OSP: When 21 German Photographers Descend on Calcutta

I read about art and other things often, as well as, discuss art making with friends. The reading and discussions are usually what inspires my artwork and it is a major influence in this blog. Reading pushes my thinking and processes in new directions. I enjoy thinking about what I read, in my mind there is always a dialog. I thought I would share that dialog with you here.

Two photographs from Calcutta: Chitpur Road Neighborhoods

So, what happens when 21 photographers photograph one neighborhood in Calcutta under the direction of their professor? The answer can be found in the project, Calcutta: Chitpur Road Neighborhoods. While the photographs are beautifully constructed, there is something missing, the voices of the individual photographers. The work is highly reminiscent of the professor’s work, Peter Baiolobrzeski. I can agree that there is a certain connectivity to the photographs because they have a cohesive style and voice. But what is the point of using the students to take the photographs if the images look like something their professor made? As an instructor, I have no interest in having my students create work that looks like mine. I am much more interested in helping them develop their own voice and vision. I am highly aware that throughout history it has been common for students to copy masterworks in order to learn style and technique, which is definitely a further argument for the process used to create this project. This was my initial reaction to the idea.

But perhaps I am looking at this all wrong and needed to let the real intention sink in. It is a different way of learning and a different way of teaching. It is rare for students to get to travel or get such individual guidance from a professor. Furthermore, the project pushes the boundaries of how we see authorship in idea’s and creative products today. While the photographs document an historic district in Calcutta, the idea’s behind its mode of production may be the most important aspect of the project. No only are the photographs stylistically the same, the photographs do not seem to take credit for their individual photographs. In a review on Conscientious, Joerg Colberg states that the photographers worked in groups of 5, thus they could not really claim individual ownership of any given photograph (http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2008/02/review_calcutta_chitpur_road_neighborhoods/, accessed: 1/11/2017).

These students not only learned something about India and perfected their use of the large format camera, they also learned about the idea of deadpan, an essential photographic technique of the late 20th and 21st centuries. Deadpan refers to a way of making a photograph in which the subject is viewed usually straight on, it is meant to be non-subjective. The movement has a long history in Germany with the most notable forerunners of the technique being Bern and Hilla Becher, who photographed post-war German architecture. There students continued the trend including Thomas Ruff, who turned his camera to people. Candida Hoffer is another photographer who has used the deadpan aesthetic to explore interiors. Each of these photographers uses the deadpan so that viewers can see the similarities and differences between like objects.

The photographs from Calcutta: Chitpur Road Neighborhoods, are not as static as the typical deadpan photograph however, you can see the influence. The influence can be seen in the use of the view camera and the strong structure to the photographs. The photographs depart from the deadpan aesthetic because some of the images have an elevated viewpoint and many of them contain movement. Furthermore, when there is a single subject or few subjects they are not looking directly into the camera. There is much to be learned from having a starting point and then moving away from it a bit.

As stated on every review I have looked at, “In nineteenth-century Calcutta, a financially strong Indian elite emerged under the rule of the British East India Company, building up eclectic Bengali equivalents of industrialists’ mansions, apparent stylistic blends of traditional Mughal architecture with more classical elements. Today the erstwhile magnificent villas and palaces retain only a shred of their former splendor, and it seems only a matter of time before the last stony reminders of a once brilliant Bengali upper middle class disappear for good.” It is this that the 21 photographers captured in their photographs. I would agree that the view camera is the best tool to create this kind of document. Unfortunately, I feel like it is a dying art in the United States. I am certainly no master.

The 21 photographers are:

Claudia A. Cruz | Johanna Ahlert | Björn Behrens | Jörg Brüggemann | Tine Casper | Franziska von den Driesch | Anja Engelke | Tobias Gratz | Christian Güssow | Dörte Haupt | André Hemstedt | Manja Herrmann | Torben Höke | Britta Isenrath | Joanna Kosowska | Jǿrgen Kube | Pia Pollmanns | Silke Schmidt | Inga Seevers | Marion Üdema | Sandy Volz.

The project can be viewed at http://bialobrzeski-studenten.de/index.php?thema=freie&content=show&item=picshow&id=24&nr=1

After doing a little research and writing on the project above, last night I went home and was watching an episode of Art: 21. I was watching the interview with Cathrine Opie. As part of the segment she talks about a project she was working on and goes out into her neighborhood and makes a few photographs. She says that she has been asked by the Curator Jens Hoffmann to assume he is Roy Striker of the Farm Security Administration and make new photographs in the vein of the FSA photographers during the Great Depression. The exhibition is titled New American Photographs.

This got me to thinking, the methodological approach is different as a curator is bringing professional art photographers together and he is not asking them to abandon their own style. Thus the collaboration was looser. However, each of the participating photographers had to understand the styles and purpose of the SFA photographs and photographers. This line of thought and questioning could also be used as a teaching tool. Everyone might not agree but if a student is getting a Bachelors of Fine Art in Photography, I think they should have a basic understanding of the history of photography. This would be a way of having them interact with that history instead of just reading about it in a book and hearing about it in a lecture.

Lessons to be learned here could include interaction with people in public, deadlines, perhaps non-traditional critique as they could be set up on a more one on one basis and a lesson in American history. I know at the beginning of this post I was talking about cultivating a students creativity and part of that is introducing them to new ideas and ways of working. I think an instructor taking on the role of a curator and asking for something specific or taking on the role of someone like Roy Striker would also give students a mock up of real world situations they could find themselves in.

The participating contemporary photographers are:

Walead Beshty | Larry Clark | Roe Ethridge | Katy Grannan | William E. Jones | Sharon Lockhart | Cathrine Opie | Martha Rosler | Collier Schorr | Stephen Shore | Alec Soth | Hank Willis Thomas

The historic photographers included are:

Esther Bubley | Marjory Collins | Jack Delano | Walker Evans | Dorthia Lange | Russell Lee | Carl Mydans | Gordan Parks | Arthur Rothstein | Ben Shahn | Marion Post Wolcott | John Vachon

More information on the original FSA photographers and photographs can be found here: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa/

Installation photographs from More American Photographs at the University of California, Riverside ARTSblock

Though I am not currently teaching in the traditional sense, I still think about the craft of teaching and how I can improve my own teaching. I feel like teaching photography in the United States has become stale. The higher education system in the States is under scrutiny from multiple sources including its faculty. At times tenure track faculty feel like they have to produce, produce, produce which might not leave them the time for students they would like. On the other side, adjunct faculty, do not feel like they have time for students because they are running from school to school or from school to another type of job.

There were times in my student days were I really felt like I was collaborating with my professor, most notable in Alternative Photographic Processes with Rene West. She was always in the lab showing us the processes or helping us work. There was something in her approach, she would tell us we were all in it together. I am sure Bailolobrzeski’s students felt the same way, that they were all in it together. I think all professors can understand this connection as we have all had this connection with certain students. As a former student has had a connection with multiple professors, I know the impact the connection made on my growth as a person and as an artist. An exercise like the two mentioned above could bring that bond to the whole class.

If I am ever back in the classroom or even in an alternative teaching situation, I will figure out how to employ one of these two methods into the course work. It could be easily done in an upper level class as the entire semester could be dedicated to the process. I hope that fellow instructors reading this blog will continue to consider instructional improvement. We owe it to ourselves and our students.

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By |2018-10-13T16:29:59-05:00January 20th, 2017|On the Subject of Photography|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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