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June 30, 2004

More Brightly Lit Visions From Contemporary Photographers


For today, a little more perusing of the work of contemporary photographers whose commercial and fine art work overlap considerably, in look and sensibility, with at least a couple having the distinct, strobe-lit look discussed in yesterday's post:

* Brent Stirton is a photojournalist with an extensive portfolio of projects on his website -- over half thoughtfully and directly address dire and depressing situations around Africa and the Third World, such as the amputees of Sierra Leone, HIV in Africa, and the sexual exploitation of African women. There are also other interesting, if occasionally curious projects from Stirton such as a Hell's Angel funeral, Sweden's US car obsession and Coney Island Portraits (the latter which I enjoyed considerably, maybe as a slight relief from the weighty and important topics addressed in most of Stirton's photoessays).

Stirton likes to get close to his subjects and seems very fond of saturated color and in many situations, some strobe light, which gives his subjects an odd, almost incongruously glamorous and contemporary look --- aesthetically it's striking and at its best, it's attention getting in a positive way as it doesn't reduce the photographic subjects to victims rendered flatly and depressingly (which subtly reinforces the typical defeatist pessimism around topics like AIDs in Africa). It's weirdly fascinating, for example, to see Bangladeshis rendered with such hyper-vivid color and stylized light, while avoiding National Geographic type cliches -- Stirton makes the most marginal of people matter in his photography as a result.

This type of approach can gets wearisome from an aesthetic perspective when viewed across the substantial amount of photographs on Stirton's site, and the subjects are naturally serious and can't be skimmed over lightly, so it's best to take the projects a few at a time. Moving and highly accomplished work, though.

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Brent Stirton image

* Greg Miller is a New York based editorial photographer whose slick commercial work doesn't seem all that different in look at first blush from the personal portfolios on his website. On the surface, much of his work is well lit and presented in a contemporary way that (as I noted in yesterday's post) satisfies clients by looking happy, hip, ironic and affecting in ways that can move people, but also sell products and lifestyles effectively.

The durability of such attractive work and its depth in the service of more probing personal work is subject to debate, and many commercial photographers have a tough time getting the mix right -- and clearly one's mileage will vary depending on the sympathy with the subject matter and the execution of the photographer.

That last sentence makes it sound like I have issues with Miller's work, but actually, I think he's one of the few that gets it right, or at least walks the line in a particularly interesting way. The interesting thing about Miller is that his work, most notably his Italy portfolio (which is the subject of a small exhibition at the Redux Gallery in New York), seems a bit more thoughtful, more deliberate, even a little staged. As best as I can tell, he's using a large format camera, which would support the point about staging (since it would be difficult getting such sharpness and spontaneity using large format). There's an amazing clarity to the images and the light that's set up is even more pretty than in most pictures of this sort -- no clumsy, hard edged shadows or garish lighting to underline emotions and moods in the scenes.

The best of this portfolio looks like a hybrid of Tina Barney's staged work of upper class lives and Jock Sturges' beautiful young people on the beach, even though in some of the images, the prettiness seems ornamental rather than artful, so it's hard to escape a glossier (and less satisfying) fashion vibe. A lot of it is truly gorgeous to look at, even in small web sized images, though I'd love to see a little more background text behind some of the images and what Miller was hoping to achieve. (If the color work isn't your thing, there's an equally impressive "Gotham Shot" portfolio featuring vivid black and white scenes from around New York)

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"Via Cassia" Greg Miller image

* Finally, Erika Larsen is a contemporary photographer who does her share of commercial work, but takes a slightly artier approach to her personal work, presenting her work as diptychs and employing a very particular type of ambient light...it's the light of cloudy days outdoors, and of light filtered through windows and door openings indoors...even when the light is strong enough to light the entire frame and the subject, it seems to whisper. There is plainness, weirdness, and even a little bit of ugliness in the many cryptic images, but with the portfolios "Bittersweet" and "In and Out", there's also a restless, washed out mood that speaks to an interesting and distinct sense of observation. It's a reasonable antidote for those who find the strobe lit visions of contemporary commercial photographers a little too bright and cheery.

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Erika Larsen diptych, from "In and Out"

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