Using the list of artists given above [Nancy Burson, Esther Teichmann, Corinne Vionnet, Idris Khan and Helen Sear] as inspiration, create a series of six to eight images using layering techniques.
– DIC Coursebook – p.21
My initial thoughts for this exercise grew directly out of the day’s-worth of photographs captured for the introductory exercise. I had noticed that a large number of the pictures I had noticed were ‘looking at me.’ Both Idris Khan and Corinne Vionnet work used common features to structure their layering of photographs; I would use eyes staring out of advertisements for my first go.
Rather than use the pictures I had taken earlier, I spent a couple of days taking headshots, levelling the eyes along the horizontal axis of the pictures as I took them. In Lightroom I cropped the pictures so the eyes were the same size and similarly placed in the frame. I opened them in Photoshop (Elements – I’m a cheapskate and don’t like subscription software, even with a student discount) and quickly built up a stack of layers, aligning the pictures with one another over a white base. I reduced the opacity of the three stacked images to 25%, counting the white background as a fourth layer. I made further small adjustments to even up the size and position of the eyes, and…
…there were things that could be done better and there could be more photographs layered onto it, but it worked
For the next layering experiment I remained in the underground, playing with common elements found in the London stations: the numbered mazes that had been commissioned to mark the tube’s 150th birthday- Labyrinth by Mark Wallinger – and the underground’s logo.
Over a number of days, I took two photographs (I also took a third picture of the individual tiled designs for the backs of the Victoria Line platform seats, but haven’t worked out a method to incorporate them into this exercise) at each station between Walthamstow Central and Kings Cross St. Pancras (about half the Victoria Line) and then settled down to start combining them. My first go was simple and straightforwardly graphic:
I could take more pictures and do this for each station on the line, ending up with a series of sixteen that could easily be made into a short book (there is also the much larger book featuring every station on the tube). I could imagine individual images – combined perhaps with the seat back tiling – being sold as postcards at the London Transport Museum. There isn’t much depth to it though. Next I settled down to work through my original idea for the pictures – visualising a complete journey between two points.
After correcting the geometry of the individual pictures, I piled them up in stacks and tweaked the size of each layer to compensate for the variations in my distance from the signs when I had taken the pictures. After reducing each layer’s transparency to about 15%, I found that there were things that registered strongly – the frame of the maze and the red cross marking the entrance; the red circle and blue bar of the underground logo – while other parts blurred and became unreadable – the mazes became unsolveable and the station names became an indistinct smear. The differences in the tiling of the stations and of the surrounds to the platform-side name signs blurred and interfered with one another.
There is a softened, painterly quality to these pictures which belies the sharpness of the individual photographs used to make them. I like the way the surrounds in fig.8 start to look as if a series of passes have been made with the squeegee while making a screen print or that the picture has been after uneven treatment of a piece of paper with light sensitive chemicals.
The images produced have ceased to be obviously photographic…
‘I’m actually more interested in images than photography.’ – Corinne Vionnet
To accompany your final images, also produce a 500-word blog post on the work of one contemporary artist-photographer who uses layering techniques. (This can be any of the artists cited in any section of Digital Image and Culture.)
– DIC coursebook p.21
In her series Photo Opportunities (2005 – ongoing) Corinne Vionnet takes repetitions of a single subject as her starting point layering them into rather beautiful composite pictures recording ‘the view’ as it is perceived by the mass of tourists visiting them. As such, she is engaged in an activity at one remove from the people who actually take the component pictures.
Like Martin Parr in his photograph of people pretending to support the Leaning Tower of Pisa (in Small World) Vionnet’s work here is concerned with the tourist experience of taking photographs at popular sites. Some of the work was included in the exhibit co-curated by Parr at Arles in 2011 and several of the places featured in Small World recur in Vionnet’s pictures. The difference is that – unlike Parr – Vionnet does not visit the sites that are her subject matter, nor is she interested per se in the individuals taking the photographs that form her raw material.
It is all quite ‘meta’; rather than being about the individual pictures, they are about act of taking a photograph of something that is already familiar to us from photographs and how this limits what we see when we visit these internationally famous sites.
They strike me as being an aesthetic rather than a documentary statement, impressionist rather than realistic. If photography (or maybe just art photography) can be seen as oscillating between its straight and its pictorialist modes, these are definitely at the pictorialist end of that spectrum. I was reminded of the more ethereal paintings of JWT Turner, of Monet’s series pictures capturing variations in light – his Rouen Cathedral series, say – and of Gerhard Richter’s overpainting of images based upon photographs.
I was also reminded of Louis Daguerre’s 1838 photograph Boulevard du Temple. This includes a man who had stood (relatively) still for long enough during the long exposure time to register on the image. During long exposures, moving people (or ripples in water or any number of other moving things) become transparent and eventually vanish; in Vionnet’s images exposure time is stacked up along with the resulting pictures, leaving only faint traces of the other tourists caught on the photographer’s sensor as each layer is rendered more transparent. But these traces, multiplied in their hundreds become a ghostly, tourist throng.
Interestingly, despite being made from stacked up pictures, their effect was somehow flat, with depth being replaced by the surface. You are not looking at the index of a 3D place, traced by Fox Talbot’s ‘Pencil of Nature’.
