My best summer photograph: sun, sand and plastic surgery

Top photographers pick their best summer shots

Summer is a time when natural light can lend an otherness to almost any subject. From Ryan McGinleys playful homage to Renaissance nudes, to Nadav Kanders eerie inlet at Mont Saint-Michel, these shots by contemporary photographers are testament to that.

As the holiday snaps that flood Instagram show, the light can also enhance even the most cliched chronicle of a summer vacation. We take a different kind of photograph in the sun, sensing that it makes us look better because it makes us feel better. The self we display in a selfie, or so we tell ourselves, is leaner, lither, more tanned, more relaxed and less self-conscious.

A snapshot of a sandy beach and a blue sea, especially taken through the V of tanned feet, would once have been consigned to a pile of envelopes in a cupboard, to be looked at briefly and bemusedly years later in a bout of decluttering. Now, shared in real time on Instagram, it is something else: more knowing, artful and presumptive. I am here and you are not, is the subliminal message it carries to friends back home. Yet sunlight falling on skin or sand bestows a shimmer of lightness literal and atmospheric on even the most inane snapshot.

Against all of this, I can understand why even a contemporary master of deep colour such as Alec Soth would choose to shoot someone diving into a rocky swimming hole in monochrome. Here is the chill of summer, the childhood risk of summer, the dark dreamtime of an adolescent summer in which limits are being tested. It is an antidote to the dappled days of sun, sea, sand and luminous light. (Sean OHagan)

Near Kaaterskill Falls, New York, 2012 by Alec Soth. Photograph: Alec Soth

I tried a cliff-dive myself. It was thrilling
Alec Soth

I took this on a road trip through upstate New York one summer. The area has a curious Rip Van Winkle quality at that time of year, which made for a deeply romantic trip. I had created this kind of imaginary newspaper called the LBM Dispatch, naming myself chief photographer. I was working with a friend, a writer. We would drive around a region, allocating time to stop and report on whatever we found.

I had mapped out various swimming holes. There are loads dotted across upstate NY: places where people gather to swim and, as it turns out, cliff-dive. It wasnt at this spot, but at another, that I tried it out for myself and it was totally thrilling. That feeling of letting go fascinated me. It tied in to ideas of escape that I have explored for years.

I was experimenting with flash, working like a news photographer, who pauses and instantaneously zeroes in on someones life. There is something about the result here thats evocative of Weegee [Arthur Fellig, famed for his black-and-white photographs of New York crime scenes from the 1930s]. It seems timeless too: I dont think you could ever guess when it was taken.

The image was published in Songbook, my most recent work, but its linked to two earlier projects. I shot a series called Niagara, attracted to the area and its motels by the falls and the suicides. A more recent project was Broken Manual, which focused on men who run away, attempting to escape from the world and their lives. This cliff-dive is reminiscent of elements in both: fantasies of suicide, fantasies of retreat its all in there.

Maybe thats depressing, too depressing for a snapshot of summer, but my work is often chilly. To me, seasons are somewhat abstract, but summer is almost mythical in its ability to evoke childhood, unfamiliar places, a moment outside day-to-day life, like a dream. Thats what the picture is: a dream-like moment of total release. (Interview by Edward Siddons)

Barn Flip (Red), 2013 by Ryan McGinley Photograph: Ryan McGinley/Courtesy Team Gallery

Theyre like the nudes in the Sistine Chapel
Ryan McGinley

I love shooting out in nature during the summer because its warm and people are comfortable being naked. I can shoot all day and take my time to find the surprises that make an image exceptional. Something about being outside at this time of year seems extra spiritual and serene.

This shot consists of three friends of mine, all artists: photographer Carlotta Kohl is on the left, painter Christopher Bostwick is in the middle, and film-maker Petra Collins is on the right. The location is deepest West Virginia. For my shoots, I look for properties to rent that have lots of land to explore, usually farms with unique old structures that I like to include in my shots. When I rent a place like this in the middle of nowhere, they are usually inexpensive, so I am easily able to take my crew of 15 along.

This was shot at dusk, a time I like because the sky turns beautiful shades of blue. I set up an airbag for the models to jump on to. When Christopher started doing flips, it reminded me of looking up at the nudes in the Sistine Chapel. I grew up Roman Catholic and was influenced by Michelangelos nudes. Actually, the flying nudes of the Renaissance have been in my DNA from a very early age. One of the reasons I initially cast Petra was because she looked as if she had stepped out of a Renaissance painting.

