Ordinary and/or Extraordinary - People

Nick Danziger - a photograph from his book 'The British'

Artists have been inspired by ordinary and extraordinary people -

Humans are tribal and we like to notice how we are different from each other - class, gender, wealth, race, faith, nationality - the list goes on. Our differences is what gives the world variety and ultimately humans share more basic traits (hunger, love, jealousy, fear, happiness, sleep, dreams) than we have differences. Some people tend to forget this.

For this work, Nick Danziger selected the pick of his black-and-white images of Britain's underclass and upperclass to create a vivid portrait of Britain at the start of the second millennium. He juxtaposed two very different ways of life.

From the palaces of Westminster to Durham's high-security, H-block prison wing for women murderers, from remote Scottish crofting communities to the violence-scarred, inner-city neighbourhoods of Scottswood and Benwell in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, from the richest man in England (the Duke of Westminster) and the C-in-C of the British Army to lives dominated by the abuse of drugs, violence and unemployment, Nick Danziger traverses the land in images of dramatic power.

Irving Penn 'Chimney Sweep, London' 1950
IRVING PENN (1917-2009) 'Lorry Washers, London' 1950
Irving Penn was a leading fashion photographer in the 20th century. He photographed some of the most glamorous, famous and important people of his time. He also photographed everyday people - butchers, bakers and chimney sweeps in his series 'Small Trades' in 1950. Working in Paris, London, and New York in the early 1950s, photographer Irving Penn (American, 1917–2009) created masterful representations of skilled tradespeople dressed in work clothes and carrying the tools of their occupations. A neutral backdrop and natural light provided the stage on which his subjects could present themselves with dignity and pride. Penn revisited his Small Trades series over many decades.
Irving Penn, Small Trades, Chevrier, Paris, 1950

He photographed them in the same way as he photographed the famous - through his camera lens people became equal. The ordinary became iconic. Penn is said to have asked a sitter 'What does it feel like to realise this eye that is looking at you is the eye of one hundred and twenty thousand people?'. Along with unusual questions he would photograph his subjects for hours to capture that natural moment when they let their guard down. Irving Penn's photographs are icons that provide a fascinating record of cultural and economic trends that have now passed.

In 1984 Steve McCurry photographed a young girl in Afghanistan. It is a simple portrait and the girls piecing blue/green eyes are the point of emphasis for the viewer. Her head is framed by a red scarf which is contrasted with a blurred grey/blue background (that picks up colours in the girls eyes). The image became iconic but the girl herself carried on her life. The image was taken for National Geographic and became known as the 'Afghan girl' - for years McCurry has tried to once again find the girl from his famous 1984 photo and he did in 2002. He took an almost identical image 17 years later - but the woman seems to have aged a lot more than that. The natural effects of time coupled with the troubled history of Afghanistan can be read in the woman's face.
Nicholas Nixon 'The Brown Sisters 1975-2007' 2/16/09

Nicholas Nixon 'The Brown Sisters 1975-2007'
Time has a natural effect on the world around us. Time is a central element of Photography - at it purest form it can be the length of time a shutter is left open for. On another level it can record time - freezing it forever. We cannot see time - we invented clocks to give form to this abstract concept. However, we can see the effects of time - the sun moving over head, a worn step, a landscape eroding or the aging effect on humans. We notice people growing old mainly by looking back at old photographs. The Photographer Nicholas Nixon has Photographed his wife and her three sisters ever year since 1975. He created a Topograhic series. They are informal portraits but the women are always stood in the same order. If you look at the photographs chronologically the change is subtle. However, if you look at a photograph from the 1970's and compare it to a recent one the change is dramatic. Soft skin and features age and show the marks of a life's experience. Individuals faces can still be recognised but, at the same time, can change dramatically.

Rembrandt Self Portrait 1628
We take it for granted that we can document our lives. It is easy for us to create a photographic image of ourselves. Before the invention of photography all portraits had to be drawn by hand. If you couldn't draw you would have to pay an artist. This meant only the rich and successful were immortalised in an image. Rembrandt made self portraits from an early age and left one of the few pre-photographic documents of a person growng old.
Rembrandt, “Self-Portrait in Painter's Costume.” 1660-62
Over thirty years separate these two images by Rembrandt and show him transform from a young ambitious artist to an old master. He made a unusually large amount of self portraits that show him in various guises from a mischievous clown, respectable member of society to a lone artist. You can see these varied portraits here and here.
Irina Werning 'Back to the future'
'Back to the Future' is a fascinating project by Irina Werning. She has convinced friends and family to recreate their old photos — in some cases, the resemblance is absolutely uncanny. Of course the location, person, clothes etc are all the exact same, but she’s also done a wonderful job of matching the look and feel of the original photograph. That is harder than it looks - matching the lighting must have taken forever.
William Mansel Llewelyn photographed by his aunt Mary Dillwyn.
Joe Strummer by Rankin
"I tried to keep it about him as a person. I kept looking at the thing on the hand, where it said 'Joe'. Joe Strummer was a great guy who I met, who was much more of a hero in real life. You don't meet many people like that".

