Brief

Select an image by any photographer of your choice and take a photograph in response to it. You can respond in any way you like to the whole image or to just a part of it, but you must make explicit in your notes what it is that you’re responding to. Is it a stylistic device such as John Davies’ high viewpoint, or Chris Steele Perkins’ juxtapositions? Is it an idea, such as the decisive moment? Is it an approach, such as intention – creating a fully authored image rather than discovering the world through the viewfinder?
Add the original photograph together with your response to your learning log. Which of the three types of information discussed by Barrett provides the context in this case? Take your time over writing your response because you’ll submit the relevant part of your learning log as part of Assignment Five.

A photograph inspired by another is called ‘homage’ (pronounced the French or English way). This is not the same as Picasso’s famous statement that ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’; the point of the homage must be apparent within the photograph. It’s also not the same as ‘appropriation’ which re-contextualises its subject to create something new, often in an ironic or humorous way. Instead, the homage should share some deep empathy or kinship with the original work.

An example is Victor Burgin’s series The Office at Night (1986), based on Edward Hopper’s famous painting of the same name:

‘The hackneyed idea of ‘influence’ is not at issue here. I am not interested in the question of what one artist may or may not have taken from another. I am referring to the universally familiar phenomenon of looking at one image and having another image spontaneously come to mind.’
www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/separateness-things-victor-burgin [accessed 25/01/18]

You may already have taken some homage photography where you’ve not tried to hide the original inspiration but rather celebrated it. Refer back to your personal archive and add one or two to your learning log together with a short caption to provide a context for the shot.

Initial thoughts

There’s indeed a thin line between homage and stealing, between inspiration and copying. When is something unique and when is it stolen. Does inspiration flow into theft or can theft be reduced to inspiration? Is indeed the subject or context alone already enough to be defined as homage and thus theft, the line becomes thinner. Is it not only in the eyes of the viewer to decide that? Or is it one of the essential tasks of any visual artist to avoid any form of copying. Is that doable to begin with? Can anyone know, upfront if what’s he/she is doing not has been done before or, is it not possible to always find comparable work? To continue the thought of Victor Burgin, quoted in the brief, I define it as responsive thinking or secondary creativity. As if there is always another thought or work at the source of your own thinking. Either way, I use that existing base as a starting point to develop it further, or I try to think purposely and radically different, preferably at least alternative. Is using existing work to drastically oppose to it less stealing than to use it to continue on it?

When I think about homage (French pronunciation please) it needs to be based upon work that is to me impossible or unnecessary to oppose to or to alternate upon. It is as good as it can be, one can only use it as lesson, as true inspiration or as suggested in the brief: deep empathy. Using it as a lesson grants me the freedom to try and learn from it by getting as close as possible. Try to sense the atmosphere, try to understand the scenery and the framing, feel the importance of the physical location.

Work that meets my personal idea of the above is that of the Dutch Impressionist painter and photographer (or photographer and painter) George Hendrik Breitner (B. 1857). Decades before the big names like Robert Doisneau or Henri Cartier Bresson made fame and possibly everlasting association with the genre, Breitner was photographing the streets of Amsterdam in remarkable painterly but refreshing style. Furthermore, he painted as he photographed and vice versa. Typical framing, vague foreground figures, Together with artists like Mesdag, Israels and Witse, he formed the frontline of the “Haagse School”. Later in his career, he used even earthlier and greyer tones, His friend/colleague, with who he often walked the streets in search for new scenes Vincent van Gogh ones made the following statement on Breitner’s work when he visited his atelier: “large plains of faded colors that remind me of decayed and moldy wallpaper”(Hammacher, 1946). Breitner, after the death of Van Gogh on his work: “He made art for Eskimos, which I can not enjoy and which I find to be coarse and unacceptable, without the slightest distinction”.(Hammacher, 1946)

Breitner made almost all of his work in Amsterdam, specifically the west side of the old city centre in a period the city was under construction and growth, amidst the Dutch industrial revolution during the second half of the 19th century (much later than the Brittish industrial revolution).

Looking at either his paintings and his photography, I sense the city. A strange kind of romantic realism. Earthly warmth, people half in the frame, ordinary life, unintentional, coincidentally on purpose. A timeless view on the city in a specific era, a new way of depicting and using the camera, a true pioneer of street photography. As one of his fellow members of the movement “De Tachtigers” (The EIghtiers) described it: ‘A great artist […] sees things around him in a light in which he only sees them. His environment is also perceived by others, but he only has his sensations generated by that environment. The essential thing for him is therefore not in the outside world, but in his sensations.

Execution

If I wanted the homage to be a lesson, I decided to follow Breitner’s footsteps literally. Try to see what he saw. Stand at the exact spot he must have stood with his camera. Looking into the changing streets of his favourite city; Amsterdam. Of course, the city has not become prettier, overloaded with cars, bicycles, buses, trams and 17 million tourists every year, but I tried anyway.

Try to get the same atmosphere, the same angles. Breitner used a relatively simple and portable “box” camera. For a professional artist a rather unusual choice those days. He made snapshots, got close to the subject, the streets were filled with people, perhaps a new genre was born that time (1880). I used my fixed focus 28mm. digital so I definitely have the advantage there (I think?).

From a diversity of books on Breitner’s work, I created a Google map and included the corresponding image to a location.

That way I could walk through the city and find the exact viewpoint of the original image. It gave a strange dimension to my shooting experience. A direct reason to stand at a specific spot and shoot what someone else decided was interesting enough. It was comforting. As if somebody constantly stood behind me and motivated and instructed me. I did find myself much more relaxed as well. Usually, there is always some tension with Street photography, this time all felt different. The images shot are definitely not of the same historical importance or artistic level, but the experience was well worth the effort.

For this exercise though, I preset my camera to use monochrome only. This does not only output monochrome images, it also displays them during shooting in the EVF and LCD in monochrome. Of course, it’s all artificial, but it feels closer and more authentic in this exercise.

Selection

There is some romance in these olde techniques, the old box and large format film camera’s and their specific character. It enhanced the atmosphere and character of the photographs drastically. To get closer to that feeling of around 1900, I tried to avoid cars or other modernities and simply processed the images in a default preset in Lightroom.  Some images are made with a pin-hole lens, the “cheap” box camera’s from the late 19th century were not that much more in fact, despite they had some glass inserted. It was more difficult then I imagined. To “copy” the viewpoint of another is not that easy, especially on the street. The observation-mechanics are indeed unique and largely automated. All and all, my favourite “lesson” in this course so far.

 

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Bibliography

 

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Universiteitleiden.nl. (2018b). In contact met collecties: workshop historische cameracollectie – Universiteit Leiden. [online] Available at: https://www.bibliotheek.universiteitleiden.nl/nieuws/2018/04/in-contact-met-collecties-workshop-historische-cameracollectie [Accessed 15 Feb. 2020].

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