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Mirrors and Windows

Lesson 8 from: Create Powerful Photo Essays & Personal Projects

David H Wells

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Lesson Info

8. Mirrors and Windows

Lesson Info

Mirrors and Windows

I want to talk about the idea of photographs as mirrors and photographs as windows, and I'm going to be using my wife's work. Her name is ana palikot nathu matthew, and if you're right down her middle name alone and you google or in middle name she's the only one of the web using that name so that's how you can find her and also I'm gonna talk about my work indirectly, they have already seen most much of my work, and the idea is that photographs are both mirrors and windows, and it actually comes from an exhibition in a book by a guy named john szarkowski, who in the sixties and seventies was the curator of photography at the museum of modern art in new york, and it was, ah, it was called a survey exhibition. It was annexed this exhibition of all the different kinds of photography that were going on in america between nineteen sixty in nineteen seventy eight, and he came up with this idea, which for me, I remember when I was in college, I read the book and I said, wow, that's a big tha...

t's, a big thing for me work with sub divided into two categories, and I think there's still can't those categories still reflect today's approaches to photography work that largely seeks to see the outside world is what szarkowski and I would agree are essentially mirrors okay, all this times are windows my apologies, windows all of my photographs were showing you something that was outside of me maybe in my family maybe to my immediate circle most of what you're talking about seems like it's more on that line of a window but we'll tease it out going forward okay on examples ah french photographer named eugene eugene at j he was known as the patron saint some people calling patron saint a window photographers or window artists more recent photographers are people like robert frank deane rbis way may egleston henry wessel, todd pappa george lee freelander these are different people who were artists at the time whose style of photography they're very different from photographer to photographer and it's actually worth looking up there their work is each one of them does very different stuff but it's always this idea of a window of something that's out there that they're showing you and a more contemporary example of course is documentary work today and so here's some three photos by eugene ajay who photographed paris at the end of the nineteenth century and if you know his work there's very rarely people in it it's about the change that was going on in paris and most these buildings apparently I'm gonna be torn down the beginning of the twentieth century and a lot of change there but that's what I think that's what szarkowski talked about and I think of is a window photographer by comparison work that reflects the subject ihe vitti of the author of the artist szarkowski and I think I used this term a lot my teaching and even my own photography is a mirror one is not better than the other but they're really completely different for example the equivalence of the photographer alfred stieglitz and in his work he proposed the idea that a photograph can be equivalent of an emotion if you know stieglitz work his most famous work is the equivalent siri's where his photograph clouds so on the one hand they're pictures of clouds but what he was getting at was you look at them and they create an emotional experience of the viewer that's not necessarily about the thing it's a mere of of the journey the photographer took so szarkowski described the practice of the artists in the mirror category as manipulated synthetic, noting the work of photographers like walter chappelle minor white, jerry you'll zeman, ralph gibson, dwayne michaels and many, many, many more contemporary photographers but this was when tarkowski put this exhibition together, he said, these are the people he thought were representing them or mirror aspect of a photograph more contemporary examples of this are ah photographer like gregory gregory crewdson if you know his work virtually everything is staged and khun trolled his work loose a lot like movie stills and so it's all about his own experience that idea of a mirror so these are for example, a couple of alfred stieglitz equivalent on the one hand they're photographs of clouds but in another level they take you on an emotional journey it's not just about the actual physical thing so one of the questions to be asking when you're looking in other projects when you're creating your own project we're thinking about going forward is my work a mirror is what I'm looking at a mirror window that's one of these decisions when jim was up already already remember I said now going forward we're gonna be doing a bunch of decision making that's the first decision mirror window both in terms of what you're creating but also when you're looking at other people's work you want to look at it and say ok was this work primarily about their own experience and they're just using the photographs to tell that story or is really more of a window again one is not better than the other and then szarkowski acknowledge that sometimes a blurry line between the two because that's probably one of your very first thoughts is it grounds over there smiling right? Some pictures were really they can do both I mean I like to think my best work you look at and you get a little bit of a sense of me as well as the thing that's out there, though I'm still pretty high on the window and pretty low on the mirror scale, so I'm going to show you my wife's work, and I do this partly because she's, my wife and I'm prejudice and I love her, but mostly because her work is really very far over on that mirror side, and I'm doing this part because I want you to have that idea in your head, and I'm doing this partner for the online audience because there's a lot of people out there who are saying, well, I don't want to do photo journalism, I don't want to do documentary, I have these stories within me that I want to tell him, so I'm going to put forward some examples of different ways that people tell stories in this mirror category. All right, so the first work that I'm going to show of hers is called bollywood sat arise. As I said, she's from india, she was born in england, grew up in india and actually now lives in the us. And so what she's done is she's taken indian movie posters and deconstructed them and then rearrange them. So if you look at this one, for example, um it's about the subject of arranged marriage in india she was briefly in the arranged marriage market and then she actually came to the us to study photography got a graduate degree in photography and then we met after that and so she's taken a old movie poster changed the type around talked about the issues of uh, choosing a spouse to an arranged marriage after only one or two meetings and all that stuff and the iconography and the type and all that