PAUSE and REFLECT on images from Sofia, London, Pretoria, Berlin…
Our next case study will be from Potsdam/Berlin.
Number 4: The Rothko Floorplan
Description: I was on a 2nd floor landing, waiting for a meeting with newly registered university students at the John F. Kennedy Institute of North American Studies, Lanstrasse, in Berlin.
It’ complicated, but the glazed reflection on the floor looks up to the 3rd floor opening and beyond that to the skylight above – and a ceiling light.
So looking down to the floor, I simply pointed the camera, framed and took the first image. Given the waiting time, I had the opportunity to adjust down for the contrast. It was during these refinements that Rothko came to mind, which, given the location and the occasion, I thought was appropriate.
Analysis: The slightly uneven floor material suggests the watery feel. We are both solid and liquid and we are looking down and we are looking up, as well. Hence the surreality of it all.
The effect is further enhanced by the rectangular frame of the first layer, almost like a binocular – and it looks beyond to the two white squares of the skylight that ponders eye-like into the heavens above.
What isn’t in the shot are the hundreds of students who were sweeping through the staircase around me, all heading towards the light.
NUMBER 3: Transformation, Pretoria/Tshwane, RSA, 2012
It may not look like it, but this is another shot taken on the run.
When I first arrived in Pretoria I was informed (within hours of arrival) that I should not move around town alone since “We are concerned you might be mugged”. This was from the Dean of the Faculty of Arts. Over the next few months and years that I lived there I moved quickly and largely safely ( though I did get mugged twice). So Church Square in Pretoria is not a place where one wanders around marveling at the architecture with a camera on open display.
Description/Context: Church Square is another one of those South African locations that resonate with past and immediate history. The Rivonia Trial took place at the nearby Palace of Justice. Other signifiers of institutional power around that square are the Tudor Chambers, the Old Council Chamber and the General Post Office. At the centre (still) is the standing statue of a proud former president Paul Kruger and his plinth is defended by four bronze representatives of his vainglorious Boer army that succumbed to the British forces in the Anglo-Boar War (when speaking with current Afrikaans this is still the war). Significantly, though designed and made in the 1890s, the bronze edifice was moved to Church Square during the era of Apartheid in 1954.
I had passed through the square on several occasions already, so I knew the coordinates. The lads were clustered as we see them and I had time for just one shot as a turned south towards the taxi stand.
It’s another example of how we can capture most from our subjects if and when they are engrossed in doing something. Even if they are chewing on a corn.
Analysis: On a local level it captures their relative poses in depth. What makes it particularly intriguing is how their different but complementary poses creates its own stringed sculptural effect. An added bonus to the design are the striped shirts on the lads that echo the parallel brick lines on the plinth. And in terms of color coding the clothing of the middle lad blends him nicely with our beleaguered Boer. An ironic form of identification.
The soldier’s helpless cast of mind is intensified by the fact that our view of his arms is blocked – he sits totally helpless, constrained by the contrasting elements around and on him – the present crushing the past that strains to assert itself. But then he must contend with the the eye-lines – none of the lads are actually looking at the beleaguered Boer, but he is looking beyond them to us – as is the lad to the left. We are thereby caught, implicated in the scene by two opposing gazes. The youngest lad in blue provides the most acute dramatic contrast – eating corn, with his back to the soldier, his thoughts beyond the scene.
The apparent indifference to the soldier’s plight by the new generation of blacks intensifies his anguish and speaks volumes about the bigger picture that characterizes contemporary South Africa.
Finally, what would otherwise be a complicated configuration is controlled by the triangular form – the left line takes us up from the corner shoes via the standing lads to the soldier’s head and we follow down from that along his leg to the lad in blue who stabilizes the right corner.
The final – perhaps for some – the most awkward irony , is that in bronze the Boer isn’t white.
NUMBER 2. Hopper Twilight n Cork Street, London.
Description: I was walking through Mayfair to get the Oxford coach from Hyde Park Corner. (This was a late August evening in 2010. I was staying in college rooms in Oxford and was able to visit my hometown London on a few occasions).
