Episode 8

08. The Limited Viewpoint

Kitchen tables, windows, televisions and vases. On the surface, these may not sound like worthy artistic subjects, but many photographers have achieved success making images of these objects in the confines of their own home.

Show Notes

The following artists are mentioned in this episode:

Lee Friedlander, "Stems": https://www.moma.org/collection/works/106191

Nicéphore Niépce, "Still Life" and "View from a Window": https://blog.samys.com/nicephore-niepce-inventor-photography/

Laura Letinsky: https://lauraletinsky.com/

Lucas Samaras: http://www.craigstarr.com/exhibitions/lucas-samaras2

Carrie Mae Weems, "KItchen Table Series": https://carriemaeweems.net/galleries/kitchen-table.html

Hayahisa Tomiyasu: https://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/tomiyasu-hayahisa-ttp-photography-250119

Jan Groover: http://janetbordeninc.com/artist/jan-groover/

Cindy Sherman: https://www.moma.org/artists/5392

Abe Morell: https://www.abelardomorell.net/

Chrissy LaMaster: https://www.chrissylamaster.com/

Nina Katchadourian, "Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style": http://www.ninakatchadourian.com/photography/sa-flemish.php

John Pfahl, "Picture Windows": https://www.josephbellows.com/exhibitions/john-pfahl

Gregory Crewdson: https://gagosian.com/artists/gregory-crewdson/

Transcript

Over the past year, many of us have been stuck indoors owing to the worldwide pandemic. While many of us have gone back to a lifestyle that’s as normal as can be expected at this point, a large portion of the world’s population is still sheltering in-place. For many of us, life will never be the way it was before Covid-19.

Besides mask-wearing, vaccines and the loss of life, I’m thinking about how much more time we’re spending at home or away from other people. I have friends who have been working from home for a year, and that’s been going so well for them, they will continue to work remotely, pandemic or not. I’ve heard many people say they enjoy social distancing and the additional safety measures Covid has normalized.

Schools, at least in my area, still aren’t back to full classroom learning. I spoke to some college students recently, and while some longed to be back in a classroom, many preferred remote learning. Similarly, my best friend is a school teacher, and he’s grown to love remote teaching since he spends less time commuting in urban traffic, and he can teach from anywhere in the world there’s an Internet connection.

Photography was certainly affected by the pandemic. I read an article by a Brooklyn street photographer the other day, and she lamented how quiet the city had become. All forms of art suffered, particularly in the early days of the quarantine: Movie productions shut down, photographic assignments were cancelled, in-person classes shut down, and so on.

I supplement my day job income with adjunct teaching and freelance assignments from a local magazine I have a close relationship with. My art class went to remote learning after spring break of 2020. Months went by before I picked up more freelance work, and when I finally got a gig, shooting action at a local food bank, my editor lectured me on safety as if he was sending me into a conflict zone.

Even those of us who never left the workforce found ourselves isolating from our co-workers, walking around corporate offices with masks on, and hiding out in offices, doors closed, holding meetings on Zoom with people in the same building, not 20 feet away.

What I’m driving at here is, the pandemic has changed our attitudes and habits. A year ago, quarantine seemed strange and dissonant. Now, we’ve grown used to a certain amount of isolation.

This episode is about artists who have created great work in limited environments, and I’ll link to these artists in the show notes, so be sure to check them out if you hear something that interests you. Whether you’re still in isolation, or have become accustomed to the solitude of being at home or working alone, the images here hopefully serve as a reminder our vision isn’t limited by location.

This dovetails nicely with the previous episode, in which I talked about limiting your gear to prevent paralysis of choice. In this case, we’re limiting our viewpoint. I’ll also talk about how the window can be used effectively as a way to frame reality.

To begin, let's talk about Lee Friedlander.

The great American photographer, Lee Friedlander, spent most of his life photographing street life, the landscape, road scenes and parties. In 1994, suffering from knee pain and stuck at home he pursued still life. He tried a variety of subjects, including flowers, but it wasn’t until he started focusing on the stems of the flowers in clear vases that he found inspiration, making use of the light-bending effects of the water and glass to abstract the subject matter.

Friedlander would spend several years on the project, eventually publishing the images in an oversized book simply titled Stems.

Maybe the home space wasn’t completely foreign to Friedlander. Some of his works from the early 1960s feature images on television sets indoors.

Of course, still life studies are nothing new in art. One of the first photographic images ever developed was a still life of a table set for a meal, recorded by the photographic pioneer Niépce around 1827. This was an emulation of the tradition of still life subjects in painting.

This tradition has been carried on by photographers like Laura Letinsky, whose work subverts the standards of still life, by introducing feelings of unease and anxiety of what may lie beyond the frame. Her haunting still life creations are often messy, resembling the aftermath of a kitchen disaster, yet evoke strong feelings of loss and despair.

The photographer Lucas Samaras produced a series of conceptual work from his New York apartment. Samaras was his own model and appears in every image. The dull interiors are made interesting with colored lighting, props, and dramatic posing.

Further, Samaras used a Polaroid camera and manipulated the resulting images by scratching or rubbing them as they developed, often to surrealist effect.

