Influences – 10 key photographers

Posted on January 10, 2013


Following on from the last post I have been reflecting on which photographers have most influenced my work since I began the Advanced course just over a year ago. I have identified 10 photographers who have been very important to my development.  I want to make sure that my blog properly reflects my thoughts these and how they have influenced my own photographic practice. I plan a short post for this blog on each which I will ultimately incorporate within my Reflective Review.

I discuss these photographers briefly below. In each case I either already have or will refer(red) to their work in the covering texts for my Assignments. It may be that when I look back at their work I will change my view on how significant they have been. It could also be that I may decide to include others. We shall see. I have not included references to books, exhibitions and other sources in this overview. I will do this within the individual posts.

  1. Walker Evans – Evans’s Subway Portraits was a key reference point for my Museum work. His approach however has more generally influenced my thinking. Evans believed in depicting things as he saw them with the minimum of photographic artifice. This applied to all his work whether it be vernacular urban scenes or portraits. I have commented on this previously in this post, which refers to an essay on Post Modernism and a Tate Modern Exhibition Cruel and Tender which featured Evans’s work. I can best describe Evans’s influence on my portrait work as a desire to show people  ‘as they are’ and not as a ‘theatrical’ representation created by overt posing by the subject and/or expressive photographic artifice.
  2. Philip Lorca di Corcia – DiCorcia was another reference I used for my Museum work. Specifically I referred to his Heads  and Streetwork  series. He too has had a much broader influence on my thinking. What I have taken from DiCorcia is the idea that a photographic project is not just about going out and taking pictures. It is also very much about exploration of a process. For example, DiCorcia’s seminal work Hustlers  is a series of portraits of male prostitutes in Los Angeles. For this series he followed a strict process for the production of each portrait. He and his assistants first scouted out a suitable location for the portrait; next they set up the lighting and made some test shots; then he went out on the streets to find his next subject; when he found his subject he offered to pay them the fee they required for their ‘services’ as a fee for him to photograph them; they returned to  the original location made the portrait; finally he captioned the photograph with the subject’s name, age, birthplace and the amount of the fee. He repeated this process for each of the portraits. DiCorcia adopts equivalent systematic processes for all his major personal projects.
  3. August Sander – August Sander’s photographic typology of the German people in the first quarter of the 2oth century is now regarded as one of the great photographic works. Whilst most would now take issue with his categorisation of  members of society by a class structure based loosely on employment (or unemployment), his work is still a reference point for many photographers today. For me three things stand out when I look at his work. The first is simply its prodigious scale. He made over 500 portraits over some twenty years. Sander had an idea and steadfastly stuck with it. I have learned that producing one’s best work does not come easily and perseverance is essential for success. Second is his systematic approach. Here again the importance of the process is illustrated. And finally and possibly most importantly it is the way Sander made dignified and sensitive portraits of all his subjects regardless of his perception of their status.
  4. Tom Hunter – I came across Tom Hunter’s work when I was researching references for my Market series. He produced a series of group portraits of local traders/shopkeepers in Hackney, Trading Places. When I compare my own Market  portraits to Hunter’s mine seem to lack depth. His portraits have a quiet intensity which mine simply do not have. I thought long and hard as to why this is. I now believe that key reason is that Hunter spent time with his subjects. He made the portrait session into an occasion. He showed his subjects old photographs of traders on the same street and made them feel important. And he used an old style camera to make his pictures. All of this demonstrated to the subjects that both they and their portraits are important. In the resulting portraits the subjects display gravity, dignity and pride.  There are many lessons to be learned from this. I recently bought a copy of Hunter’s book The Way Home. The Trading Places photographs in the book fully lived up to my expectations.
