Category Archives: Documentary

Karen Liao: A Fresh Perspective on Photography

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Photo: Karen Liao

Photography and Text by Karen Liao, Copyright 2018

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Book Review

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Susan Sontag: On Photography

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A Fresh Perspective on Photography

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Susan Sontag’s On Photography is a highly complex, brilliant look at the development, meaning, and impact of photography on the world. The book is split into six chapters discussing various aspects of photography, and I wanted to tease out my thought processes and lessons learned regarding the relationship between morals, photography, and its effects. As someone who is currently approaching photography with a more documentarian mindset, I was shocked, but understanding of what Sontag brings to the surface about this type of photography.

Sontag starts out by describing photography as not only a “defense against anxiety”, but also “a tool of power”. However, what I’ve learned is that this tool of power does not work by purely illustrating; there are many more layers to its working. Sontag argues that photographs never purely reflect reality. Photographs will always be an interpretation of the world, because photographers impose standards on subjects of their photos. In addition, Sontag states that surrealism is pervasive and actually “the heart of photograph” because photography creates a different, designed reality that can be more dramatic than reality. She uses the examples of photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn being members of the Farm Security Administration photographic project in the late 1930s, and how they would take many pictures of the impoverished, but choose certain pictures that would support their own perspectives of what these subjects’ narratives should be.

In addition, we shouldn’t say that seeing a photograph will help us to understand the world more—we are simply accepting the image of whatever the camera records and having this picture fill a blank in our perception of the past and present. What’s created for us is an “exotic reality” that ranges from the bourgeois life to the poor. Photography, operating with its surrealistic core, can only collect information and bring an illusion of understanding. The camera simply makes the audience “a tourist in other people’s reality”. This ties in with the concept that Sontag brings up in later chapters about how the tendency to focus on aesthetics in photography, even in mediums that are supposed to convey distress, can neutralize the effect of the photo. She makes the harsh statement that as much as these photos create sympathy, they also “miniaturize experience, transform history into spectacle”.

All this criticism of the morals behind photography has made an impact on my thoughts as a photographer. My previous work in the class has focused on telling stories or bringing to light the issues that vulnerable populations deal with (mental health, chronic illness). For example, my chosen picture is a photograph of a dear, personal patient of mine in the hospital. As providers in healthcare, we are constantly reminded of our responsibility to be patient advocates, and I believed that this picture was powerful in the way that it photographed a real patient struggling with chronic illnesses. I wanted others to see her perspective and reality—to fight for people like her. However, Sontag’s passages have led me to understand that there are factors such as my interpretation and aestheticism, as well as the limited extent of photography to bring understanding, that inhibit me from spreading my complete message to my intended audience. Photos do not bring reality or full understanding. It was a bit disappointing at first, but I understand and agree with Sontag’s analyses. However, in the end, I have decided that it is still better to “fill that mental picture” with the “exotic reality” from photographs such as these than to never at all have exposed my audience to the pictures. There’s a risk-benefit evaluation in presenting these photos, but I believe that as long as I acknowledge the limitations of photography, the outcome of spreading this interpreted reality to others will still be better than nothing.

Finally, I wanted to end on a more positive perspective on photography. Sontag describes how the possession of a camera can evoke a feeling similar to lust. The possibilities of photography are infinite, and photographers are stuck in a cycle where the camera is both “the antidote and the disease”. Access to photography has given us awareness of the transience of everything, as well as the ability to capture all the fleeting moments. I don’t know how large of a part photography will play in my life as I advance in my career, but tasting the antidote has started the cycle for me.

