Louis Quail is a photojournalist and arts photographer whose projects are receiving wide critical interest. LOOK met Louis Quail in 2014 and soon commissioned him to compose an essay. As the festival drew closer, his work Desk Job was selected to feature in Open 1 (Open Eye Gallery, 16 May-23 Aug 15), whilst further exchanges provided opportunities to embed Louis in deeper festival conversations. Interested readers may also enjoy Redeye’s Building the Perfect Photographic Project and our in-conversation event the ethics of portraiture – a transatlantic view (both 18 May).
At the ‘State of Photography’ symposium in Birmingham earlier this year (#GrainHub Jan2015) industry leaders were discussing the state of the business. Anyone who has not been on the moon will know that there has been a fair few changes in the industry in recent years and many of us have been considering how best to adapt.
I, for one, have changed my approach. After many years working as an editorial photographer, I am now exploring new audiences, funding streams and reflecting more deeply about my work and its context. I thought it would be interesting, to use this invitation from Look 15, to write an essay about my development by contextualising this with my thoughts on contemporary visual language.
Derby, March 2015, at the Format Photography Festival; W.M. Hunt, a photographic collector made me think about what constitutes the perfect photograph. In his talk he was happy to point out his ‘Greatest Photograph Ever’ (The Two Guedras, Irving Penn). You have to admire his confidence. He talked about “balance and secrets holding the key” and quoting Larry Fink, photographer, ‘prints so good you wanted to lick them.”
Quoting Edward Rucha, he also spoke about how a good photograph should make you go ‘Huh, Wow!” as opposed to “Wow, Huh?” and of visiting a picture eight times because he was having such a good time. He showed some amazing and very beautiful pictures but also some quite horrible ones, even one depicting an actual murder. So great photography, it seems, is not just about beauty.
So what constitutes my perfect picture? I certainly couldn’t narrow it down to one image but maybe by examining my approach I can get closer.
There is a pervading aesthetic in photojournalism currently – I call it the ‘National Geographic’ aesthetic – that dominates. It’s a view of the world that is framed with beauty in mind. Stunning use of light; intriguing subject and poetic visual language combine to produce this particular style. The result is that often photographs end up behaving like paintings.
This search for beauty in art travels back centuries to the Greeks (at least) who discovered the divine proportion. (1:1.618 for those of you interested) and Renaissance artists like Leonardo Da Vinci who mastered and defined the science of beauty.
The convention that works of art should be beautiful is of course, hugely compelling. However, in the cut and thrust of the art world, other rebellious forces are at work. When Marcel Duchamp decided that a urinal on a pedestal (Fountain, 1917) could be considered art he opened the doors to the notion of conceptual art.
Somewhere between Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Duchamp’s Fountain is the key to unlocking good photography. It’s a question of balance, between the idea and the choice of aesthetic; the former leading the latter.
Only relatively recently has photography been taken seriously as an art form. For the most part, photographing the subject beautifully has been the order of the day, with exceptions being found in news and especially war photography where the idea (e.g. the description of horror, chaos, pain or tragedy) dominates the aesthetic. One of the most powerful war photographs, in that it was influential in bringing the Vietnam conflict to an end, was Nick Ut’s picture of the teenage Napalm victim of American bombing. It is not a picture known for its aesthetic strength.
Gilles Peress who also photographed in the Bosnian war takes this principle to its logical conclusion in his brutally objective depiction of war crimes in Rwanda, published in The Silence (Scalo 12 Jun. 1995).
I discovered that this objective approach to war photography can in some ways, become a victim of its success. After a while the viewer is fatigued and desensitized by the relentless parade of shocking imagery.
I did a set of pictures in 2000 exploring the aftermath of the Kosovan conflict as a direct response. I learned two lessons: one, it’s good to challenge the norm and two, that when the technique is justified by the subject, the outcome can be powerful.