This painterly surface is visually appealing – you are more likely to print and display one of Vionnet’s pictures than you would be with a single snatched snap. Each layer may have ended up on Facebook or Flickr or wherever on line; many people may have ‘liked’ them; but none of them would – alone – have been regarded as definitive. Vionnet’s images aren’t definitive either, but they do have a greater presence; Vionnet’s action and status as ‘an artist’ has lent them some of what Walter Benjamin termed ‘aura.’ If everyone is a photographer now, Vionnet has sidestepped this by affecting the guise of an artist using photography…
For the next part of my response to this exercise, I decided to experiment a bit with Vionnet’s method. I looked on Trip Adviser to see what it recommended a visitor to Orkney (where I grew up) should see. I picked two of the top ten:
(There is something here around religion, religious sites and the modern pilgrimage made by tourists that might be worth developing later.)
For the cathedral I made an open search for images on Google, followed up with a second search in the Orkney group on Flickr; the Italian chapel was based on a general search (“italian chapel” orkney) on Flickr. I downloaded around thirty images for each of the pictures above (far short of Vionnet’s hundred, but I reckoned my macbook’s processing power would not be up to having many more layers active in photoshop at once) and stacked them up in layers.
Looking at installation views of Vionnet’s images (on her site, beneath the slideshow of the finished images of Photo Opportunities) her work’s print size starts at A2 (59.4 x 42.0 cm) with many of the exhibition prints being much larger. Getting images of a high enough resolution to print to that size on it’s own (taking a conservative 100 dpi as a starting point – 150 is the recommended starting point for digital C-Prints; 200 for inkjet) is not easy if you’re sourcing downloadable images online – you’d be looking for a file measuring 2400 pixels along it’s long edge and 1600 on its shorter one.
I had tried to work with much smaller images while making the St Magnus and Italian Chapel layered images and limited the number of layers to the low thirties, but the files were still huge – half a gigabyte for the Italian Chapel – and I was noticing my computer slowing down as it processed changes to the files. As well as raising questions around aesthetics, this is also becoming a technical problem with Vionnet (and others dealing with huge files and huge prints) distancing themselves from the vernacular user…
At this point in my thinking, I opened the exercise up on OCA Discuss. It was fig.5 (the combined picture of three faces, or rather eyes) that most people seemed to like best. As well as our programmed ability to recognise faces, even where there are none actually to be found – something we discussed in the thread – this comes down – I think – to people liking pictures of people above pictures of things. We like a pretty view, or a clever piece of design, but really we want something to feel a sense of engagement with.
I have been reading (re-reading for the first half) Scott McCloud’s excellent Understanding Comics and when I came to the second chapter (The Vocabulary of Comics) the section on the way we perceive our face as an abstract mask, while seeing others in far greater detail, making it easier for us to identify with the more abstracted depictions of faces shown in most comics (or sequential art, in McCloud’s – Will Eisner’s – phrase) I was struck by the way that this could perhaps explain the preference for the layered face.
I took some more pictures of adverts on the tube, concentrating this time on faces, looking directly out at me. I stacked up ten male faces and ten women, making sure that the eyes were aligned. I worked with the transparency of the individual layers until I was happy and added them to the discussion thread.
A suggestion was made that I look at the work of Thomas Galton on the now-discredited idea of criminal ‘types’ for possible context. This chimes with some of the collections currently on show at the V&A as well as sending me back to the exhibition Images of Conviction at the Photographers’ Gallery back in 2015.
My experiments also led tutor Clive White to suggest I tried flipping a picture of a face and then combining the resulting mirror images; ‘it can be very uncanny,’ he said. I tried it with a photograph of my daughter:
When I’d posted it, Clive said the effect worked better with older faces ‘that have been etched with experience,’ an interesting contrast with Thomas Ruff’s Porträts that were on show at the Whitehall Gallery last year, which Ruff reckoned worked because their subjects were young enough to still have faces that gave little away. I tried it with a picture of my own haggard self. It now sits at the top of this page.
I began to wonder whether I could tidy the them up, hiding how they had been made…
And at this point, I stopped further experiments and got on with writing this all up. There’s plenty to think about still:
- Is this just a way of standing out from the photographic, vernacular herd?
- To what extent should you (possibly not should, but a different modal) try to disguise the extent of your intervention.
- How do you inject meaning into work that can easily be seen to be simply graphic or aesthetic?
- How does the stacking up of images relate to the notion of time in a picture?
- How can all this be applied to the sort of things I want to do with photography?
…but I’ll leave them to simmer away as I work through the remaining exercises and reading and move towards putting the assignment together…
- Vionnet, C – Artist’s Site: http://corinnevionnet.com/ (accessed 20/12/18)
- McCloud, S (1993) Understanding Comics New York, William Morrow/Harper Collins
- Parr, M (1990) – The Leaning Tower of Pisa. From ‘Small World‘ Martin Parr/Magnum Photographs – https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=29YL53G7RT3 (accessed 27/12/18)
- Wallinger, M (2013) Labyrinth – 270 individual mazes, displayed at each of the London Underground (TFL) stations – https://art.tfl.gov.uk/labyrinth/about/ (accessed 27/12/18)