Eirini Grigoriadu mentions the concept of distance in her essay about typologies published in the magazine “Ars Longa” in 2012, stating that the portraits of the German photographer Thomas Ruff offer a proximity to the individual where we can see each detail of another human being, although we are protected against a personal encounter.
Thomas Ruff strengths such a distance between the viewer and the portrayed, creating obstacles to hinder the identification of the individual: using plain and neutral backgrounds, and avoiding showing distinctive elements as clothes to define a type. This approach is radically opposed to the style used by Sander fifty years before, who insistently used the background and clothes to contextualize the individuals and to remark their individuality, although within a framework of the “half-medieval guild structure” (Keller, 1986) that he devised.
The main goal of the Assignment One has also to do with distance, since it is a kind of invitation to the photographer to set out for the encounter of the subject, facing nothing less than the experience of photographing strangers; this will require the photographer to leave the relative safety offered by hiding him/her behind of the camera, and break such barrier, which so often separates the photographer from the subject, and it will demand to him/her to plan, select, negotiate and convince before photographing. Since I had no previous reference about the chosen subject, I had to devise a way to approach people, reducing the distance from mutual ignorance that separated us so that I could gain their trust and photograph them in a relaxed atmosphere.
I chose a medieval market held in the town of Vigo between the 1st and 2rd October for the assignment. In fact, the pictures were initially taken for the exercise 1.3 of the unit to illustrate the concept of typology. On this market, I found two different kinds of sellers: the artisans that mainly sell handcrafted products, and the resellers who sell products manufacturing at a large scale by industrial factories.
I chose to photograph the group of artisans because, in addition to the reason mentioned above, in my opinion they represent the paradigm of personal motivation, creativity and business skills fairly well, and although they are commonly considered as those “who merely apply the rules which others have detected” (Thoreau, 2006), I like to think they are on the foundations of the artistic trade. In addition, the way of life chosen by almost all of them is in conflict with current standards of life: the security of a stable job.
Perhaps this helps to understand the social gap between two ways of life: those who live clinging to the assurances of a conventional life, which turned them into the alienated work-force that produces goods that neither they see nor belong to them (Marxist theorist alienation), and the latter ones, who participate actively in the design, manufacture and sale of the products that they make for a living:
“By transforming the real world to satisfy his needs, man’s productive activity leaves its mark, the mark of his species powers at this level of their development, on all he touches. It is in this manner that he ‘puts his life’ into his objects, the latter expressing in what they are the character of the organic whole to which both they and the living person who made them belong”
With all these ideas, thoughts and motivations in my head I went to the medieval fair in the early morning to try to talk with the artisans and better understand their work and way of life, and take some pictures of them. Because it was Sunday, large public presence was expected, so I went as soon as possible to avoid the stress of the crowd.
Before taking the pictures, I introduced myself to each one, telling them what the purpose of my work was, chatting with them for a while to get a better understanding of each person. Basically, I asked them a few questions about the kind of work they do, their background, experience and practising years, future expectations and so forth. Because I didn’t want to interrupt too much their activity, I didn’t spend more than five to ten minutes with each one, except with Mario (the saddler) who gently explained to me a lot of interesting facts about the artisan trade in general, and his speciality in particular. He invited me to go inside the stall, showing me some of his remarkable works. All the artisans to which I addressed kindly took part on the survey. To take the pictures I invited them to stand in from of their stalls, so in that way we get a greater feeling of proximity with the subject. Some of them were asked not to smile, trying to be as natural as possible, although the really one who performed as I wanted was Tomas (the painter).
In my first essay written for the exercise I wanted to view this typology as a kind of tribute to the work of the artisans, but now, with the printed photos in front of me and after a second thought, I can’t help to think about the fact that these medieval fairs where the artisans are dressed up in medieval costumes and selling their products in a decorated setting that simulates the allegedly atmosphere of ancient times -except for the presence of plastic and prices in euros, is the ultimate stage where artisans are domesticated and enforced to obey the laws of the society consumption, gathered in an spectacle for the amusement of the crowd, forced to officially register as craftsmen and to pay a significant amount of money in order to participate in these fairs and condemned to represent this kind of pantomime to sell their products.
On the contrary of what I thought when I wrote the essay for the exercise 1.3, photographing artisans with medieval costumes is not a way to reduce the distance that separates us from the real person behind the costume and hence that will allow us to know about their identities, but it will only enable us to remark the uniqueness of the picturesque, pointing out the elements with which the person is covered to perform the role that the organizers of the fair demand for the success of the event. As in the typologies of Sander, subjects justified their presence on this work only by the role they play on the drama, and we never know how far away the real person is.
As I mention above, these pictures were initially taken for the exercise 1.3 and because they were taken to form a typology, they work better as a unity, so I decided to include all of them in the assignment. The pictures are included in the same order they were taken.
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
Although the pictures included in the assignment are from a previous exercise of the course (1.3 Typologies), I understand that the decision to include them in this assignment is fully justified because the goal of it is to face a totally unknown situation and people.