is taken from other film posters but there's no film poster in the rial indian film market like this so she's using that visual structure of film posters, the type and all this stuff to make an overtly political flash feminist statement another film poster here in the small type if you can't read because I'm blocking your view, it says, don't play in the sun, you'll get dark and no one will marry you. This is a quote that her aunt used to tell her and there actually is a lotion that indian women use called fair and lovely to get lighter. And obviously this is all social commentary and we can do social commentary through photographing the way people behave in streets and political events or you can do similar kind of social commentary but saying no, I'm actually not going to use representational imagery, I'm going to use film poster iconography type self portrait as a little child picture that's actually her when she was a kid, and then use the narrative that she's picked up from her family, another film poster, this's on premera relationships, where it's acceptable for men in india to have relationships before marriage, and with women it's not, and course, what she's doing she's pushing back at that and all of the stuff you see the imagery in the back, the imagery in the foreground, the type fought is from an original film poster, but she used this photo shop, takes it apart and then puts it back together. And so she's had very, very good success getting this workout in there, getting it exhibited it's, not a convention, approached the photography like I do, but it's a way of reflecting her own experience and creating an image that I could just tell by the way you're going, you're trying you really want to kind of go in there and spend some time with it, and we can do a little bit of it now. I would encourage you actually to look at her work later, even if it doesn't necessarily inform you in terms of what you're doing, you can see how she's using the same thing we're all doing visual imagery tell a story to get the audience, to stop and to think this is one of the most recent ones this was actually done about a year ago after the horrific rape in delhi and um there is right in the middle of quote from a politician who actually said that chow mein leads to hormonal imbalance and then people do these things which of course is absurd but it's all of this is that taking the iconography film posters and type in this case using the hashtag and all that stuff to make up something which in this case she posted on the walls in india so people would actually walk by them and think that's a film poster but it's not a film poster and that's what we do is photographers are jobs photographers is fundamentally what I describe it is our job as photographers is to get the person to not turn the page in the magazine to not walk to the next piece of art in the gallery to not click to the next page to stay with that image to go into it. I can see by the way you creating your heads you wanted to do that that's, what our job is or whether the photos composed in terms of assembled from old pieces whether it's a documentary photograph from something the photograph in the real world doesn't matter what matters is that she's using a kind of visual language to get people to stop and look the next project I want to show you of hers is called memories of india. How many know what a whole good camera is? And they had you worked with holger cameras at plastic toy camera about twenty dollars, it britain was a carnival toy. Actually, it tends to be very sharp in the middle, and it falls off rapidly, both in terms of exposure and density of the edges, so it creates a very memory like feeling. So this is a serious that she has done in this continuing to do called memories of india thes air, obviously black and white, two and a quarter with film square printed fairly small, five by five, and they're basically like the title says her memories of india, whether it's literally remember that she has from her childhood or or just sort of her mental process of her experience of growing up in india. And I'm not saying to go out there you's a hoe, but it's another one of those tools like we saw with brandon phoebe does work earlier today with the square square by definition, forces the viewer to encounter the image differently. The black and white immediately says, this is not representational reality, this has been interpreted so that's, why I I encourage you to look at the work and it's one of these choices to make. Okay, one of the questions I'm gonna have for you as we get closer to helping you finalize your project is black and white or color, is it square? Are you going to stick with the representational? Or you're going to think about maybe doing something else? I don't expect an answer now, but going forward, you want to be able to answer those questions next project that she did, I'm going to show you is called an indian from india, and the idea simply is that she grew up in south asia. So she's, a asian indian, for lack of better from her person from south asia, and when she meets people that frequently say, where you from, she'll say, I'm from rhode island, they'll say, no, no, no where you're really from or they'll say, and then she'll say india and then we'll say what tribe and it's about the confusion, of course, between native americans and people from india, columbus and fourteen, ninety two was looking for india, he found this country so they're paired. They're always dip ticks like this, and again, I'm not saying used this structure, but this kind of pairing automatic. Click rates for reviewer a kind of resonance between two different things so in this idea of the photographs being mirrors thes air literally mirrors I mean she's in the picture in this case she is on the right the photograph on the left is of course the historical photograph most but not all of these are by edward curtis who's the most famous photographer the native american in the nineteenth century nineteenth century and early twentieth century some of them are by other photographers so the one on the left is the actual original photograph and the one on the right she's taken the background and this is the scene and the quality of light and mimicked it and made the photo on the right same thing here and in all of these on one image there's a title that the original author made so the original author's titles traditional indian traditional american indian mother and child and left and then on the right is contemporary indian american mother and step because my daughter was by my first marriage on his technically dina stepmother so it's going at the historical and contemporary same thing here this is the one on the left is actually the original nineteenth century photograph one on the right he's opposed herself and then used the same background in photo shop and if you follow this but one of the left this is the captain by the photographer not by me tom charlie no native american that navajo I'm sorry on the entry of entry to the carlyle school carlisle, pennsylvania and then this is the same