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About The Author: Karen Liao is a Junior enrolled in the School of Nursing, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2019. To access additional articles by Karen Liao, click here:http://tonywardstudio.com/blog/karen-liao-homage-textures/

 

Also posted in Art, Blog, Film, History, Photography, Popular Culture, Science, Student Life, UPenn, Women

Justina McMinn: Capturing Reality

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Photo: Justina McMinn

 

Photography and Text by Justina McMinn, Copyright 2018

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Book Review

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Susan Sontag: On Photography

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Capturing Reality

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Sontag makes many important points in her essays in On Photography. The first essay, however, really connected with me. In Plato’s Cave essentially says photography is a means for capturing reality. She talks about how a photograph is tangible, you can hold it, but you can not hold reality. Although, it is capturing reality, it is not capturing reality for what it is and the reason for capturing this “reality” can vary.

Sontag also argues a point that photography is a sort of false way of relating to the world because pictures can be so flawed and falsely interpreted. Sontag claims that like the Plato’s Cave allegory, when anyone looks at a photograph it is not always entirely true without explanation. She gives an example of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930’s where they took dozens of frontal pictures of sharecropper subjects until the were satisfied that they have gotten the right look on film. They wanted a particular emotion provoked from the photo. Problematically, they imposed their own standards onto the subject.

This reminds me of the project we did in class where we had to use portraits to convey various emotions. We all had different standards of what grief, sadness, happiness, etc. look like hence why we all had different photos. I’m sure many of us imposed our standards for what the visual aspect of these emotions should look like and shot until satisfied that it was conveyed.

I think this is an interesting point about people imposing their standards because of people’s various perspectives each photo is interpreted differently and can’t promise the viewer is understanding the photographer’s truth. For example, the picture here for me, conveys sadness. Very often within the black community, we are taught to suppress our emotions and to display negative emotions like sadness, grief, hurt, and disappointment in a particular fashion. Others may view this photo as angry, calm, emotionless, flat. Many cultural norms play into people’s standards and I believe this is what makes art, photography in particular, nuanced.

Another key point Sontag made was that photography is evidence. Photography is a huge component in museums, text books, and scrap books to further prove beyond “he say, she say” that an event took place.

Looking at today’s social norms surrounding technology, I see this idea in fruition. Every vacation people seem to feel the need to take pictures and post them to prove they had fun and that the vacation happened. There is a saying that says, “Pictures or it never happened!” Our society has become so wrapped up in the social aspect of photography. It is used to document protests, social events, personal occasions, and more. However, I would say it is excessive.

I wonder where the line is drawn. People are starting to let photography intrude on intimate events and take away from thoroughly enjoying experiences. For example, more recently, at a funeral I saw someone take a picture of the person in the casket. For me, I think it was inappropriate. However, their thought process was the person finally looked peaceful and they wanted to document it forever. Another example is my recent vacation with friends. They spent more time taking pictures and finding locations with the only motivation to go being to take more pictures. The question for me is, is enjoying the moment in reality and depending on memory less fundamental than capturing the reality and documenting it forever?

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About The Author: Justina McMinn is a Freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2021. To access additional articles by Justina McMinn, click herehttp://tonywardstudio.com/blog/justina-mcminn-self/

 

Also posted in Art, Blog, Environment, History, Photography, Politics, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Student Life, UPenn, UPenn Photography, Women

Yash Killa: Night Magic

 

Photography and Text by Yash Killa, Copyright 2018

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Night Magic

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I remember when I first found out that I would be studying at University of Pennsylvania. It was soon after when I searched up Google Images of Philadelphia and the UPenn campus having never seen it earlier. What I saw was a series of photographs of the Campus and city life – but all mostly during the day time. I didn’t realise this then, but after taking the Digital Photography course, I was able to understand why and draw parallels between this and most other assignments that were mainly centred around sunlight.

The Sun provides ambient lighting that not only requires a smaller ISO number, but allows a faster shutter speed, and thus providing a greater range for a good photograph in most cases. This is why I decided to test myself and explore something that was out of my comfort zone – I decided to photograph the Penn campus at night.

I feel that any place looks and feels completely different after the sun sets. The moon and stars bring a sense of calmness, beauty, and yet strangeness that is unparalleled. Google Images just shows the hustle-bustle and vibrant nature of the campus, but what I experienced while taking photos was a complete contrast to that. It is this what I wanted to bring out in my assignment, and I hope I was able to do that.

