When Cotton (1) moves away from still life to look at deserted landscapes she introduces a number of photographers whom I find much easier to understand and relate to. Richard Wentworth’s photographs of the signs and debris of the street are very much in the tradition of found objects or ready-mades but by leaving the subjects in situ, and in situations where the found object and its location are often a juxtaposition of materials he emphasises their ambiguity and asks with wit and humour how things come together on the street, what sequence of events led to these strange combinations, how have these objects acquired new purposes and what happens next. I have discussed his Making Do and Getting By series (6) here.
Wentworth is quite exceptional and has worked over many years to develop a quirky and very personal portfolio but he is not the first or last photographer to be drawn to the strange traces we leave on city streets. Walker Evans, a photographer with an eye for unintentional street sculpture, often focussed on the evidence of human activity in the absence of human presence. In his later colour work carried out for magazines in the 1950’s and 60’s he explored sidewalk retail displays worthy of Open All Hours in his series The Pitch Direct (3), “the restless, cacaphonic design created by time, the weather, neglect, and the fine hand of delinquent youth” in his series Color Accidents and the graphic design details unintentionally created by adjacent architectural structures in his black and white studies for The Architectural Record in 1930.
What Wentworth, Evans, Wim Wenders, Anthony Hernandez, Franco Fontana and many others have in common is the knack to see what Cotton calls subjects that are “overlooked – socially and politically as well as visually” (1: p125). This is not to suggest that their intent is similar or even that they share a political viewpoint but they all investigate the human condition by focusing on the signs of our passing, the archeology of the street.
Our expectation of street photography is to see people, Arbus, Winogrand and the like explored the human condition in a very direct manner but these practitioners find that the things we create communicate as much, if not more than representations of our physical form. Exaggerating somewhat to prove the point we could argue that a photograph of an architect tells us less about him or her than a picture of one of their buildings; Wentworth’s found sculptures or Wenders deserted landscapes are so heavy with human presence, so much a direct consequence of human action that we believe they offer both cultural and social insights.
As Wim Wenders describes it:
“I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and pleas. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us.” (4)
There is a sense of melancholy in Wender’s work, the feeling of deserted places. As a photographer he appears detached from the scene, a recorder of another race’s follies, abandoned dreams and fruitless enterprises. This is not to say that his work is a clichéd representation of decaying architecture, yes there is plenty of decay, but also pristine contemporary buildings and preserved histories so his series are a much broader criticism of human impact on the landscape. As a film maker Wender is used to slow considered processes and his choice of large format cameras fits with that approach, his work is thoughtfully composed and aesthetically pleasing with echoes of Stephen Shore’s earlier road-trip work.
Wenders’ viewpoint is philosophical and psychological; he describes his process of photography as:
“What I did in all these places was to look for their company. I tried to just be there, lose myself in those spaces and listen to them, as much as possible. Yes, just listen. One can do that. We have that ability. We call it ‘sense of place'” (5: p.137)
“Places do want to talk, normally, and they do open up, if you are patient. I love to listen to them. A camera then can become a recording device (eventually, not right away), to capture the place’s story, or history, and gather details of its account.” (5: p139)
The two paragraphs quoted above are extracted from a much longer piece on the future of seeing where Wender looks at the general decline in our ability to observe and the need to relearn those skills. His approach to photography translates through to his images, there is a stillness in his city and landscapes that had to be discovered by the photographer and it offers a lesson to any contemporary photographer intent on finding a sense of place. Often on a shoot, I will put my lens cap on, stop, sit and watch to try and see what is beneath the surface, what the elements of the view add up to and endeavour to find a perspective that captures that sense.
(1) Cotton, Charlotte ( 2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames and Hudson
(2) Wentworth, Richard and Obrist, Hans Obrist (2015) Making Do and Getting By. London: Koenig Books
(3) Campany, David (2014) Walker Evans: The Magazine Work. Göttingen: Steidl
(5) Wenders, Wim and Zournazi, Mary (2013) Inventing Places: A Dialogue on Perception. London: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd
(4) Prospero (2015) Wim Wenders: Every Landscape Tells a Story (accessed at The Economist 29.9.16) – http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/10/wim-wenders