guy three years later in carlisle, pennsylvania that's historical document that's not my wife's opinion and of course she's riffing on it by saying that's what she looked like on the right when she came here and this is what she looks like now because she's university professor and of course this absurdity to that but she's using that that's the point of this and I get I'm not saying you should do that but the more you understand about everything that's out they're from the purity window s kind of photography to the mirror kind of photography the better equipped will be to make your own work and then this next one is the most recent work these were actually videos and so uh hope I'm not gonna block your way when the video comes up okay this is a project that she's doing right now and I'll play a video and it should be playing right now it's about a one minute loop there we go exactly so she's using nineteen she's using old family photographs and then re photographing the people who were in those photographs as they age and then the next generation the next generation so it's called regeneration because it's typically built around photographing three generations of women initially in india and then subsequent work will be in vietnam I'll show you just a second and so and should cycle all the way back through so you've gone through three generations of women the bride as she maturity became the grandmother and then they grant then the grand daughter the daughter and it'll cycle back and these were exhibited in galleries in ipads when you walk up to them you think, oh it's a snapshot and then you stand there, you'll notice the snapshot is changing and again I'm not necessarily saying you should be making that but this is another way of solving this problem how do you tell the story? Somebody looks at it and says, oh literally what you wanted to do is I never thought of it that way that was from india this is also from vietnam she's been very fortunate to get different grants to go different places to do this work this is a woman who's obviously was a young woman then and and she's going to grow up and it will go through both her ageing and then her daughter and then her granddaughter will appear in the photo. And the art of this project is obviously finding the old historical photograph supposing these people in the same position lighting it the same way and then a ton of photos I've work to put these things together so they become these beautiful animations er again that's, right, we have to do this. But how do you tell the story that you want to tell that's the question? So it should've cycled back, and then this. This is the current work that she's working on she's, photographing families that were affected by the partition of india when india was divided. When when the british left in nineteen forty seven and you may know that it was divided into east east pakistan, west pakistan, in india, and in that time millions of people were displaced. And I think close to me, and people were killed, and so it's a trauma that still actually impacting india, because one of the ironies is that it's actually not there's no memorials to the partition india it's still what she calls an open wound in the name of the project is actually called open wound. So it's cycling through into the other thing she started doing is incorporating text into this one, where people will write something briefly about their experience. So again it not to necessarily say, used that kind of technology, but you understand the idea of mirrors. Is there any work that you have seen along the way where you said that work was a cz much about the author, as it was about the thing that's shown? The rent is shaking his head, and I could pick up right off the top of my head, okay, one of the things to be doing, I will talk about this more, uh, later today and also tomorrow's, when you're out there seeing new work, you want to be asking itself literally that question. So, is this work a mirror? Because you might look at the work and say, well, yeah, it's about that, but I'm not getting some going further, but because maybe it's, autobiographical or, of course, is a documentary as a window, like we've been talking about before, how far is like trying to get back to the mirror or window, please explanation? Because I'm kind of drawing a blank in and so to speak, I know what you're talking about, the difference between the mirror and the window? I mean, what exactly are you saying? Cause I'm not it just hasn't clicked in my head yet? And then, well, what has click if you're talking about it being a mirror, is it something that you see and the work that kind of reflects back toward to or who you are as a person? And the window is like, okay, this I'm viewing this as an outside person, looking into that, they're looking into this particular subject or am I way off base on mars? You're really very close. I mean, that's a good wave of think about the one thing to understand is I mean, not literally be a mirror in terms of in the image, but it is telling you is much more about the author of their experience. That part is clearly a mirror, okay? Versus yet you're looking in the window outside the person until all this stuff is my wife. I like to tease her about the idea at all about her, her, her because it's all about her experience of that and her experience between being between three cultures able to tell these stories that are really important that's to me is great, but it is definitely mostly about how she sees the world, okay with that in itself now where they would you need an artist statement to kind of go with that to explain to a person this is what I see this is this is my work that's being portrayed this way, and while I was opposed to, you know, just put in a body of work in front of someone, I guess it goes back to the things that you're saying is it doesn't try an idea, then you can actually see, you know, all of those criteria should apply to these just as much the whole good stuff to try out an idea to have a point of view with using a technology to create a story that you looked and you said, yeah, that was interesting. Okay, it was an effective so I mean, all those criteria still on artist statement is typically excuse me going to go, maura with this kind of project, you're absolutely correct, but I hope to think less on the last one, but on the other ones, I was officially a hobo ones in the pairings you were largely getting it on some write me there's a little bit of explanation I could do, but fundamentally, you look atyou. Say, okay, well, the pairings whom the second one, the third one by then you kind of get into the rhythm of understanding him and saying, ok, that's, what she's trying to do and then in our artist statement raise it up absolute more the artist's name in that case would be things like historical issues, the immigration issues, something about the photographers who used it, the work in the past, her own experience and we'll talk a little more about project waiting this time goes on proposal waiting if we go on, but yeah, that's, that's definitely it

