Deep vs Shallow
Breaking photography down into just two components, such as the deep vs shallow aperture dichotomy, is risky and slightly naive; it is like saying that being able to drive is just a case of knowing how to drive fast or slow; and just as that doesn’t immediately make you a champion Formula One racing driver, photography isn’t just a case of stopping up or stopping down those f-numbers.
Reading up and looking through the work of the artists mentioned in the Lens work chapter from our ‘coursebook’, I found myself torn between the two equally pleasing aesthetic photographic choices of deep depth of field, and shallow depth of field. But are they really so important? Do they really change how we interact with an image?
There is no need to even go into the beauty of Ansel Adams’ work here; the sheer range of tones captured by using a deep depth of field is clear to anybody, not to mention the arguably superior quality of large format to justify the use of higher F-stops in photography. Alongside him, we can observe the same detail and quality with photographers who used similar equipment, such as Margaret Bourke-White, Walker Evans, and Edward Weston to name just a few of the greats.
The clarity, details, tonal range and ‘weight’ of those shots are simply stunning. I would argue that Gursky’s use of large format in his bold sweeping interior landscapes enforces and underlines this quality, even if he acknowledges himself that the images are manipulated digitally after scanning the negative (Higgins, 2013). Still, would his 1999 photo, 99 Cents, have had nearly the same effect if he’d used a shallow DoF? The undeniably attractive pull of detail and depth created by a deeper DoF is something we should all be aware of and want to learn about, there is no getting away from it, it has its place.
I had never heard of Fay Godwin until reading through the course notes. Needless to say, I was instantly hooked, and I went out and bought Land and Landmarks straightaway. Her work (excluding Glassworks & Secret Lives, 1999, and her other latter work) is majestic and foreboding and has a wonderful sense of form and, for me, a striking graphic quality. She said some beautiful things when she was interviewed for Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio, 2002) which were poignant and insightful, I believe. When she points out the importance of “…a sequence that has some kind of meaning.” she really made me think about how I need to create a cohesive sequence of images and not just pretty things that work on their own; things that actually communicate something, and perhaps suggest something beyond surface beauty and form. Her own work of course being beautifully composed (probably thanks to doing a course in painting as she wasn’t formally trained in photography?), and so incredibly evocative and full of pathos at the same time.
Her insatiable need to capture the juxtapositioning of man and nature permeates most of her work, and even though she was associated with polemic movements (Channel Tunnel; the ‘right to roam’), she clarifies for us that “I don’t really like making polemic points” with her pictures. Nevertheless, her work did cause quite a lot of interest and criticism and her ‘messages’ would surely not have been so clearly portrayed by using a shallower DoF, or, possibly, it would have been portrayed and communicated very differently (as seen with her latter work which was much less politically active, but still beautiful).
We can see that communicative difference when we look at Kim Kirkpatrick’s earlier works and his compositional use of a shallow DoF. As he says himself when referring to that earlier work, “These are highly subjective photographs and through the use of colour, tight focus and composition the viewer is directed to that which is important”. Something that we experimented with in Ex. 1.2 and Ex. 2.6 especially how the background blur becomes an active part within the frame. Kirkpatrick goes on to say how the “…constant searching for unnoticed elements of beauty and hidden, subtle significance in our surroundings.”, and how his photographs have “…carefully controlled focus, minimal depth of field, with the majority of each image soft and out of focus.” all of which would have been impossible if not for the choice of a wide aperture.
All of which I find wonderful.
Whereas, on the other hand, Gianluca Cosci’s Panem et Circenses, which also uses a shallow DoF, I find commonplace and bland in comparison. I’ve seen thousands and thousands of photos just like his on Flickr for the last six years or so here.
True, his compositions are nicely done and the blur does play an interesting role within the whole frame, although, for example, I find many of them slanted and wonky (Gianluca Cosci “Panem Et Circenses #1” 2004 C-type print cm 70 x 105), and as I said before, just commonplace. Maybe, I’ve been looking at this type of photography for too long and possibly in the wrong way?
Nevertheless, his “bread and circuses”series doesn’t appeal to me and doesn’t seem to have anything to do with controlling the masses, or appeasement, or, for that matter, I can’t see how the “Slivers of sharpness express the effect of corporate power on the experience of urban space” (OCA EYV, 2014 p 50 – when referring to his project*) has anything to do with his current ideology either. And what does that even mean? It’s just a picture of a light under a bench. How can that signify corporate power on the urban experience? (Besides, that picture from the EYV course folder isn’t even from the Panem et Circenses series, it’s from the Fragments series.)
So what am I missing? What am I not seeing here?
In an interview with Cosci, Nicholas Beech asks: “…is it just architecture in this building that we are looking at? Or is it the representation of power?” Cosci’s later work which moves away from shallow DoF to a more flattened zoomed perspective with his series like Walls is definitely more in line with Beech’s question, and with Cosci’s observation: “I’intrinseca violenza del potere” (the intrinsic violence of power), and shows his mistrust of the built up dead cityscapes. I am beginning to get curious about him.
The zoomed in crops of this series shows the equally attractive power of stopping down with the lens. Unfortunately there is no technical data (EXIF) available on his website to see what he was shooting with and the settings of each shot. I’ll just have to wait until I meet him (which I did virtually speaking here!)
