Category Archives: Light Table

Rachel Grand: Eating the Forbidden Fruit

Photography by Rachel Grand, Copyright 2021
 

Photography and Text by Rachel Grand, Copyright 2021

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Eating the Forbidden Fruit

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In this composite portrait, I play with the notions of the abject and how it can play with the traditions and experience of Bryn Mawr College. I create a narrative that dramatizes the transformation of going to a women’s college. Many love it here, many can’t wait to graduate, but most will agree that this place is special. Living and learning among these somber, stone castle-like buildings reminds its students of its identity.

In each student’s freshman year, they are given a lantern during the ceremony that signifies the passing of wisdom. In my portrait, the figure with the donkey head acts as the physical embodiment of a mystical bearer of knowledge, shining the light of the iconic Bryn Mawr lantern and giving the forbidden fruit, like that of the tree of life, to its new student. The construction of other figures in the frame is inspired by princess and purity culture. The strappy white dress, instead of signifying sexual virginity, signifies informational virginity. She willingly approaches the donkey figure because she wants to know more.

Once she eats the forbidden fruit, and begins to gain knowledge herself, she maintains her corporeal beauty, but becomes one of the abject with the head of a frog. She lies like a corpse, having now understood the world, and her place in it. With her women’s college education, she is too smart to be attractive, as shown by her frog head. She mourns herself because she understands that society will never truly let her rise to her full potential. Her dress remains unchanged as a reminder of the implications of her physicality as a woman, despite her animal head. 

As a second semester senior, thinking about what I have learned here, and where I will go next, this series plays with those anxieties.

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About The Author: Rachel Grand is a senior enrolled at Bryn Mawr College majoring in Fine Arts and History. Class of 2021.

An Exploration: Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife (Allie MaeBurroughs)

Photo: Walker Evans
 

Text by Aaron Graybill, Copyright 2021

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An Exploration: Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife (Allie MaeBurroughs)

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This report will explore one of Walker Evans’s most famous works, Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife (Allie Mae Burroughs) through historical and analytical lenses to uncover why the photograph is so powerful and timeless. I will begin with a brief biographical sketch of Walker Evans and the historical context behind Allie Mae Burroughs. Next, I will discuss how the medium and presentation of the photograph affect its impression on the viewer. I will then argue that this photograph is best viewed through the lens of “detail” as defined in John Szarkowski’s The Photographer’s Eye. Finally, I will then discuss how the other four lenses in The Photographer’s Eye come together to make this photograph as significant and emotive as it is.

Walker Evans: Biographical and Historical Context

Walker Evans was able to fuse the realism and rawness of the American experience with sophisticated and thoughtful photographic techniques that let the meaning of the images shine through. Walker was born in Saint Louis in 1903 and was interested in art in multiple forms for his entire life. Eventually, Evans turned to photography and found success working with the Resettlement Administration (RA)/Farm Security Administration (FSA). But to understand the significance of this work, it is important to first discuss why a government agency hired Walker Evans to document rural American lives.

The Great Depression left rural farmers particularly vulnerable, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration sought to relocate farmers to areas where they could be more productive (which helped both the farmers and the economy at large). To incentivize these moves, the Resettlement Administration and later the Farm Security Administration hired photographers like Walker Evans, Dortohea Lange, and Marion Post Walcott to highlight the opportunities that were available to those who chose to move. Whether or not Evans and others followed the wishes of the RA/FSA, is dubious, nevertheless the situations the FSA contracts provided Evans were unique and historically important giving rise to Allie Mae Burroughs and other photographs like it.

A final note about the subject of the photograph. Allie Mae Burroughs was the wife of a tenant farmer. A tenant farmer, for context, was a farmer who farmed rented land and left some of the profits for the landlord. These farmers faced the challenge of not having property to fall back on during the Great Depression, so they were targeted by the RA/FSA because they were hit harder than most during the Great Depression.

Medium and Presentation

The photograph as displayed in the Lutnick fine arts center at Haverford College is a gelatin silver print that is 9.1”x7.1”. The gelatin silver print offers the print longevity and adequate gloss to accentuate the lowlights in the print. This medium is important because the texture on the background wall and patterns in the subject’s shirt benefit from the additional pop that the glossy gelatin provides. The print is also over matted with a beveled edge on the window which subtly draws the viewer’s eye in towards the subject while the large over mat gives the viewer plenty of space to see the print in isolation. The size of the print is worth noting as well. 9.1”x7.1” is not particularly large but still leaves enough room for the background to be seen in isolation. Additionally, the size is not so large that the totality of the image is hard to view.