On my hurried way through Mayfair I took a turn down Cork Street – the exclusive privilege of London’s most prestigious private art galleries. The street was empty. With no intervening pedestrians or traffic I caught this gallery as you see here with just two shots.
Description/Backstory: Cork Street wasn’t an accident. During my final years in Secondary School at Quentin Kynaston Senior Students benefitted from an inspired extra-curricular initiative that sent us on Wednesday afternoons into the London art world. This was led by a Mr. Palin (physics teacher) who, as a respected amateur painter in his own right, introduced us to the network of private galleries and public museums that otherwise we would have easily missed. Several years later I wrote a commentary/critique in Concourse, the Keele University student magazine, that detailed my visit to the 1981 Edward Hopper Exhibition at the Hayward Gallery.
So the quick 2010 turn down Cork Street wasn’t accidental, and neither, I suppose was my quickened response to catch the spirit of Hopper in, of all places, an art gallery.
I have deliberately presented this in a medium frame as I think the distance recreates that sense of voyeuristic objectivity so palpable in Hopper. His work is, after all, about the frame as much as it is about the content within the frame. Real life in Hopper is always a staged life with suggestive references to what is ‘off’ the frame than ‘in’ the frame. Even the street markings provide their own framing device that directs he eye towards our center.
There is a neat balance of three designs- the three gallery paintings inside echo the three street windows outside. In this respect objects seem to relate, to make up for the communication that the presence of humans would otherwise enact.
The lighting was particularly fortuitous – the strong cast of light on the inside wall brightens up the wall paintings and we see in the reflection of the outside windows the royal blue of the fading day. Reflected light on the street walls from unseen street lamps suggest we are in the twilight of day and night. It is this feature in particular that suggests a film set.
And in keeping with Hopper’s ironic dramatic sensibility there is a sure grasp of time passing. The gallery light can – and will – at any moment be switched off. But until that moment we keep the busy city offstage and the darkness away.
Our Opening Case Study
Number 1: The Chess Players of Sofia, Bulgaria, September 2014.
It was edging into the late afternoon and the clouds were looming. I caught this as quickly as possible before the backlight disappeared. Which it soon did. Much like Rodin’s THE KISS, we can’t see what they are doing, but we do know what they are doing.
So many elements fall into place. On an obvious level we have clear horizontal and vertical lines. The trees trunks right and left provide the dutiful balancing frame – castles, if you like. The weighty lowering tree branches bear witness to the weighty thoughts below.
The players and their observers become still pieces in our design. There are human witnesses on three of the four sets of players, but the middle players are exposed for our view. The background and foreground determinants help to frame them precisely in our middle focus. And this happens to be where the light falls clearer and harder. They are in nature’s spotlight.
The silhouettes that emerge have just enough detail to make them variously human. Their darkness, though, distinguishes them from the surrounding vibrant colors that seem to call for attention, and so suggests their focused states of mind. The linked railings that trail along the ground visually echo the hunched shoulders of the silent onlookers and are also suggestive of the linked thought processes of the paired contenders.
The background squared wall and the overseeing sculpture figure provide an added and wholly unexpected thematic bonus. Thankfully, no walkers or runners were crossing the frame. We can’t have any movement here.
And beyond all these are the two distant figures who are positioned diametrically opposite to us and who may have the last word to say on who might be controlling the final commanding gaze.
This was one of three quick shots. And then the clouds came…
Not everything is in the eyepiece as the image is taken. We see the world in fragments and that goes for the world as caught by the camera lens. What we hope for is that even in the most ‘designed’ of images there is the happy accident that makes the design all the more remarkable, especially in hindsight.
Finally, we started with the notion that we can’t actually see the core action (some folks, especially chess players, might intervene rightly by saying that concentrated thought IS action).
One reason why I think the picture ‘works’ is because – in the happy combination of its separate and complementary elements that create the mise-en-scene – it DOES show us what we can’t see, if only by evocative indirection.
All rights reserved, usual prohibitions apply.© 2014
Alan is former lecturer rin Photography (Visual Analysis) , UK.