Paul Strand, Jane Bown and an Olympus OM1

It has been a struggle getting much of the course-related maelstrom of thoughts out of my head and onto my blog. I know now that I have to start writing stuff down in order to free up enough mental space to start creating again.

So, some time ago I went on a study visit to the V&A to see a Paul Strand retrospective. It was completely new work to me, and I was very engaged by his work in the Hebrides, especially the portraits. The subjects look directly at the camera and context is sparse but effective. There is a dignity to the images, a pride. The textiles and textures are beautiful, looking at portraits of children I would find myself wondering about who it was who had knitted that jumper or stitched a coat. Seeing the book in a glass cabinet I noted the title, so I could buy it. Of course it was out of print, but apparently due for reprint. A couple of weeks ago it arrived and I am spellbound by the work all over again. Somehow it is even more compelling than the exhibition, I suppose because it is here and I can look at it in my own time. It’s a good-sized hardback so it doesn’t feel as if the images are particularly undersized – they weren’t much bigger in the exhibition. The text was very interesting and covered far more detail than the exhibition did. I was largely unaware of the clearances of crofters by land-owners and there’s definitely a seed planted of wanting to learn more. It’s an issue that still has a legacy today – proposed legislation to allow crofters to compulsorily purchase their land and fish salmon in rivers on their land provoked much opposition from current land owners and I would like to learn more.

Jane Bown “Exposure” was bought as a birthday gift for me. Like Paul Strand, it is a collection of black and white portraits, also like Paul Strand the images are all taken with the knowledge (although not necessarily the complicity) of the subject. Paul’s images are documentary taken for his own project whereas Jane’s are press, taken to order to accompany interviews in the Observer newspaper. I think it is the complicity in both her and Paul’s work that I find quite so compelling – the eye contact, the knowledge that there is a transaction taking place between the subject and the photographer, and that that transaction has the full knowledge of both parties. I find that very honest.

What can I learn from this, how can I apply this to my own work? I think I definitely prefer fully aware portraits, where there is a “contract”, a complicity. I don’t have any great longing to take black and white images rather than colour, equally though I am curious to take some black and white portraits. I am interested in showing people as they are, though that can be hard when they change how they present themselves because the camera is there (I think that Barthes talked about this in Camera Lucida).

Finally, I was very fortunate to be given an Olympus OM1 by a generous student. Thinking about the A4 light assignment made me realise how much I need to learn and revise the basics of light and exposure. The OM1 is technically basic by today’s digital standards in that everything is manual and there is no screen to review the image. The camera does have an exposure meter, however I’m going to use a light meter instead as the battery compartment has been modified and I would have to research which battery to use. My plan is to get the camera cleaned and serviced, then load it with Tri-X black and white film and try some portraits. There is also a possibility of learning to develop and print my own film too. The camera is lovely to hold and to handle. I am looking forward to using a film camera that has more control than my Polaroid.


2 thoughts on “Paul Strand, Jane Bown and an Olympus OM1

  1. Catherine February 12, 2017 / 6:53 pm

    I was able to look at the Paul Strand book at a event OCA TV group meeting and agree how striking it is to look at – such character in all the faces. Also the direction of gaze of almost all of the subjects – a straight gaze but with a very slight ‘frown’ as if the sun was in their eyes. We have the Jane Bown book as well and I still can’t believe how exceptional her portraits are and teen fairly quickly and n natural light at that.

    Enjoy the Olympis OM1. I used to have one and it did seem so simple to use.


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