My pictures deliberately used the beauty aesthetic to talk about a war. At the time I was doing a lot of portraiture for a variety of mainstream men and women’s magazines and I decided to employ the technique of magazine style portraiture with flash lighting in the war zone. I wanted to make beautiful portraits that would encourage the viewer in and then hit them with interviews revealing their powerful stories as a way of exploring the aftermath of the conflict.
It was a nuanced approach, running contrary to the sensationalism often found in news photography and at the time the approach was quite unusual. Observer Life ran it and British Journal of Photography ran it as a cover story describing the approach as “ground breaking’. The methodology works because we are not reliant on the image alone to consider the crisis.
I have since used this technique in other places of war or catastrophe most notably perhaps in Haiti, where considered portraits seemed the perfect antidote to the “disaster porn” dominating the news. This approach allowed me to show the huge dignity of the Haitians, which wasn’t a dialogue the news media seemed interested in, intent as they were on depicting chaos, apocalypse, riots and so forth.
This picture by Nathan Webber of the body of Fabienne Cherisma surrounded by a pool of photographers, encapsulates the nature of news gathering at this time and is discussed fully on Pete Brooks Blog.
Simon Norfolk has similarly used the beauty aesthetic in his methodology. In a film by Antonio Olmas (Olmas; vimeo.com/42516477 accessed Feb 15) he explains the approach he took in Afghanistan: “By making very beautiful pictures we are almost tricked into coming inside that space, into engaging and then by surprise you might listen to my arguments which you wouldn’t have if I hadn’t seduced you. If I thought I could get my points across without using beauty then I would dump beauty tomorrow but right now, it’s a useful tool.”
Photographers are trained to master their visual skills to tell stories but applying the beauty aesthetic to a horrific scene is a familiar dilemma. Correct me if I’m wrong, but was it Werner Bishof who famously had problems applying his artist’s eye in relation to depicting actual horror? This idea is discussed at great length by Susan Sontag in her classic analysis, ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’. Gilles Peress’ brutal objectivity works for me and Norfolk’s justified and considered approach is equally valid. The key here, I feel, is to consider the visual strategy in relation to the subject. Ultimately, this is a question of personal ethics and style; beauty should not be used gratuitously in these situations – an empty promise with no message.
I see in the digital age pressure to move away from such reflection. The landscape of our image making has changed dramatically. The ubiquity of photography and the ease of its production led to a revolution where everyone can make photographs; if you can use a phone by chance or design you can make amazing pictures. Professional photographers are under growing pressure to justify their craft; the amount of very good pictures out there is increasing exponentially.
One might have thought that photography would follow the path of twentieth century art with a series of rebellions, but this does not seem to be the case, rather digital culture is entrenching the dominant beauty aesthetic. I see evidence of this in two places.
With so much photography available picture editors are overwhelmed. Winning a competition is one of the few places to get your work seen. Competitions like the World Press Photo awards boast enormous entries (97,912this year) or the Sony Awards (176,000). My theory is that the time allowed for considering photography has been hugely reduced. Consequently, those pictures which we instinctively enjoy win out. Hence, we see a ‘painterly style’ evident in the winning images of recent World Press Photo years. This year’s winner by Mads Nissen behaves like a painting, as does John Stanmeyer’s last year. In 2013 we saw Pal Hansen’s shot of the funeral in Gaza causing much controversy in its hyper real retouching.
I guess these winning pictures, by definition of their success in such a hugely competitive environment, reflect our notions of the perfect picture.
I was fascinated by a lecture Olly Lang gave (Regents Street, Apple store, London Dec. 2013). @oggsie is a master of Instagram, currently with 182, 000 followers. He has noted that some images are much more successful in attracting likes. The ones with the most likes, he says, respond to his three S rule: Sunsets, Silhouettes and Symmetry” (and most recently the Selfie). He explained by email to me: “It’s the ‘lizard brain’ (the Limbic System part of the brain) that sees the photo and very quickly gives you an emotional response. It literally feels the image, and the simplification of these “S” photos makes it easier for this part of the brain to simply feel good – there is no higher level processing of the image in the brain. Basically, they’re the cliché cookie cutter snack of the photography world”
I think this is very revealing; it suggests digital consumption of imaging is informing our tastes, in both amateur and professional arenas. When I trawl the World Press Awards Gallery to pre-digital eras I see pictures behaving – looking – much more like photographs.