While we were shooting, one of the owners friends, a biker, stood there watching us. He was drunk and kind of mumbling things to himself as all the models were jumping out of the barn. I told him to go away, to let the models have their privacy, but he kept coming back. The following morning, at around 3am, he walked into our house and yelled: Who wants to party? We were all terrified. That afternoon, the owner told us, he had gotten on his motorcycle at around 7am, driven off, crashed and died. (Ben Beaumont-Thomas)

Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy, France 2002 by Nadav Kander Photograph: Nadav Kander

This shot only exists in summer
Nadav Kander

Water has always been important to me. There is something enchanting about its stillness, how it covers everything, how it flows along the path of least resistance and submerges everything in a level way. Theres something starkly beautiful and calming about it. I think you are either a mountain person or a lake person. Im a lake person.

I took this around Mont Saint-Michel in France, just over the Channel from Cornwall. In autumn, the area turns orange, and in winter it has hardly any colour at all, so summer is the only time that this shot really exists.

I found the flatness of the scene captivating. When I made my way through it, all these inlets started to look rather surreal. Thats something Im always searching for elements of, in among the normal. I never photograph nature in its purity, hence the castle looming in the distance. Its a symbol of man, whose traces can be detected elsewhere in the landscape. Sheep arent native to the area. The sea grass ought to be much longer, but the introduction of livestock means the floodplain is grazed. Thats what gives the picture its clean lines and gently folding greenery.

My work always has something to do with man, or at least his mark, whether that is a felled tree, concrete objects or, in this case, a whole fortress built into the sea. Artists in earlier times, especially in England, would be asked to paint a landscape and, even if it was fictitious, they would insert a ruin into a far hillside. It lent reason, the weight of past lives. The castles inclusion here tells us that man has lived here, much has come before us, our own life is short.

So you could say the shot is more portrait than landscape. Without that building, I think its just pictorial and nothing more. The castle adds a history, a layer into time, access to humanity across the years. (ES)

Ox and Angela, plastic surgeon and wife, Rio, Brazil, October 2002 by Zed Nelson Photograph: Zed Nelson

Hed a gun down the back of his trousers
Zed Nelson

I spent five years working on my Love Me series, travelling to 17 countries to look at the phenomenon of body obsession and self-image. I was interested in how the beauty industry has made us more vain and self-conscious and therefore more willing to spend money on its products.

I found myself in Rio de Janeiro and made an appointment to meet this plastic surgeon at his home one weekend. I didnt even know about his wife. Shes a carnival queen: she would dance on floats, something a lot of women in Brazil aspire to. She was quite strange, to be honest.

On the way there, I went to the beach and someone stole my flip-flops, so I had this weird experience of turning up at a plastic surgeons house barefoot. It turned out to be a good icebreaker. His wife came down in this carnival costume with enormous wings. It was a bit much, so I asked her to take the wings off. Then he scooped the dogs up off the sofa and everything looked perfect.

He had done about six or seven operations on her, so she is sort of his creation, his Frankensteins monster. At the time, he was having an operating theatre built on the top floor of his apartment. Smiling and posing for the camera has become such a social contrivance that I usually discourage it. But look at her body, look at that pose she probably learned how to sit as a child. What a flattering angle it is. And thats an interesting thing to document.

The two hours I spent there were rather surreal. He had a gun tucked down the back of his trousers. A year later, I found out he had been shot and killed in his own home. And the families were now arguing over who got the two dogs. (Nell Frizzell)

Pikpa, Lesbos in Greece, July 2015 by Jillian Edelstein. Photograph: Jillian Edelstein

Mohammed fled Syria after a shrapnel attack
Jillian Edelstein

Last summer, I was on the Greek island of Lesbos when the dinghies full of refugees were coming thick and fast from Turkey. I was working with Counterpoints Arts, an organisation that connects artist with refugees and vice versa. People wept as they came ashore, some in grief, others in elation. They had been driven out of their homes and forced to run away. More than anything, they were just desperate to protect their children.