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Ratings and Reviews


First off, I was a photo assistant for a few years to a photographer who did numerous multi-day workshops. This was my first time as a student sitting in on a webinar that actually kept me interested. Sometimes I'm turned off by the pace of the teacher, his or her voice, or the manner in which they disseminate the information. But this was truly fantastic. David showed lots of his work in a way that was NOT egotistical in any sense (something that does happen quite often). I was utterly impressed by the quality of his work, the wealth of knowledge he has on the world, culture and politics, and how he shoots "on the go". All of those qualities are essential parts to creating a great photo essay/story. I came into this seminar needing inspiration and in the end I have more ideas than I know what to do with. David's work is truly magnificent; his photo stories pertain to people and their struggles, which really could be something any one of us could go through at any point, but he shows it in a way that is beautiful - either beautifully desperate or beautifully destructive - instead of in an exploitative way. On a side note, he also offered up a lot of great information having to do with funding, exposure, workflow, time efficiency, income streams, releases... you won't find this a lot with other photographers. You will find the "go find the info yourself" attitude. This has been my problem as of late with photography - we don't work together as artists, we work against each other competing for what, I'm not sure. David's seminar seemed to embrace photography as the art form it is, and shared with us the tools that we as artists need to really understand and utilize in order to get our story out there. A story it seems he really wants to see/hear. Just an amazing "Thank You"!!!!

a Creativelive Student

I have purchased a number of classes on Creative Live. This class taught by David Wells is one of the best. David is a thorough teacher, personal and connects with his students. Along with his superb and inspiring imagery David talked about his experiences in getting funding, his workflow, developing his stories and distributing his work. David is talented, generous and an excellent teacher. Highly recommended class.

Anjani Millet

Just completed the course. Fantastic, practical information on everything from grant writing, finding foundations, proposal development, even how to shake hands overseas. I am not sure where else I would have found this information for photographers. So appreciate it. One friend asked if this would be worth watching for anyone outside the US and the answer is a definitive yes. Very happy I purchased, and already starting to implement.

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