Category Archives: History

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, Documentary, Film, 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, Documentary, Environment, Photography, Politics, Popular Culture, Portraiture, Student Life, UPenn, UPenn Photography, Women

Jesse Halpern: The Bridge Between Beauty and Truth

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Trash Can

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Photography and Text by Jesse Halpern, Copyright 2018

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Book Review

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Susan Sontag: On Photography

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The Bridge Between Beauty and Truth

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My senior focus in my high school painting class was on objects that are under appreciated, things that we use daily that we do not really notice until we notice that they are not there. An outlet, or a trash can. I wanted to make these objects seem special though painting I could more easily doctor and manipulate the object to beautify. I could edit reality with painting to achieve what I wanted, something I did not think I could do with photography.

I took a gap year after high school. I went to Europe  on an art history trip with an Iphone. I had always been a luddite, never really liked technology or phones in highschool, but I wanted to document my trip, as Susan Sontag might suggest I did to prove that it happened, to have the visual evidence. Looking back through on my art history trip, the first shots were of details of places we went, untraditional angels. They were subpar photos with a few nice shots. It was entertaining so I kept taking pictures.

At Monet’s Gardens in Giverny, I Photographed a green trash can, something forgotten in the gardens. The interest in the overlooked was still with me from high school. The photos of the trash can were not interesting before editing. If I didn’t care about the subject matter I might not have even tried to edit it, but everything came together with editing when I used the noir filter and made a few minor adjustments with editing tools I didn’t fully understand yet. This moment brought about a realization that I could photography as another medium to glorify the underappreciated objects in our everyday life. It was a new medium to continue my senior thesis. I don’t think I had ever really taken a photo that I was proud of before this trash can. This was really the start of my surveying reality with a photographic eye. This is when I truly discovered the joys of photography. Phone in hand, I was on the hunt to find compositional elements that I associated with good pictures. Much like the photographer described as the surrealist in Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I now wanted to collect the world.

What compelled me the most reading Sontag  was the vastly different approaches photographers took I capturing people. Diane Arbus has a very frank manner showing the “ugly” or “deformed” but expressing in their character that they don’t see themselves. Sanders in Germany documenting people in different social classes as they are, unjudging. Walker Evans subway series, with a concealed camera and unaware viewers. Lersky’s everyday faces in 1931 finds beauty in faces of laborers. Such profoundly different truths all captured in people. Photography as described by Sontang bridges beauty and truth telling, and all these works are indicative of that. Each series showed me something about people, and each was beautiful.

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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 here:http://tonywardstudio.com/blog/jesse-halpern-porches-philadelphia/

 

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

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, Documentary, Environment, Photography, Popular Culture, Student Life, UPenn

Matt Garber: A Picture is Worth 140 Characters

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Cut the Middleman

Photography, Text and Video by Matt Garber, Copyright 2018

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A Picture is Worth 140 Characters 

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Among the most important political developments of the last two decades is social media. With the proliferation of these tools, politicians and public figures are able to reach their audiences directly. This has caused a massive shift in political communication.

Instead of relying on print, radio, and television media to distribute messaging, public figures may use their own voices without any of the critical analysis provided by the media. This shift in communication has led to a shift in the communicators too. Former President Barack Obama has almost 90 million followers and Twitter, and President Donald Trump is widely known for his use of Twitter, not just for gaffes, but also as an effective tool.

With the recent accidental deletion of the President’s Twitter account, it makes sense to take a new retrospective look at the ways Twitter, and Donald Trump’s use of it in particular, has come to reshape American politics.

Prior to Twitter’s ubiquity, news was consumed either in person or through journalists. Even online, journalists would post stories on their websites. This afforded the populace a critical lens through which to view the events of the day. Even though media can be slanted to the left, right, or middle, its consumption through the filter of journalism provided people an accountable source for information.

Today, users of Twitter like the president can cut out the middle man. Donald Trump makes a point of undermining traditional news sources like his so called “FAILING New York Times.” Even if news media’s business is performing better, the way the public is receiving political communication is lacking the broad lens of journalists. Donald Trump has no need to appeal to his detractors because he can reach his supporters directly.

