Panel Discussion: Photography Today – National Portrait Gallery, 05-vi-14

From my photography day-book...

From my photography day-book…

Mark Durden, author of Phaidon’s Photography Today (2014), a survey of photography as art from the 1960s to the present, is joined by the Guardian’s photography writer Sean O’Hagan* and photographer Sarah Jones to discuss themes of the self, the face and the body in photographic works by modern masters such as Diane Arbus, William Eggleston, Nan Goldin and James Nachtwey. In association with Phaidon.

* Actually it wasn’t him – it was David Campian instead.

A rather good talk, allowing various half-formed thoughts of mine about photography to coallesce a bit. Headlines:

  • Size Matters – my first thought on seeing the slide of a  passport-style portrait by Thomas Ruff was “How big was the print?” It turned out the print was huge, which utterly alters what you think about the picture. I think Grayson Perry (in his Reith Lectures) quoted Martin Parr as saying a photograph was art if it was printed “very large”. Certainly, pictures gain impact as they get larger – I once had a 15″x15″ print made of one of my photographs; it was immense! Or at any rate, fifteen inches by fifteen inches.
  • Time alters your reaction to photographs (and adds interest even to the most mundane picture somehow) as things stop looking the way they looked when the picture was taken. This is related to the “record” aspect of making pictures of things or people.
  • Repetition of subject matter is generally a good thing – I really like the idea of Nigel Shafran’s series’ of pictures of his partner on the phone and of the completed washing up; I must look at these more…
  • The emotional distance established between the photographer and the subject is an important factor in taking portraits – do you get to know your subject, like them even, or get in there get the photograph and try to catch them as they appear at first. All related to Diane Arbus, which is always a good place to start. (This ties in to Jane Bown‘s portraits and the short amount of time she preferred to spend on each shoot, as well)
  • As the idea of a “photographic tradition” develops it becomes harder to just take pictures – you are taking pictures within that tradition and – whether consciously or not – that informs both the pictures themselves and the reaction people have to them. This ties in with the feeling I have that, of all the places I have travelled to, the USA is the place where I have struggled most to take my pictures rather than ironic comments on earlier images of America which already exist in my mind, having been taken by others.
  • I must look more at August Sander, and make an effort to look for a first time at both Shafran and also Seiichi Furuya.

Not bad for a talk that lasted little more than an hour….



3 thoughts on “Panel Discussion: Photography Today – National Portrait Gallery, 05-vi-14

  1. Catherine

    Obviously an hour well worth it Simon. I really enjoy Nigel Shafran’s images and the way in which he makes the ordinary and everyday into something artistic and interesting.

    1. schirgwin Post author

      Yes, Catherine – I think what I liked was the idea of repetition in photographing each evening’s washing-up, washed up and draining, and of turning the unavailability of your partner while they’re on the phone into an opportunity to take pictures! That and the way that piling image on image through repetition deepens the meaning of all the series…

      1. Catherine

        It was the juxtaposition – not the washing-up alone but the documentation of the meal that had been eaten of it all so that there was another layer of the story. Don’t know about you, but I know I need to allow that sideways look into my photography – somehow!

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