FINAL MAJOR PROJECT. WEEK 15.

NEW YORK, NY – CIRCA 1968: Diane Arbus poses for a portrait in the Automat at Sixth Avenue between 41st & 42nd Street in New York, New York circa 1968. (Photo by Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Flusser might not agree, but I’ve become increasingly fond of the character that the ‘apparatus’ of flash is imparting into my work at the moment.

I’ve used flash a lot in my freelance portraiture. But it’s always been something to modify, bounce, and flatter. Using technique to make it’s presence almost invisible.

The way I am working with it now is almost then opposite. I’m using on-camera flash directly, very immediately. Allowing it to be very present. To comment, in it’s own way, on what we are seeing.

I like the element of chance that it brings as well. In some instances it is the flash that dictates how and what I see in a resulting image. Especially in work that contains elements of nature or the landscape, like the figs below. This might seem obvious but it changes the nature and quality of the subject through the way it throws shadows or illuminates something unexpectedly. I like this. It can also play with time, turning day into night depending on the exposure. And it certainly brings a theatrical quality into the work.

Figs – from a shoot at Plot 22 in Brighton. James Bellorini 2020.

It’s propelling my work along at the moment and, combined with my own energy for the project, it’s offering me an element of surprise in the work, lifting honest aspects in the subject and at the same time altering and challenging the reality of what I am choosing to shoot.

Untitled from Eat To The Beat sequence. james Bellorini 2020.

It does require control and technical understanding, even in this simple set up, but even so it feels like a creative addition. So I am utilising it all the time and looking at photographers who have used it as a presence in their work.

This inevitably means looking at the work of Diane Arbus and Weegee. Both of whom lit their worlds and subject directly and with little artifice. This added to the sense of photographic voyeurism, and it is interesting to note this in the context of my own developing work. In the case of Arbus, her subjects are frequently complicit in the moment of capture but the flash is revelatory without their knowing. It almost opens them up and they probably don’t fully realise that this form of illumination is revealing more than they thought at the time until perhaps they viewed the final image. In Arbus’ work the flash makes life naked (sometimes literally so). The visceral sensations of being are right there. Any mask is literally burnt away. Flesh is revealed in all it’s sensuous surface tension and flaws. I see this aspect in my own work.

Patriotic young man with a flag. Diane Arbus 1967.

With Weegee something else is going on. His flash is less focussed than Arbus, less laserlike. Where Arbus flash almost assaults her subject forensically, Weegee’s grabs, like a thief. Not just people but an entire city. The city is part of the story. No matter what is occurring, it takes no prisoners. Often shooting at night with a 4×5 press camera and early flash bulbs he wasn’t always sure what he actually photographed until he processed his photos. But he elevated chance to a signature artform.

Their First Murder. Weegee 1941.

Inevitably with the use flash comes discussion of the voyeuristic then. I can’t deny it’s present in my recent work. At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Frequently we associate it with something sexual. But I realise that it comes down to not wanting to shy away from an intimate honesty that photography can portray directly. In my case my subjects all know and consent to the photography. Nothing is hidden. The opposite of, for example, the subjects in Philip Lorca Di Corsa’s infamous street flash portrait sequence caught entirely unawares as they navigate the sidewalk (below). But there’s more at play here because it is equally about the relationship between photographer and subject – a certain objective gaze – that allows the photographer to be present, to witness, but to be distanced emotionally.

Head #23. Philip Lorca di Corsa 2001.

For me, flash is a tool that can’t be denied right now, and I have to move with the energy of the work and the way it is being made.

RESOURCES

Bonanos, C. 2018. Flash: The Making of Weegee The Famous. New York, Picador.

Goldberg, V. 1992. Photography and the Sin of Voyeurism, NY Times, March 8, <https://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/08/arts/photography-view-photography-and-the-sin-of-voyeurism.html@ [Accessed on October 10th 2020].