In order to take the photos I found useful to devise a strategy to approach the subject, which also helped me to give a sense of unity to the whole.
Choice of subject: Based on accessibility criteria, I chose a situation where I could access a relatively large group of people, where my presence did not raise suspicions. It is true that the situation chosen is restricted to a time and specific group of people, who were summoned there to take part in the fair, so there is no possibility of subsequent variations or further development of the theme; to a certain extent, we could consider this work as a kind of reportage of the event, focused on the figure of the craftsmen who were there.
Planning: Before talking with the subjects, I found convenient to have a vision of the project as a whole. In this case, I wanted to construct a typology with these artisans, making all of them to pose in a similar way, in front of their stalls. Posing in such a manner the person is better shown, and we have a greater feeling of proximity to him (the counter is the element that is interposed between the artisan and the public)
Development: To approach an unknown person, it is important to make a short and concise introduction, trying to gain their attention almost immediately. In this case, after a brief presentation, I told each person that I was doing an academic work about craftsmen, and that I would need to know something about their work and finally to take a portrait picture of them, asking them whether they agreed to take part on it. Then I interviewed the subjects for a few minutes, asking them about their work and the products they sold. I also asked for their first name and an email account to send them a copy of the picture. Finally, I took the photograph and after the greetings, I asked them to indicate me where I could find another artisan, and in many occasion it resulted that they gently offered themselves to introduce me to the following artisan.
From a compositional point of view, I decided to photograph most of subjects using a format similar to the American shot. In some cases -and where I found that the plane could cut off some interesting details, I used a general plane (Mario and Belinda) or a medium shot as in the case of Tomas (Painter) to put the focus on the face of the subject. I believe that this mixture of planes can help to give a bit more of dynamism to the whole series.
The light conditions were not very favourable and I had to use a fill flash, and in general, this is the main fault of the whole series, since the presence of the flash is notorious, and in some cases (David) the final picture seems rather inspired by the night scenes of Weegee than in the series of portraits from Sander.
Quality of outcome
In terms of the aim of the Assignment, I am very pleased with the result, because in my opinion I managed pretty well the circumstance of facing non-familiar people and situations. However, I admit that the subject was relatively easy to photograph, since it was a public event and the people on such situations have almost a natural disposition to be photographed.
I processed the pictures in black and white because I think it helps to emphasize the person and his expression, avoiding the distraction of background, too colourful and tacky at times. The black and white also gives a more solemn character to the image, conferring it a kind of dignity that avoids seeing the whole as something like a pantomime of artisans dressed in medieval style.
I did not include the prints for the tutor feedback, but in any case, I printed them in a glossy finish to strengthen the details, and in general, they look well. However due to the light conditions of the day when I took the pictures (between 11:00 and 13:00 hours in bright sunny day), they look with a very high contrast. Despite the fact that I use a fill flash, some subjects have strong shadows in their faces, and maybe because of a bad adjustment of the flash there are some annoying shadows in the background of the subjects.
Although the brief of the assignment only asked for five pictures, I decided to include all the pictures that I took for the series, so all together, they work as a typology, and it allows me to give a sense to the essay as a personal view of a social class represented by different subjects. However, I have some doubts about the coherence of the written essay, especially since I considered it a very personal and subjective appreciation.
Demonstration of creativity
I do not know if the fact of reusing photographs taken for a prior exercise can be considered a prove of creativity; I think that the material is interesting enough to try to provide a more detailed interpretation of it, and the assignment was a good excuse for it.
Learn to develop a strategy for approaching the subjects, under the excuse of an academic work, and gather a group of 14 photographs in a set with some formal coherence, is an outcome that justifies the inclusion of the previous work in this assignment.
Moreover, with the intention to give a little more intellectual content of my work, I would have liked to develop an idea that was also related to the world of work, but the lack of time and perhaps of courage, forced me leave it for another occasion: a typology of people working on the street: deliverymen, postmen, advertising, tourist guides, street vendors…
Sander, A., Döblin, A., Robertson, M., er, A. and Doblin, A. (1995) August Sander: Face of our time: Sixty portraits of twentieth- century Germans. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel Verlag GmbH.
Sander, A., Sander, G., Keller, U., Keller, L., S, G. and Keller, text by U. (1986) Citizens of the twentieth century: Portrait photographs, 1892-1952. 4th edn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Grigoriadou, E. (2014) ‘The Photographic Typologies: The Archive and the Physiognomy in Weimar Germany’, Anales de Historia del Arte, 24(Especial Number), pp. 185–195.
Thoreau, H.D. (2006) Thoreau and the art of life: Precepts and principles. Edited by Roderick MacIver. United States: Heron Dance Art Studio
Ollman, B. (1977) Alienation: Marx’s conception of man in a capitalist society. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
İncirlioğlu, G.C. (2013) ‘TYPOLOGIES IN PHOTOGRAPHY’, METUJFA, 14, pp. 1–2.
Casetti, F., di Chio, F. and Losilla, C. (1991) How to analyze a film. Barcelona: Paidos Iberica Ediciones S A.