  5. Rineke Dijstra – Of all the photographers I have studied Dijkstra has perhaps influenced me the most. I find her portrait studies, particularly the Beach Portraits, really compelling. They have a quiet understated feeling but are nevertheless imposing when seen full size in the Gallery. I was lucky enough to see her retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York (see here). When I look at Dijkstra’s portraits I feel that they are genuine and that the subject looks as they would in real life. They also ‘give-off’ an impression of introspection and vulnerability. I find the way she works in series adds to my interest enormously. I am drawn not just to the individuals in the portraits but also to make comparisons between them. I find myself speculating on cultural and economic influences. Reading about Dijkstra’s methods has given me ideas on how to work with portrait subjects. Showing them that the making their portrait is something important, taking time over setting up the portrait, not over-directing the subject  and being prepared to wait for the right moment to click the shutter are all valuable learning points I have gleaned from Dijkstra’s approach. Studying her  Beach Portraits has made me think a lot more about backgrounds also. A plain background may be just plain but that very fact holds significance in itself. In the Beach Portraits Dijkstra places her adolescent subjects on the edge of land and sea. At first sight this could be taken as simply a neutral background, but a more insightful interpretation is that it could be a metaphor for the life stage of her subjects who are all at the transition between childhood and adolescence. 
  6. Elina Brotherus – Brotherus was one of my references for my own self portrait series. In most of her work she operates as both photographer/artist and model. Much of her earlier work is autobiographical. I became interested in her approach of making self portraits at times when life changing events were taking place – in other words at times when she was distracted and less inclined to consciously pose. It was because of her work and Rineke Dijkstra’s self portraiture that I became interested in exploring of ways in which photographers  ‘disarm the pose’. This has become the central theme within my Advanced course work. I am also very interested in Brotherus’s studies of the relationship between artist and model – an interest which has blossomed since I read Laura Mulvey’s ideas on the gendered gaze as part of the Understanding Visual Culture course (see here). Her willingness to experiment with ideas is something that I admire about her work. It broadened my thinking on the scope and e potential of photography. I have followed a more experimental path with my most recent work on the effects of long exposures on the pose.
  7. Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin  I came across Broomberg and Chanarin’s Trust when I was researching reference sources for my Urban Artists at Work  series. Two things struck me about what they had done. First was the systematic way they had structured their work. This reemphasised the lesson I had learned from DiCorcia (above) that photography can also be an exploration of process. Second was their ethical stance towards the portrait subject and their absolute insistence that their subjects should agree to having their photograph taken. They made me think more about the way in which photography is in effect the exercise of power of one person (the photographer) over another(the subject). I followed up my research into Trust with a review of two other works by this pair of photographers both of which involve portraiture: Mr Mkhize;s Portrait & other stories of the new South Africa  and Ghetto. These books gave me further insight into Broomberg and Chanarin’s photographic style and their political and social engagement which is unusual in the world of photography. It is interesting that since researching Trust  I have avoided candid photography in favour of a more collaborative approach. Whilst I am proud of my candid portrait series  Museum and I believe that I have been respectful to my subjects in this work,  I have always had a sense of unease about whether I was taking advantage of my subjects.
  8. Paul Graham -Paul Graham was also an influence I cited for my Urban Artists at Work series. Specifically, I referred to his TV portraits series. As with other photographers whose work I have referenced I have looked further into Grahams oeuvre and have come to regard him as one of Britain’s most influential photographers.  What I take most of all from his practice is the way he is prepared to experiment. He never seems to stand still and always looking for something new. Because of this it is a little difficult to pigeonhole his work. It is also clear that he is prepared to take a risk with new ideas, something which I now know I need to do to take my work to a higher level.
  9. Lee Friedlander – I have referenced Friedlander in the supporting texts for two of my projects: I am an Ironman – Self Portraits  and Urban Artists at Work.  As for Paul Graham, Friedlander’s work covers a wide spectrum. He has been a prolific photographer and has been prepared to experiment with new ideas. He has also produced a significant number of self portraits and has not been afraid to show himself as he really is despite his advancing years – I know that feeling. He gave me the confidence to push ahead with my own self portraiture project. I am glad he did.
  10. Bettina Von Zwehl –  I have recently started to study the work of Von Zwehl. In much of her work she explores how the human subject responds to outside stimuli. As David Chandler says in the introduction to the Photoworks monograph of her work, Von Zwehl’s pictures “construct the means to separate out what people actually look like from how they might want us to see them’. One of the reasons I am attracted to her work and indeed the work of most of the above photographers is that I see them as refreshing counterpoints to the flood of  manufactured portraits  in popular culture, which are mostly concerned with image and celebrity status (of both the portrait subject and the photographer).

I plan to make an extended post on each of the above over the coming weeks to ensure that my blog properly reflects the background research I’ve undertaken and the full extent of my thinking on these important influences.