Aftermath and Aesthetics

Aftermath photography (also known as 'late photography') has become quite popular over the past few years. I myself attended the exhibition at Tate Modern in early 2015 entitled 'Conflict. Time. Photography.' which was a collection of images which showed the aftermath of conflict in gradually increasing lengths of time following the event. The first images in the exhibition showed images seconds after the incident, and as we passed through the gallery the time lengthened until the images were from years later. At the time I felt that the exhibition had missed something in that, as a viewer, I was hoping to see more images of conflict - there were in fact none - we simply saw pictures of the aftermath. This of course was the idea of the exhibition but many of the images weren't taken with the intention of being aftermath photography, they were simply used as such. Nevertheless, the exhibition did, to a large part, as the curator had intended.

Aftermath photography doesn't have to be concerned with the aftermath of conflict; any type of photograph which has an indexical link to the past, (which of course is all photography!) could be termed as such, but commonly it tends to show what is left after some major event, generally featuring some kind of obvious change, and is often intentionally done as opposed to showing two images chronologically, such as the retreat of a glacier. The coursework uses the example of Joel Meyerowitz's photographs of the aftermath of 9/11. In this case of course, Meyerowitz had no option but to photograph the aftermath, but an exhibition of Meyerowitz's work is likely to look very different to many eye-witness images of the event as they happened. As I mentioned above, all photography is to some extent aftermath photography but Meyerowitz's photographs were taken quite some time after the event and were never meant to show the events as they happened - they were intentionally 'aftermath photography' as we now know it. Clearly there is some difference in timing but what is the aesthetic difference here?

In David Campany's essay 'Safety in Numbness' (Campany, 2017) he explains how he feels that Meyerowitz's image are aesthetically too pleasant to convey the real horror of the events of 9/11, that is the aesthetics aren't appropriate to tell the story as it should be told. That said, there are plenty of images and videos showing the incidents of 9/11 as they happened and to view these images certainly would conjure up different feelings in the viewer. Meyerowitz's images are clearly meant to be pondered upon and to allow the viewer to create their own thoughts and feelings regarding the events. I disagree with David Campany's crticism of Meyerowitz's images as I certainly don't think it was Meyerowitz's intention to shock or horrify the viewer and that taking a stance as an artist to show these 'late' images is not only worthwhile but it is also healthy, as it helps people to consider the events from a calmer place, rather than just being upset by gruesome death and destruction.

As I mentioned earlier, aftermath photo isn't just about the aftermath of conflict, but it is almost invariably aesthetically 'calmer' than images taken at the time of or before the event. Order always leads to disorder, but disorder is scientifically more stable. Scientist James Lovelock was once asked how he would know if there was life on Mars and he replied he would look for 'negative entropy' where disorder becomes order. What he meant by this was that energy is being put into a system rather than being 'lost' (Energy is never lost it just takes on a different form). One could use the example of the collapse of the twin towers as an example of how vast amounts of energy were 'lost' as the building materials settled into a more natural state. Aftermath photography could therefore be described as the photographing of the natural state of positive entropy. Aesthetically there's a good chance (depending on how 'after' it is) that the images will not only be more disordered but calmer.

References:

Campany, D. (2017). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography' - David Campany. [online] David Campany. Available at: http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/ [Accessed 8 Feb. 2017].

 

"The Radical Eye" - Study Visit. Tate Modern, 22nd April 2017

I've really got behind with my studies and recently missed another study visit due to a bad back, so things haven't been going particularly well. I was pleased therefore to get out and see an exhibition, meet some other student and try and get back on track. I'm pleased to say that this has worked!