Damien Hirst

Marianna Faithful by Rankin
Marianna Faithful's 'Destroyed' version of herself by Rankin
Goldie by Rankin

Goldies' 'Destroyed' version of his own portrait by Rankin

In a collaborative project called 'Destroy Rankin' musicians have 'Destroyed' or reinterpreted portraits of themselves taken by Rankin. The original photograph is Rankin's but the musicians portrait is, ultimately,  a self portrait.

These images are political propaganda - whoever controls images has control (and Vice Versa). In each image Mao Zedong (leader of the peoples republic 1949 to 1976) salutes and waves at the people like a friendly uncle, father and leader. There is a great warmth to the images and the symbol of the sun radiates behind him. In fact - he is the sun - the centre of your world. On both images sunflower seeds grow reaching for the sun. They are symbols - the sunflower seeds are the people draw towards their great leader.

Ai Weiwei - Tate Modern Turbine Hall
The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has filled Tate Moderns Turbine hall with 150 tons of sunflower seeds which cover 1,000 square metres. However, these are no ordinary kernels - they are made of porcelain and each one is completely unique. The imitation seed husks have been individually hand carved by skilled artisans working in the city of Jingdezhen. The ceramic seeds were moulded, fired at soaring temperatures, hand-painted and then fired again over the course of two years. Weiwei is using the same images as the political propaganda poster - the sunflower seeds. Weiwei's view of Mao is not of a cuddly father figure.
Mao remains a controversial figure to this day, with a contentious and ever-evolving legacy. He is officially held in high regard in China as a great revolutionary, political strategist, military mastermind, and savior of the nation. Conversely, Mao's social-political programs, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, are blamed for costing millions of lives, causing severe famine and damage to the culture, society and economy of China. Mao's policies and political purges from 1949 to 1976 are widely believed to have caused the deaths of between 40 to 70 million people.
Here in another Mao poster and those graphic lines emanating from his head are rays from the sun. They create a graphic halo and add a rhythm to the image. The colours of red, white and black are often used in Communist art - Red for Revolution. This can also be seen in Russian art.
This is a Russian photomontage and it has similar elements to the Mao posters. Stalin is prominent and is towering above the people who cheer below - he is the leader but with the people. Russia is technologically strong - we can tell this by the airships soaring above. This was a new way of creating images for a new time.
Alexander Rodchenko 'Lilya Brik' 1924

Rodchenko, along with Liubov Popova, gave the visual look for this new world. Designing a humble advertisement had more worth than making a piece of art. Art is seen by a few people in galleries - adverts are seen by everyone everywhere. This graphic language, designed under Communism, gave the visual language of Capitalism to the West - the origins of the McDonald's logo began here. This look has been used and revisited by Neville Brody (at Face Magazine) to Modern album covers.

Above we can see how Rodchenko took his photographs and cut them up and resembled them with flat coloured paper and text. The colours, forms and angles are taken from suprematism and are the language of constructivism. The text shouts out - in this image above the head of Lilya Brik actually does shout out. Rodchenko has given a visual triangle form to the way sound seems to travel - we understand that this girl is shouting. 'Books' she cries 'in all fields of Knowledge' - it a propaganda poster urging people to read books. This is good advice - we could all do with reading more books - they're much better on the eyes than a computer screen.
Alexander Rodchenko 'Dobrolet' 1923
Russian icon 15th to 17th Century
"In Russia there is a word for 'Thing' with no precise equivalent in English: 'vesch' means 'a thing with a soul" Warner, M 'Things'
Constructivism's new look - bold flat areas of colour, sections of pattern and geometric shapes created a new visual language. The Russia artists, usually on the outskirts of society, found themselves central - as the Bolsheviks sought out an art that was as radical as their new politics - Lenin even included artist in his hero's of the revolution. However, placed next to an old Russian icon those geometric shapes, flat areas of colour and pattern do not seem so alien. Icon's where made for churchs, to tell the story of Christ to an illiterate congregation. They were painted directly onto wood and often had other elements attached. There is a directness, a 'thingness' about icon's that can also be felt with a Malevich suprematist painting. Icon's where commissioned by the church (who had control) and the new look was adopted by the Communists (who had control). Some things don't change.
Many hands saluting in unison - the original utopian vision would eventually breed greed, division and horror under Stalin. The constructivists set the look - Red, white and black mixed with cut and paste methods - they didn't have photoshop only paper, photographs scissors and glue. The use of scissors and paste was advocated during the five year plan as the proletarian and propagandistic device of choice. Like Photography (even more so today with our invisible technology), it required virtually no training and the most ordinary materials. Of course Rodchenko, Klutsis and the Stenberg Brothers did have wonderful visual skill.
The Stenberg Brothers 'The Traitor' 1926
Stenberg Brothers 'The Last Flight' 1929
Geometric shapes, flat colours, text and figurative elements jostle to tell aspects of the narrative. These are both examples of Film Posters by The Stenberg Brothers produces hundreds of film posters during the 1920's and 1930's. The influence of Suprematism, Dada and Rodchenko are evident. These artists working under communism were creating a language we still use today in modern graphic design.
Stenberg Brothers 'Man with a Movie Camera' 1929