The final component of the medium and presentation is the quality of the print itself. The print has strong contrast without making the subject or background seem unnatural. Without access to the negative, it is hard to say how the qualities of the print were achieved. However, the print may be burned in some areas (particularly around the subject) to make the subject stand out from the wall behind her.

“The Detail” in Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife

In John Szarkowski’s The Photographers Eye, he acknowledges that the photographer is limited in ways that other artists are not. Photographers are restricted to represent what they see, not what they wish to see. Sometimes, the setting that the photographer finds themselves in is scattered and inconsistent. The photographer is a curator and must decide which elements of the setting are worth including in the frame and which are not. Szarkowski writes about the photographer: “From reality before him he could only choose the part that seemed relevant or consistent, and that would fill his plate” (Szarkowski 2009, 42). Working for the FSA documenting the entirety of the American experience, “the detail” is immensely important. The world that Evans documented was inconsistent and fragmented, so selecting the parts that held together made for powerful photographs.

Alabama Tenant Farmer’s Wife provides little in the way of context which is why it is well suited to be analyzed through “the detail”. The subject is dressed plainly and is photographed directly against a wooden wall. The photograph does not provide any recognizable information about where the photograph was taken geographically. Furthermore, it does not provide any information about where the photograph was taken even on a local scale. The subject’s proximity to their background makes it unclear whether or not the subject is photographed at their place of residence, work (which was likely the same for a farmer), or worship. This creates an ambiguity in the image that allows the viewer to analyze the nuances of the subject and the background without analyzing its political and social contexts. However, the ambiguity creates universality and relatability. The background could be at anyone’s house and the enigmatic expression on the subject makes the photo both universal and timeless. The Met Museum describes the subject’s expression as having the “psychological ambiguity of a Mona Lisa” ( Metropolitan Museum of Art). In addition, the subject’s hair is somewhat unkempt, which heightens the organicness and relatability of the photograph.

Another component that heightens the effect of “the detail” in this shot is the use of depth of field. Both the subject and the background are in focus which allows all of the areas of the image to be viewed in isolation. The depth of field brings out the subtleties in the texture of the wood and the subject’s clothes. The viewer’s eye is not forced to a certain in-focus area and can peruse the details of the image at its own pace.

All of these components come together to make the image an experience that is meant to be felt, not dissected and make “the detail” the dominant characteristic of this photograph.

Szarkowski’s Other Four Characteristics

Now I will more briefly discuss how the other characteristics in The Photographer’s Eye can be applied to this photograph for a richer understanding of its impact. First and foremost is “the thing itself” which Szarkowski describes as the relationship between that which is actual and seen versus that which is captured in the photograph. The photographer must filter out certain things and accept that certain potentially unwanted things might be in the frame to capture other elements. Walker Evans, as previously mentioned keeps the subject close to his background leaving little room for external distractions in the image. Yet in the image, Walker is also forced to tell only one piece of the subject’s life. The subject is expression, physique, and clothing are what we have to go on, so Walker’s selection of this print must encapsulate some meaningful component of the subject’s life.

We already discussed “the detail”, so the next topic is “the frame.” The frame of this image does not draw too much attention to itself and the way the shot is laid out seems to suggest that the wooden wall continues for many feet in all directions outside of the frame’s boundary. I believe that this has the effect of making the subject feel like a small part of the scene and the world as a whole. However, the crisp portraiture allows for the details in the subject to show while using the frame to accentuate that there is nuance even in the unseen.

Szarkowski’s fourth category is “time” which I think is quite present in this photograph, albeit not in the usual way. Usually, images evoking a sense of time use movement and blur to show evolution over time. This image takes almost the opposite approach. Even without close inspection, this feels like an image from the Great Depression. The image captures a moment in time felt by all Americans, instead of the movement of one. In many ways, the Great Depression was a period where time stood still, and this moment, frozen in time captures that feeling in an ineffable way.

Finally, Szarkowski discusses “vantage point”. Usually, this is taken quite literally, as in when a photographer takes a picture from a physical place that is outside of the usual context we view the world. Vantage point manifests itself in two ways for me in this image. First, the RA/FSA put Walker Evans into situations where he was essentially foreign and saw the world from a very different perspective to those who lived there. This gave Walker Evans a unique vantage point for each of the photographs he took, even when shooting unadorned portraiture.

The other component of vantage point that I see is even more general. Walker Evans’s body of work for the RA/FSA gave other Americans a vantage point into the diversity of experience that their country held and still holds. The modern accessibility of photography both amateur and professional understates the power that Evans’s work held when it was first released. These photographs were some people’s only contact with rural America. His work captured a fleeting moment in time still sends a powerful message even 80 years on.