Just a quick aside here: Some of you may recognize this technique as being specific to Polaroid SX-70 film. This was a popular alternative process some years ago. By applying pressure to the developing film, you could create painterly effects. Costing about $4 a shot at current prices, SX-70 film is painfully expensive now, and the newer emulsions apparently can’t be manipulated as dramatically as the older ones. Your mileage may vary, but there’s no Instagram filter as good as the real deal.

Continuing further into the household, the Kitchen Table series by Carrie Mae Weems explores domestic situations around the family table. Her 20-image series is a powerful meditation on relationships and tells the story of one woman’s life as seen through the intimate space of a kitchen.

The impact of that limited setup really becomes apparent when you see the images exhibited in sequence, where the consistent backdrop fades away, allowing the viewer to focus on the human drama taking place. It’s like watching a movie frame by frame..

Similar to Weems, the photographer Hayahisa Tomiyasu found a table to photograph -- but in this case, it was outside the window of his home in Germany. An old ping-pong table is repurposed by all who interact with it, allowing the viewer to observe the idiosyncrasies of human behavior and social habits over a period of time, in this case, from around 2012 to 2016.

Jan Groover was another photographer who was influenced by still lifes of the old masters, and looked to the kitchen for inspiration, focusing on everyday objects -- forks, spoons, pots and pans -- in still-lifes that emphasized form and tension.

Many of you are probably familiar with the self-portraits of Cindy Sherman featured in her famous series, “Untitled Film Stills.” Many of these provocative images were shot in her home -- and represent an array of characters and imagined situations that could have been pulled from cinema.

Photographer Abe Morell, after becoming a father, started a series of photographs from his home, studying mundane household objects with new curiosity and attention. I’m a fan of his Camera Obscura series, in which he turns entire rooms into cameras. By covering all the windows, except for a small opening to let outside light in, the room becomes a traditional camera obscura and the outdoor scene is projected into the room, which Morell then photographs. His obscura images of Manhattan are particularly stunning.

Proving even neutral-colored walls and dirty baseboards can evoke mystery, photographer Chrissy LaMaster produced autobiographical work from home, exploring identity and transformation following a divorce.The images became a visual diary of the experience, and in the artist’s own statement, they depict “in between” moments, “those few seconds just as something is about to begin or immediately after something has ended.” Often shot in cramped hallways, entrances and corners, the works are deceptively simple and suitably thought-provoking.

Even an airplane bathroom can become a studio, the artist Nina Katchadourian produced a series of self-portraits during a 14-hour flight across the Pacific.

During the flight she used props such as toilet seat covers and hung her own scarf up as a background, using her camera phone to create images in the style of 15th century Flemish portraiture. This would have been in early 2011 and you can see the limitations of the cell phone camera in these images, but nonetheless, they were exhibited in New Zealand, and displayed in period-style frames, as if they were historical paintings.

Let’s talk about windows.

Artists have often turned to the window as a convention to articulate space, as a metaphor for vision that contrasts with the reflective mirror, and as a theatrical curtain that divides the public and private space.

In cinema, the window has often been used as a plot device, whether it’s used as a static stage for a mystery to unfurl, as in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” or even DePalma’s “Body Double,” a film that directly references Hitchcock’s film, while serving as a further indictment of the protagonist’s male gaze and voyeurism.

In the film “One Hour Photo,” director Mark Romaneck uses windows to both frame his subjects and to reference the photographic themes of the film itself, often using shapes that have the same aspect ratio of a 4x6 snapshot.

In the early days of the pandemic, we collectively experienced a moment where windows were our connections to the real world. For some of us, this remains the case. We can continue to use windows as frames, stages and places to connect during this time of isolation.

Again, some of the earliest photographic works involved windows. In one of the earliest photographic works, Niépce captured a view from a window, where rooftops and buildings are clearly defined.

Windows have been a perennial subject for photographers, from early pioneers like Henry Fox Talbot, to Alfred Steiglitz, Man Ray, and Andres Kertesz, to modern artists such as Alec Soth. They have all made use of windows in their compositions, or to frame the landscape.

The works of John Pfahl range from postcard scenes of the natural landscape, to claustrophobic urban spaces, all framed through windows. Gregory Crewdson often uses the window as a portal to another world, or a transitional plane.

So, as you continue looking for daily photographic inspiration, consider the window, or the domestic space itself and the objects in it. When’s the last time you challenged yourself to explore your backyard or your kitchen with a photographic eye? If you’ve never tried abstraction, this would be an ideal opportunity.

Don’t underestimate mundane and everyday objects. Be sure to check out the works of Groover. She’s a case study of how lighting and composition can alter a form and our perception of it.

Windows are my favorite light sources. They bring directional light into our homes, so use them like studio softboxes. Combined with a reflector or piece of white posterboard or foamcore, windows can be used to light portraits or still life studies. Place a subject in front of a window for dramatic backlighting.

Also, consider using windows as screens for projection and shadow-play, a place for theater, as a frame, or as a barrier.

That’s going to do it for today’s episode; if you need some ideas, be sure to check out the show notes to see the art I mentioned. I think you’ll find it inspiring on many levels.

Just a quick note on this episode. When the world shut down more than a year ago, many photography educators rallied together to help one another on various social media groups. Much of this episode was gleaned from the knowledge shared during those early uncertain days.

In some other news, I’m really excited about our upcoming shows. Next week I’m welcoming a special guest to the show and we’re going to talk about photojournalism and long-term documentary photography, how to stay motivated, and a lot more. Be sure to check it out!