and from a compositional stance this is the most effective, having some reference to the rule of thirds. Frank may have had little time to compose the image and as with all good street photography being aware is paramount.

He says in the film Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank "Intuition is a very important part of my brain... I always followed my intuition"  Finding the hearse and the child, delivering the right composition was unplanned, although his intuition would then anticipate what would happen next. He went on to say "I never really had a concept, I search for clear and strong images". Within the context of the film and his indifference to the process of being interviewed and filmed I tend to feel he is being somewhat simplistic and self deprecating.

Frank used a small Leica camera and the angle of view would suggest a wide angle lens. This equipment was and still is an ideal choice for street photography. The grain tells us that it is a fast film (sensitive emulsions with small grain were not yet invented), the image is sharp and there is a wide enough depth of field to maintain acceptable sharpness on the child and the hearse. The distant objects are beyond the depth of field and this works well to create aerial perspective in the haze and not draw the eye too quickly away from the main subjects.

Street photography with a wide angle lens, fast grainy film was the style of the 1950s as there was little else except a plate camera which was far too cumbersome . The Leica allowed the style to become the the hallmark of many from that time including Henri Cartier Bresson and William Klien.

I don't think Frank had an intent to find a photograph of a funeral, (although that is supposition)the situation presented itself it lasted a few minutes and was gone. In the book London/Wales there are other photographs of the hearse and the street scene, all of which are suitable for the book and its portrayal of that day in London.

Beyond what we can see we don't have that much information. The image is part of a series, its in London and should be seen alongside the others to form a narrative of the life of London. There is some speculation about the location but is of little consequence. The reason for the hearse is not documented nor the name of the child, once again information that is not required

It is a successful photograph and is alongside Behind the Gare St. Lazare by Henri Cartier Bresson as an example of The Decisive Moment. The success is in its graphic qualities, the black overwhelmingly dominant for a scene containing a hearse and a story we will never know the details. A little girl, maybe frightened, sees a hearse, maybe the coffin and runs away. The mystery extends to the other components in the image, the lorry and the road cleaner framed in the rear window. The issue of death and the frightened child are delivered to us in an image that is dark, wet, cold and a hint of menace. 


Gerald Fox, ITV The South Bank Show, Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank.YouTube.


I choose this photograph purely on its first impression, only to find soon afterwards that Robert Frank is such a difficult person to research. However the O'Hagen interview and the ITV film offer an exciting insight into a photographer that I previously had little knowledge of. My copy of London - Wales hasnt been delivered yet and I may revise this exercise if there is any text in it that will improve my understanding of this photograph and the man behind it.
The exercise and its insistence that it is analytical is a good basis for future writing and I am now confident of looking at work and getting the words down on paper.

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