Citations:

Szarkowski, John, “The Photographer’s Eye,” The Museum of Modern Art, 2009

Wikipedia contributors, “Resettlement Administration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Resettlement_Administration&oldid=101005462 4 (accessed March 20, 2021).

Author unknown, “Walker Evans (1903–1975),” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/evan/hd_evan.htm (accessed March 20, 2021).

Author unknown, “Alabama Tenant Farmer Wife,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/284685 (accessed March 20, 2021).

Wikipedia contributors, “Farm Security Administration,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,

https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Farm_Security_Administration&oldid=10044463 12 (accessed March 20, 2021).

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About The Author: Aaron Graybill is a junior enrolled at Haverford College, Haverford, Pennsylvania. Majoring in Economics.

Light Table: The Importance of Looking Back

Jennifer. Old City Rooftop, Philadelphia 2009. Photo: Tony Ward, Copyright 2021
 

Photography and Text by Tony Ward, Copyright 2021

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The Importance of Looking Back

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Photographers are always searching for the next shot,  especially if they are working in fashion. A new model brings a new thrill with the hope that the next picture will be the best in an ongoing process of creating something new.

Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in March of 2020 I haven’t taken a new picture that was worthy of cataloging.  That is the longest stretch of inactivity I can recall in my career as a professional photographer since I started producing images for a living in 1980. 

Over the past 12 months I’ve looked back at the contact prints and digital files of countless photographs taken over the past 41 years and found previously unedited pictures that brought me much pleasure and satisfaction. I often tell my photography students how photographers can miss a meaningful photograph from a shoot because we often times produce a new shoot with certain expectations of what we think the newest picture should like like. In the case of the above photo of model Jennifer Grabel Rooney, I hardly noticed this picture 11 years ago when it was taken. However,  just a couple of days ago after looking again very carefully at each image taken that day, I began to see a new image emerge on my computer screen that was lying dormant for over a decade.

A photograph is one of those art forms that can be transformational when a picture is edited in Photoshop.  Ideally, as a photographer matures and evolves he or she learns more tools to edit a photograph that previously may have not been part of the image makers play book.  That was the case with this recent edit of Jennifer’s sitting from 2009. I continue to enjoy practicing and learn new editing techniques to bring previously overlooked photos to life.

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To access previous articles on photography by Tony Ward, click herehttps://tonywardstudio.com/blog/ride-to-atlantic_city/

 

Bob Shell: The Incredible Shrinking Business

 

Text by Bob Shell, Copyright 2021

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The Incredible Shrinking Business

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I didn’t come up with that title. An old friend, veteran of the photography magazine business, used that phrase and it stuck in my mind. When I first got serious about photography in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were many quality 35 mm SLRs to choose from. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, SLR stands for ‘Single Lens Reflex’, the type of camera that uses a flipping mirror to let you see the view from your lens directly, projected onto a viewing screen. Most allow lens interchangeably. Until recently, almost all high end cameras were SLRs. But, recently, a new type of camera has come along, generally referred to as ‘mirrorless’. One disadvantage of the SLR design is that the mirror must flip out of the way during the actual exposure, causing a momentary loss of the image at the moment of exposure, and vibration in some cases. This led to incidences of eyes closed in photos when someone blinked at just the wrong instant, and worse, you never knew it until the film was developed. This is one of the things that mirrorless cameras eliminate. 

Back in ‘those thrilling days of yesteryear,’ when I first delved into photography, we had many brands of SLR cameras to choose from. Some, in no particular order, were Alpa, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Yashica, Contax, Miranda, Rolleiflex, Ricoh, Cosina, Chinon, Exakta, Edixa, Praktica, Praktina, Olympus, Voigtlander, Pentax, Kiev, Topcon, Kowa, Samsung, Contarex, Contaflex, Icarex, Kodak Retina Reflex, Petri, Mamiya, Vivitar, Konica, and, of course, Leica, although the first Leicaflex SLR was a wildly impractical design. 

All were either Japanese or German, with a few Russian and Ukrainian, and the outliers Samsung, the sole offering from South Korea, and Alpa from Switzerland. I’m sure I missed some, but all were capable of making decent images. 

My first serious SLR camera was a somewhat beat up Nikon F that I bought from a friend when I was living in DC around 1967. It had a 50 mm f/1.4 Nikkor lens, but no light meter, so somewhere I got a Gossen Lunasix hand meter to use with it. Camera and meter were later stolen when I was away from my apartment for a few days. 

I didn’t have much money in those days, so my next camera was a Zenit B Russian-made SLR that I bought from Cambridge Camera Exchange in New York, $ 39.95 mail order, brand new. It produced surprisingly good images, but was clunky design. Later I had more money, so I bought a Mamiya/Sekor 1000 DTL from the camera department at J.C. Penney. In those days every major retailer had a camera department, and price competition was fierce. 