The more I read of Cosci’s ideologies the more I am intrigued (and the more I really would like to meet him). His work resonates with a real profound sense of challenge and intellectual values. I like the fact that he admits wanting to underline the values of doubt, and uncertainty (“Vorrei sottolineare il valore del dubbio e dell’incertezza.”) and how existentialism is one of his favourite recurring topics “L’esistenzialismo è uno dei miei temi più ricorrenti” [my translation].
But as I mentioned above, these are things that apply more to his current work and not Panem et Circenses. In my admitted ignorance, these facets of his work were hidden from me by simply looking at his pictures, (as they would be for anyone?) seems like we’d need to have him talk us through his shots to really get an understanding of what he is trying to achieve with them. So does that make them unsuccessful?
However, photography is still one of his preferred (but not sole) mediums and he goes on to say: “Forse perché, nonostante tutto, ho bisogno di realtà, qualunque cosa la parola ormai significhi. La fotografia mi permette ancora di avere il senso di verità o di rivelazione – come direbbe Claudio Marra – a dispetto delle varie manipolazioni di Photoshop.” [My underlining]
Which basically means how he has a need for reality, and, my favourite part (underlined above), how photography still gives him a sense of reality and revelation.
I’m sorry, I still don’t rate those Panem et Circenses shots though.
I do, however, rate Mona Kuhn’s sublime and powerful work. Looking through her book Evidence (online) we can see the amazing skill to which she composes the out of focus parts of the image – not to mention the always killer foreground details. The pictures are clearly staged, although not quite tableau staged, and the moods are deep and rich and sumptuous. The clear choice she has made of always choosing a shallow DoF has bestowed upon the work an intimacy that I feel almost verges on the prohibited and forbidden, as well as being absolutely beautiful (just as all the people in the photos are too!)..
The majority of the shots are done with just natural sunlight too with some taken after sundown. Both effects are stunning. I’m trying to imagine how different the work would be if she had chosen a smaller aperture. Would we still have that intimacy? Would there still be those blurred background elements making up and balancing the frame? I think not. This is a fine example of how a shallow DoF leads the eye to a main subject, but we can still take in the surrounding forms to help us anchor the subject in a context without losing the subject within that detail.
What an amazing piece of work.
Another book ordered.
Undoubtedly, there is a very important place for the correct use of aperture as one of the three fundamental pillars of photography (shutter speed and ISO being the others). However, I find that we shouldn’t decontextualise these fundamental aspects of photography, and we should take into account how subtle changes to any of these parameters (that have an indelible effect on the final aesthetic outcome) need to be carefully considered holistically.
That being said, by understanding individually and profoundly these aspects of creating and taking a photograph, we can intellectually justify the technical and subsequently psychological choices we are making as a sound and viable practice.
Higgins, J., 2013, Why It Does Not Have to Be in Focus – Modern Photography Explained, Thames & Hudson, London, P155
Kimkirkpatrick.com. (2016). Kim Kirkpatrick: Early Work [online]
http://www.kimkirkpatrick.com/GalleryMain.asp?GalleryID=97163&AKey=FGWAF5R9 [Accessed 03/04/2016]
Gianlucacosci.com. (2016). Gianluca Cosci, Panem et Circenses, [online] available at:
http://www.gianlucacosci.com/page10.htm [accessed 3/04/2016]
Gianlucacosci.com. (2016). Gianluca Cosci – Walls. [online] available at:
http://www.gianlucacosci.com/page6.htm [accessed 3/04/2016]
Interview with Luciano Marucci pubblicata su Juliet n. 124, ottobre – novembre 2005
[online] available at:
http://www.gianlucacosci.com/page17.htm [accessed 3/04/2016]
“I’intrinseca violenza del potere” from an interview with Dario Ciferri, Marche Centro D’Arte, exhibition, San Benedetto del Trono, April 2015. 2006 [online]. Available at: http://www.gianlucacosci.com/page17.htm [accessed 3/04/2016]
Interview published in: Bridget Crone (editor) – 8 Artists Try Not To Talk About Art, SPACE Books, London, 2006 [online]. Available at: http://www.gianlucacosci.com/page17.htm [accessed 3/04/2016]
Flickr – Photo Sharing! (2010) Macrostract. [online] available at:
https://www.flickr.com/groups/macrostract/pool/ [accessed 3/04/2016]
Flickr – Photo Sharing! (2009). Kev Byrne. [online] Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinbyrne1971/ [Accessed 4 Apr. 2016].
The Telegraph. 30/05/2005, Fay Godwin, Obituaries, [online] at:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1491013/Fay-Godwin.html [accessed 3/04/2016]
Faygodwin.com. (2016). Fay Godwin Homepage. [online] available at:
http://www.faygodwin.com/obit.htm [accessed 3/04/2016]
BBC. (22/03/2002), iPlayer Radio, Desert Island Discs, Fay Godwin, [online] Available at:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00947zh [accessed 3/04/2016]
YouTube. (2016) Fay Godwin – “Paesaggi” (originally: The South Bank Show, 1985) [online]
Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JE8I44Ak7o [accessed 3/04/2016]
(Val Williams, The Independent, 02/06/2005) Warwick Arts Centre. (2016). Fay Godwin: Glassworks and Secret Lives – Warwick Arts Centre. [online] Available at: http://www.warwickartscentre.co.uk/mead-gallery/previous-exhibitions/1995/fay-godwin-glassworks-and-secret-lives/ Referring to her close up work. [accessed 3/04/2016]
Vimeo. 2016 (Matej Sitar, 21/04/2014) Mona Kuhn – Evidence, [online] available at:
https://vimeo.com/92491074 [accessed 3/04/2016]