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About The Author: Yash Killa is a Freshman enrolled in the School of Arts & Sciences, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020. To access additional articles by Yash Killa, click herehttp://tonywardstudio.com/blog/yash-killa-propaganda/

 

 

Also posted in Art, Blog, Contemporary Architecture, Environment, Photography, Popular Culture, Science, Student Life, UPenn Photography

Julia Chun: Art of the Dance

 

Photography and Text by Julia Chun, Copyright 2018

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Art of the Dance

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April 9th, 2016 is the day that transformed me for good. I was part of the After School Arts Program as a violin mentor –  a violinist for thirteen years and counting – and our student show had just ended. While I was cleaning up the stage, I saw dancers come into the venue for a different event. One of my friends let me in and I took my first dance class ever taught by a member of the world famous Kinjaz.

I’ve always been fascinated by dancers, admired their stage presence and techniques, and would choose to watch dance videos for hours over any other movie. I also believed that I inherently didn’t have what it took to become a dancer, lacking the groove and the skills. I did not qualify to be one. That day was the beginning of a new journey of discovering myself. Getting the moves wrong and looking flimsy in front of other dancers is very embarrassing, but I never feel so alive and present as I do when I take a dance class surrounded by people exuding energy. In that very moment, whatever fear that made be shield myself from being judged or criticized is suppressed by the sheer pleasure of doing what I do. Dancing introduced me a passion I have never felt while pursuing any other thing.

So when the assignment was released, I had no doubt in what I wanted to photograph. After all, dancing was what first drew me to videography and eventually led me to take me this photography class. When I was photographing dancers, I wanted to capture their presence, one of the qualities I value the most in a dancer. Can the dancer fill the space not just with movements but with his or her presence? I also always pictured dancers dancing in the streets, blending in casually with what we see in our everyday lives, and I finally had a chance to capture what I have been imagining.

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About The Author: Julia Chun is a computer science major enrolled in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2019. To access additional articles by Julia Chun, click herehttp://tonywardstudio.com/blog/julia-chun-art-activism/

 

 

Also posted in Art, Music, Photography, Popular Culture, Student Life, Travel, UPenn, Video, Women

Jesse Halpern: Porches of Philadelphia

Photography and Text by Jesse Halpern, Copyright 2018

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Porches of Philadelphia

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The spaces we occupy are a reflection of ourselves. For this project, I sought to capture snapshots of what people in different neighborhoods in Philadelphia chose to decorate their porches. The porch is very prevalent in Philadelphia residential architecture, and its function is really a transitional space from city to home. It reflects who the person is that inhabits that space to friends that visit and passersby. The different textures of these spaces embody the textures of the individuals who inhabit the spaces but also of the city itself. I photographed at night to showcase of the different elements of the porch the inhabitants wanted to showcase with night lighting.

I went to three separate neighborhoods, West Philadelphia, South Philadelphia, and Haddonfield, a suburb of Philadelphia. I separated my final portfolio by neighborhood. In these photos there are common threads through all three neighborhoods as well as differences that begin to emerge. I do want to continue this project and through the accumulation of more images from different neighborhoods, I think the similarities and differences between neighborhoods will become even more pronounced.

I approach theses spaces as a passerby would on a side walk. Too close to the building and walking quickly I would only really be able to take not of what’s in ample lighting and that’s usually only one object or a collection of object. The view I choose in each photo is dictated by the obstructing railing that I usually opt not to show and instead focus on what I can see behind it.

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About The Author: Jesse Halpern is a Sophomore enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2019. To access additional articles by Jesse Halpern, click herehttp://tonywardstudio.com/blog/jesse-halpern-walled-2/

 

Also posted in Architecture, Art, Environment, History, Photography, Popular Culture, Student Life, UPenn