I am not suggesting these photos not worthy winners, but it seems that the platform for photographs eschewing the conventional aesthetic is less obvious and I’m beginning to sense there is an awful lot of these sort of pictures around.
This is a shame really as the extraordinary amount of effort that goes into making these pictures does not always feel rewarded. I’m worrying now, about the 97,800 (or so) pictures that did not make it the World Press short list.
Back at the Grain Hub symposium it was great to listen to Broomberg and Chanarin. In their work, concept is paramount and it has proved to be the reason for their success. This is exemplified in their piece “The Day That Nobody Died”. Instead of producing the conventional photographs expected of an embedded (under the care or control of the military) photographer on the front line in Afghanistan, they simply exposed a roll of photographic paper. The idea was to comment on the “collusion between the media and the military.”
I’d be interested to know how they got their first break. I can’t imagine a competition platform that would recognize such diversion from the norm but I guess that’s the point.
So where do I find myself in today’s photographic culture? During LOOK/15, the Liverpool International Photography Festival (#LookPhotoFest) there are two bodies of work that I am showing or discussing. Both reflect a more personal approach, neglect conventional aesthetics in some way and are conceptually driven. I think they are my reaction to what I see as the growing hegemony of the beauty aesthetic.
In ‘Desk Job’ the series shown at Open Eye Gallery as part of their group show ‘Open”, I have deliberately used harsh, ugly and direct lighting to exaggerate a sense of claustrophobia for a series of portraits which explore the alienation of the office worker in a globalized world. The pictures are necessarily busy and cluttered with the chaos of office life; they work best as a series.
In my very latest work I find myself wrestling most with conventions in aesthetics. In 2012, I found myself In Libya, fascinated by a seemingly successful revolution that epitomized the romantic idea of the people usurping a nasty dictator.
I wanted to try something new, to explore the aftermath in a fresh way and I stumbled across the idea of recreating a family snap after a death in conflict. It seemed like a way to compel people visually so that a story could be told. Similar to the work made in Kosovo and Haiti, but with a new approach.
Actually there is not a great culture of photography in Libya and the approach would have been time consuming. However, I used the one example I did have to pitch for a wider, UK based story about remembrance of those fallen in the Afghanistan conflict, eventually being awarded Arts Council Funding to create an archive.
The technique works especially well as a vehicle to discuss remembrance as it allows the viewer to make comparisons between ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ which creates a compelling visual jolt. The stories of these bereaved friends and families are hugely powerful and it’s important that a space is created to hear their voice.
The visual dilemma for me here is that I have to step away from twenty years of experience and allow myself to be led by mainly amateur photographers (no disrespect here but the priorities were different). Although there is an interesting dialogue between the original picture and the choices I make as a craftsperson, it seems the more successful images in this project are those which reference directly the original picture and all its aesthetic mistakes. If you like, I am deliberately repeating poor aesthetical choices to make my pictures successful.
This runs against the grain, but ultimately this uneasy pact between the two different visual styles is required so that the concept can succeed and the stories can be told. In this context, the imperfect picture becomes the perfect picture as the visual idea is more important than the beauty aesthetic.
Whether I employ this technique again remains to be seen. In my next project I am employing a photojournalist approach, but I do know for me, it’s important to consider visual strategy carefully and somehow create work that feels fresh. Choice of subject, methodology and concept are perhaps all equally important considerations to make here. We are told sometimes, in a crowded world, having an identifiable style is paramount; indeed brand was a theme discussed at the Grain Hub symposium. For me however, I would like to develop an identity which is born out of good ideas executed well, rather than a particular style, regardless of whether it fits neatly into easily digestible chunks.
For further reading: louisquail.com