I’ve always been a tinkerer. I have to know how things work. I never owned a 35 mm camera that I didn’t take apart to see how it worked. So, in the early 70s I took the camera repair mail order course from National Camera in Colorado. I had a ball taking cameras apart and putting them back together, usually with no pieces left over! Once I gained some confidence, I began repairing cameras for money. But, in those days camera repairmen were mechanics, electronics hadn’t invaded the insides of cameras much, aside from the simple electronics of built-in light meters. 

All of this is leading up to the electronic invasion of cameras, first starting in the later 70s. I’d be totally out of my depth trying to fix one of today’s digital cameras. 

In many ways, it’s like cars. I was at home when cars had points and plugs to be gapped, and the only electronic item in my tool chest was a timing light. Work on one of today’s cars without a diagnostic computer — forget it! 

Same with cameras, in many cases they require diagnostic equipment only factory service technicians have access to. 

Not long after I got serious about photography and camera repair the first attrition of camera brands began, with brands like Edixa, Praktina, Kowa, Petri, falling by the wayside. In the mid-70s Zeiss-Ikon, the famous German camera maker folded its tent and dropped out of the camera business, their last camera the gorgeous Zeiss-Ikon SL706. They just couldn’t compete with Japanese prices, although the Zeiss-Ikon SL706 was reborn as the Rollei SL35M with cosmetic changes, built at Rollei’s ill-fated manufacturing plant in Singapore. 

I won’t try to list the companies that collapsed over the 70s and 80s and into the 90s, but suffice it to say that they fell like leaves in a forest, the last collapses being those that couldn’t make the transition to digital imaging. Minolta, one of the oldest Japanese brands, went into bankruptcy and was bought by Konica, only to have that iconic brand itself go bankrupt. It’s an open secret that Minolta was acquired by Sony, a company that had avoided the SLR market for years. That’s why Minolta lenses fit the first generations of Sony SLRs before they went mirrorless. Even the Minolta Alpha designation for their SLRs was retained by Sony. 

With the recent announcement that Olympus is shutting down its camera division, a serious photographer has only Canon, Nikon, Sony, Leica, and Pentax to choose from, Pentax being the only one not to go mirrorless and retain the flipping mirror. I wouldn’t invest in Pentax’s long term survival, but I’ve been wrong before, and some photographers prefer the traditional mirrored SLR’s viewfinder. 

Do I expect the photo business to shrink even more? Certainty. Demand for high end cameras is way down, and lower end cameras were killed by cellphones with built-in cameras, some of which produce remarkably good images. I’ve seen full page pictures in several magazines shot with iPhones. But, for those times when the cellphone just won’t do, such as long telephoto shots of nature and sports, the high end camera is still essential.

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About The Author: Bob Shell is a professional photographer, author and former editor in chief of Shutterbug Magazine. He is currently serving a 35 year sentence for involuntary manslaughter for the death of Marion Franklin, one of his former models.  He is serving the 13th year of his sentence at Pocahontas State Correctional Facility, Virginia. To read Bob Shell’s, first essay on civil war, click here: https://tonywardstudio.com/blog/in-praise-of-reality/

Editor’s Note: If you like Bob Shell’s blog posts, you’re sure to like his new book, COSMIC DANCE by Bob Shell (ISBN: 9781799224747, $ 12.95 book, $ 5.99 eBook) available now on Amazon.com . The book, his 26th, is a collection of essays written over the last twelve years in prison, none published anywhere before. It is subtitled, “A biologist’s reflections on space, time, reality, evolution, and the nature of consciousness,” which describes it pretty well. You can read a sample section and reviews on Amazon.com.

Light Table: Frank Kelly Style Icon

Frank Kelly. Philadelphia, 1983
 

Photography and Text by Tony Ward, Copyright 2020

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I was looking through the archives recently and came across a photo of Frank Kelly, the man about town who defined mens fashion and style in Philadelphia during the 1970’s and 80’s. Frank was a style icon that I truly admired.  Always dressed to the nines, tall, handsome and seemingly always in a good mood.  He worked as a model between gigs in Philadelphia and New York and eventually became one of the most successful fashion salesman in Philadelphia, where his customers felt they could take  advice from him on what to wear in a boardroom or casually on the street.  He was incredibly charming and charismatic, qualities that defined his ability to sell to a wide range of customers.  Frank worked at various boutiques and eventually finished his career at Burberry’s until his retirement. Frank passed away in 2018 at the age of 79.

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For additional Light Table posts, click herehttps://tonywardstudio.com/blog/light-table-portrait-of-the-day-2/