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No Filter

Twitter also has an immediacy. No longer is it necessary that all serious thoughts be developed into considered remarks to be given in an interview, speech, or press release. The bully pulpit has transitioned from a careful podium to an edgy smartphone. Few are better known that Trump for taking this to task in haphazard Twitter rants that invigorate his supporters and alienate most everyone else.

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Make Covfefe America Again

Perhaps he does carefully consider each character. Or perhaps not. It is impossible to analyze Donald Trump and Twitter without mentioning his May “covfefe” gaffe. When the president made a silly, Scrabble-word type typo, it sparked national news because of Twitter’s speed, permanence, and social vitality. However, providing insight to his character, Trump failed to simply laugh off the incident for what it was. Instead, he defended it and attempted to appear intentional. He failed to allow himself to be a normal Twitter user who could correct the Tweet and move on.

Perhaps he does carefully consider each character. Or perhaps not. It is impossible to analyze Donald Trump and Twitter without mentioning his May “covfefe” gaffe. When the president made a silly, Scrabble-word type typo, it sparked national news because of Twitter’s speed, permanence, and social vitality. However, providing insight to his character, Trump failed to simply laugh off the incident for what it was. Instead, he defended it and attempted to appear intentional. He failed to allow himself to be a normal Twitter user who could correct the Tweet and move on.

Short and Fat

Again, demonstrating his imperfection, Trump unleashed a classic Twitter insult earlier this month. “Why would Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me old when I would never call him short and fat?” While hardly presidential, this tweet revealed again the childishness that Twitter allows us to see. Its immediacy again provides direct access to the character of the user, and this is magnified when that user is the leader of the free world.

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Flip Flop

The major difference between the casual Twitter user and the public figure is the consequential nature of their positions. If the average joe announces a change of mind through tweet (and a change back and then forth again), we likely move on.

However, social media once again magnifies the thoughts of the president. Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is no stranger to contradiction, but it can be particularly amusing when it marks an overt flip flop. Again, without the reigning in by aides and writers afforded by formal policy announcements, Twitter can reveal the worst of an individual.

The major difference between the casual Twitter user and the public figure is the consequential nature of their positions. If the average joe announces a change of mind through tweet (and a change back and then forth again), we likely move on. However, social media once again magnifies the thoughts of the president. Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is no stranger to contradiction, but it can be particularly amusing when it marks an overt flip flop. Again, without the reigning in by aides and writers afforded by formal policy announcements, Twitter can reveal the worst of an individual.

Policy in 140 Characters

Finally, we see a striking ability of social media to influence the policy of the nation. This is the real crux of the issue. The president can judge opinion by likes rather than polls. He can decide merit by retweets rather than analysis. The jury consists primarily of the people with whom Trump interacts online. This translates into actual policies affecting actual people. It is a broken system and one magnified by the personality of this president. If we do nothing to address it, it could mean that what is popular online is what counts on the books.

While amplified by the bombastic nature of our current President, this analysis by no means ends with Trump’s term. These ideas are welcomed and fostered by Twitter’s environment. The polarization it creates among our citizenry transcends one administration. Obama was the first Twitter President. Trump will likely be the president most remembered for his Twitter. But social media is not going away, and its effects in politics will live on.

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Regarding the photographs…

Each photograph in this article is an abstract illustration of the ideas at play. Social media is an abstract, simplifying process, so in representing it photographically, the challenge became, “How abstract and simple can this be made?” If a picture is worth a thousand words, but a tweet is merely 140 (or now 280) characters, then they are awfully dissimilar. So how far can we go to bridge that gap? That is the philosophy behind the photos.

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About The Author: Matt Garber is a Freshman enrolled in the College of the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020.  To access additional articles by Matt Garber, click herehttp://tonywardstudio.com/blog/matt-garber-doll/

 

Also posted in Blog, Current Events, Documentary, Environment, News, Photography, Politics, Popular Culture, Student Life, UPenn, UPenn Photography, Video