Those who survived the journey were segregated into camps according to their country of origin: Afghan refugees went to a settlement called Moria, Syrians to Kara Tepe. The man in the photo is Syrian. His name is Mohammed Ganom. He avoided the camps due to his disability and his urgent need for medical attention. He was taken to Pikpa [now called the Lesbos Solidarity camp], something of a sanctuary on Lesbos, where pregnant women, the injured, severely ill and dying find some form of respite. Thats where I took this.

Mohammed was outside his home in Homs, western Syria, when he was hit by shrapnel. On a white, plastic chair, just outside of this shot, sat his colostomy bag, in dire need of emptying. His sister had travelled with him and did her best to nurse him. To me, the shot speaks of vulnerability. It demonstrates how easily politics can pose a threat, not only to the human spirit, but to our physical being.

There were holidaymakers on the island complaining about being disturbed by the flood of people. Refugees were turned away from hotels, even when they could afford a room. Some locals would rail against newcomers in the middle of the street. It was a stark reminder of what was going on both in the rest of the world and right on Europes doorstep.

For these refugees, summer meant warmth. It meant sleeping rough was a little easier, the hostile, choppy waters were slightly calmer. Summer was a form of kindness to these peoples bodies. I dont know what happened to Mohammed, but Im going back soon and Im planning to damn well find out. (ES)

Untitled, St Barts, 2016 by Tierney Gearon Photograph: Tierney Gearon

Its like a grandad got swallowed by the beach
Tierney Gearon

We were at our house on the beach in St Barts [in the Caribbean]. Id bought this mask I collect quirky little things and one of the kids took it down to the beach. When I saw it lying there, I said to my daughter: Grace, look at that man buried in the sand! I like pictures to tell a story and it was as if a grandad had got swallowed up by the beach.

I have a Canon 5D that I use professionally, but, to be honest, my favourite camera right now is an iPhone. Film is just so expensive. I still have the Canon, but its not what I carry around in my bag. I have one of those really big fat iPhone 6s. I didnt put any filter on the shot. That luminosity is just from the pink wrap.

Its not really children I want to take pictures of. Its more that I want to explore the children within us all. Im surrounded by kids at the moment and my mother, who is mentally ill, has come back to live with me. Im fascinated by the psychology of a childs mind how they interpret things, what they become. Were all just trying to work out our own stuff and most of that happens when we are children. (NF)

Ellen von Unwerths summer snap, 2016. Left to right: Stuart Matthewman, Syrie Moskowitz, Paul Simonon, Rhys Ifans, Serena Rees, Jake Chapman, Sara Ball, Rosemary Ferguson and daughter, Cathy Kasterine with son and daughter, Christian Fourteau. Photograph: Ellen von Unwerth

It was the end of a perfect day
Ellen von Unwerth

I only took this last week. I was in Alconsser in Mallorca and a couple of us decided to meet up at one of the small, stony beaches at the foot of some cliffs. Over the course of the day, more and more people arrived. Our small party swelled into this big group.

Some went floating around in the sea, others lazed on the beach chatting or quietly reading. This shot was all about capturing the mood of the moment in the moment. I took it at the end of the day, which is perhaps why it is so relaxed. Everyone was exhausted.

These days, everyone knows how to get a good photo. People are much more aware of how to hold themselves. Tiredness minimised that. What I really love is that everybody has their own individual character. They are all exceptional artists in their own right, so maybe thats to be expected. Rhys Ifans [the Welsh actor, back left] has something rocknroll about him with his cigarette resting in his mouth, whereas Paul Simonon [Clash bass player, in front of him] just looks relaxed and happy.

I have worked with most of these people in some kind of professional capacity. Syrie Moskowitz [actor, far left] is my muse at the moment, while Rosemary Ferguson was a model I shot earlier in my career. Shooting in sepia added a timeless element, making it reminiscent of an earlier era.

It was a perfect day, but I am not one of those people who prays for eternal summer. I wouldnt like to live in California. I prefer it when the seasons shift. I love those moments of transformation. (ES)

Norfolk, 1979 by Philip-Lorca diCorcia Photograph: Philip-Lorca diCorcia/Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London

You cant drown in 12 inches of water!
Philip-Lorca diCorcia

Norfolk is an area of Connecticut that is fairly affluent, though this was taken in one of the less salubrious parts. It was 1979 and I was studying at Yale. I wasnt interested in people of another class per se. I was interested in people who had no interest in photography. The obvious focus is the young girl standing in the paddling pool. The inflatable around her waist is ridiculous. She couldnt have drowned the water was less than a foot deep.

