Practice and Influencers : De Stijl

During the module, Informing Contexts, I have been increasingly conscious of influences on my image making work.  Here is a short study of the work of the early Twentieth Century and an art and architecture movement that has shaped my practice.


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figure 1

I have written about minimalism and its influence on my work.  I talk practically about reduction, distillation and expressing the essence.  It is about images which show the simplicity or the substance of things seen or implied.  The practitioners of the de Stijl movement that are most relevant to my visual work are both Mondrian and Reitveld.  Mondrian’s work is well known and has found its way into art collections globally.  Dutch for ‘the style’, the movement spanned 1917-1931, the principal proponents advocated pure abstraction and a reduction to the essence of form, colour and line; the ‘structure of the three dimensional work, architecture and art is defined by the black line, sharply contrasting with the dominant white backgrounds and the insertion of blocks of signal colours.  The transaction of the defined lines and blocks of colour in sculpture and architecture led to planes that were unobstructed by each other.  To my mind this led to a richness of depth. The architect Rietveld created the Schröder House (1923/4) in Utrecht for an enlightened client, an icon of the movement and which I have visited.  See figure 1.

The most overt example of the influence in my ‘photographer’s eye’ is the image I created from the outside of St Thomas More’s catholic church in East Birmingham in March 2017.  Figure 2. The image has planes, lines at horizontal and vertical, blocks of colour defined by sharp shadows and depth. 

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    figure 2

I have undertaken a simple planar image analysis of the formation of lines, the homogenous block colour/tones, including the block of yellow which represents the image’s most conspicuous focal point, the priest. 

The original image is shown below.

In undertaking this analysis it has assisted me in slicing the image into its several parts which appear, nevertheless, to be a cogent whole, as does a Mondrian painting.  What I also note from the particular painting I use as my primary reference is that the canvas has effectively a frameless ‘edge’ which is echoed in my study as I have have allowed the black ‘construction’ lines to spread beyond the frame that I chose for the image, to imply the ‘beyond’. figure 3

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figure 3


My Practice : Check Point No 1

It is time to draw out the theory that has been gathering in my head and written notes and wrap it around my work, my practice.  This is the first of what will, I anticipate, roll into a series on this blog.

As a moment of ‘checkpointing’ my own work struck, I decided to delve into my array of photographs from the visit in November 2016 to PhotoParis, to pick out this example of street photography.  I consciously divide my image making into two; the carefully considered, set-piece exploration of architecture and its demise which creates a series of related images on the one hand; on the other I provide a visual running commentary on where I visit, the streets I walk around; what I  see, feel and do on a daily basis.  The former involves kit in heavy bags, significant planning and processing time, the latter the instantaneous fusion of phone/camera/Instagram and 4G and an inquisitive eye.

This example is street photography, shot at dawn on a cold and damp day around the Opera House district of Paris.  Though with an SLR.


I am reappraising this photograph; an ontological analysis.  It was taken because I am intrigued by how advertisement/billboards can often create a backdrop to a place, to alter the visual dynamic.  Hence, in this instance my photograph captured a photograph.  I see streets as ‘rooms’ often with contrived and random things colliding and making for unexpected juxtapositions.  Here we see a room in the room.  The deliberate depth provided by the commercial photographer contrives a deeper perspective into the side of this narrow street, itself a minor thoroughfare from the main boulevard.  My work often endeavours to capture depth by shadow and light; space beyond space.  That is why I was drawn to this view. I flattened the view by placing my vantage point exactly perpendicular to the other side of the street, as if to emphasise the perspective and depth provided by the billboard.

I chose the frame to contrast the posh clothing, one in workaday business garb, the other in weekend wear but sharply contrasted with the dirt on the doorway step, the cable hanging loose and the ball tapped bollard typical of Parisian streets.  The moment was captured as the moving car lit the left side of the image with its headlamps. Here is a controlled, farmed image with models ‘walking out’ of a tight board-marked concrete corner, as if striding out, but into a very ordinary, bland street (though actually appropriately dressed for the weather).  Move much more, as if out of their false world and into the real, and they would trip over the green bin.  Or out into the path of the car racing across the image.  My framing image chooses to miss out the branding, making the view a more uncanny and awkward positioning devoid of its link to the marketeer’s essential textual link.  The ad-world is projected into the real world; perhaps a hint of the cave that is Plato’s?

The men pose tall, legs astride, upright, hair gelled, beards just long enough to strike a match, like urbane morphs from the Marlboro Men.  Their gaze is ahead, forward.  The male cliche is enforced.  Just around the corner there is a female model, in a department store’s plate glass window, wearing a skimpy bikini……in November.  The ‘Admen’ are at it again.

This is a hunted image dominated by a carefully crafted farmed image.  The studio is taken out onto the street context via billboard.  This exacting commercial, studio image will feature in magazines, social media, in stores and may even be made ‘almost real’ emulated on manakins.  The studio is a faked, idealised, made-up marketeer’s world and the printing of the billboard medium is controlled and inserted into a chrome frame.  It is then spliced into the real, moving, gritty, grey street in a trendy town, outdone by the colourful trash bin.

Influencers in my thinking and composure; a current and concise list which will keep evolving and expanding;


John Szarkowski – framing, compression, vantage point –  The Photographer’s Eye. MoMA, New York, 2007

Berger – on promotion, prejudice and seeing  – Ways of Seeing. Viking Press, 1973

Sontag – on voyeurism, Plato’s cave and references to ‘trace’ – On Photography, Penguin, 1977

Peirce – on coding and indexation in photography – a useful introduction – Peirce on Signs: Writings on Semiotic by Charles Sanders Peirce.  Edited Hoopes J. The University of North Carolina Press. 2014

Barthes – to keep me on my toes – Camera Lucida New York: Hill and Wang 1981.


Edgar Martins

Uta Barth

James Welling

Laura Letinsky

William Kelin


Mondrian & Reitveld : de Stijl




Richard Long

Antony Gormley


John Pawson

Herzog de Meuron

Norman Foster

Philip Cox

Michael Hopkins

Caruso St John

Le Corbusier

Dennis Lasdon