Summer is fleeting, just like youth. This shot harks back to that time in your life when standing in 12 inches of water was truly fun. Theres a kind of innocence to it: you would think it was just an innocuous snapshot taken at random but it wasnt. In those days, I didnt use a handheld. My work all had to be rather deliberate because I was shooting with a tripod.

There is a weirdness to the scene, but thats good. I wanted it to be slightly suspicious. It relates to broader questions I like to ask about the line between fiction and reality. It makes you question the nature of photographic truth. (ES)

Remembered Light, Untitled (Wall Drip with Blue Tape), 2012 by Sally Mann Photograph: Sally Mann/Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Its the absence and presence of Cy Twombly
Sally Mann

This was taken in Cy Twomblys studio in the dead of winter, after Cy had been gone at least six months. It was summer when he died, not in our home state of Virginia, but in Italy where he spent his summers and winters. In the spring and fall, he would alight in Lexington, the town in Virginia where we both grew up, and almost as soon as his bags were unpacked he would begin painting.

He had been a friend of my parents, to whom he gave his first sculpture. They supported him by buying, out of his arms, a painting he was carrying down the street one day in 1952. Cy had made it with pencil and house paint.

He loved our part of the south and his work reflected southerners innately contradictory qualities of ambiguity and plain-spokenness, cruelty and kindness, illumination and obscurity. Like all southerners, he was keenly aware of death, but the shadow of mortality failed to darken his brilliance, and the famous slow pace of southern life only reminded Cy how much harder he had to work.

And work he did. Considering he was in the fall of his life, his later paintings were extravagant with colour and gesture, import and whimsy. It was the poetic force of his personality that compelled me to take pictures in his studio. These bright colours, these brilliant vestiges, suggest both an absence and a great presence. (BBT)

  • Sally Mann: Remembered Light, Cy Twombly in Lexington, is at Gagosian Gallery 976 Madison Avenue, New York, 22 September to 29 October.

9/11 seen from Brooklyn, September 11 2001 by Thomas Hoepker Photograph: Thomas Hoepker

They got upset when they saw the picture
Thomas Hoepker

In September 2001, Magnum Photos was due to have its AGM in New York. In the morning, somebody called me to say an airplane had flown into a skyscraper. Of course, I wanted to go and see it. I took my car out, thinking I would take a shortcut through Brooklyn and go over one of the southern bridges. But the bridges had been closed.

As I drove, I heard on the radio that a second plane had crashed. Just by chance, I came to this little spot on the East River that looked directly across the water at what was happening. In front of me was this group of five people chatting. So I pressed the shutter just three times and moved on. I was still trying to get closer. Im not sure if I was using my Leica or my Canon, but I was definitely shooting on film.

When I got to the Magnum office that afternoon, I saw what my fellow photographers had done. Steve McCurry lives in a high-rise just a kilometre from Ground Zero all hed had to do was go on to his roof to get the most amazing pictures. As the others came in and developed their images in the darkroom, I felt Id got nothing.

In the days following the attacks, there were all sorts of interesting, horrific and depressing things to photograph. We had so much material, we decided to make a book: New York September 11, by Magnum Photographers. I used very few of my own shots because I thought Id blown it. Then, five years later, the director of a photography museum in Munich asked to do a retrospective of my work. He was going through my pictures and suddenly came to the 9/11 shots. He said: These are incredible the contrast of the young people in the sunshine, looking so relaxed, with the smoke and death in the background. Of course, unconsciously, I might have seen those two trees as a frame to the group, but it was pure instinct. I was there for less than a minute.

Later, I found out that the people in the shot got a little upset when they saw the picture. That blonde woman in the centre is a photographer herself, a portraitist, and thats a very different ballgame. Had I asked if I could take their picture, I would have already spoiled the moment. Or they might have told me to fuck off.

It was September, the end of summer and the end of naivete, in a way. It was also the beginning of what we are all living with now. (NF)

Read more:

Comments are closed.

Copyright © EP4 Blog