The title of this exhibition is "The Radical Eye - Modernist photography from the Elton John collection." and it was clear what the major attraction might be for the general public. I try to get along to all the study visits that the OCA arranges, so it wasn't particularly the idea of seeing Elton John's own collection that attracted me; but nevertheless, there were interesting points which were raised afterwards regarding this connection with 'music royalty'. In fact, the first question asked by Russell Squires - one of our tutors on the day along with Jayne Taylor - sparked the longest conversation point. Russell asked a question along the lines of 'how much of a selling point was the fact that Elton John owned these photographs?' The advertising for the exhibition as well as various video clips showed Elton John and David Furnish (John's partner) talking about his collection and the exhibition. To most, if not all of us, it was clear that the exhibition would be well attended by the public simply because of the celebrity connection, regardless of the fact that the images were not about the star himself (barring one or two), or his life, or any actually taken by him; they were simply photographs which he'd collected. Elton John himself - in a video shot in one of his homes where he kept the images on display - admitted that he had come into collecting photography quite late and that prior to that he didn't regard photography as art. John states that he'd never seen anything like it beforeand that by dispaying the images he might encourage others to have the same feelings as he had. Most if not all of the photographs were from the modernist period which is regarded as being the period approximately covering the first half of the 20th century.; photography's 'coming-of-age'. He mentioned that collecting photography had in fact helped him when he was trying to overcome an addiction to drugs and only began in the early 1990s. This back story, whilst interesting, plays no real part in the exhibition itself which was drawn together simply from a collection of photographs by one man, albeit a famous man. We discussed whether Elton John particularly liked the images he'd bought, or whether he'd bought them as an investment, or because they were well know images. An example used was of the 'Migrant Mother', Dorothea Lange's photograph taken in 1936. One of the other students asked why, if he were a collector, did he not purchase the other images Lange took of the lady in the photograph, Florence Thompson? Why did he just buy the 'famous' one? Perhaps it is famous for good reason and that the other images didn't have what the 'Migrant Mother' has. All this aside, the exhibition itself contained some excellent photography and the general view was that it was well curated. The exhibition was divided in five rooms, plus a side room which showed the exhibition film. Each of the rooms contained images related to a certain theme, or themes. The first room introduced the idea of the Radical Eye; explaining a short history of modernism in regard to photography and contained the only images of Sir Elton John himself, those taken by Irving Penn where John is photographed in a traditional portrait head-and-shoulders style but including a movement which has distorted his features. The subsequent rooms were titled, 'Portraits', 'Portraits, Experiments, Bodies', 'Documents,' and 'Objectives, Perspectives, Abstractions'. The overarching theme of modernism is apparent throughout as there is much experimentation on display and the images certainly worked together to fit the individual themes of the rooms. Perhaps not surprisingly there are a few quotes and images from Lazslo Moholy-Nagy who was at the forefront of those experimenting with photography in the early 20th century. Modernism itself was not exclusive to photography but in this exhibition we can clearly see how many photographers weren't content to use the camera exactly as it had been used for the previous 100 years or so and set about creating images which utilised the advancing technology in order to exhibit their creativity. In all of the rooms we see experimentalism whether it be in how sitters are posed for their portraits, the abstract photographs of body parts, unusual viewpoints from bird's-eye to worm's eye and in documentary, where the portability of the camera meant that stories could be told from far and wide. Technology had also meant that faster shutter speeds meant we could now freeze movement, something which couldn't be achieved with earlier equipment.

For me the exhibition was very helpful as it managed to frame the concept of modernism very well and has given me a better grasp of what modernism actually is. I think that overall the exhibition was received well by our group and the fact that the images were from Sir Elton John's own collection didn't reflect in any negative sense on what the curator was trying to achieve.

 

Project 2: Photojournalism.

When I think of photojournalism I immediately think of photographs of real events used alongside text to tell a story in a newspaper. I think it would be fair to say that this is how many people might describe it. It doesn't need to be a newspaper of course; it could be a report on television, or a story on a blog or news website, but regardless of the medium, I think it would also be fair to say that we would all like to believe that the story is accurate and that the photographs assist in revealing, or proving the truth as told in the text. Photojournalism is also normally considered to be investigative in some way, where information is revealed to the viewer which they might not already know and is of course deemed to be of some interest to them. It might also be assumed that the photographer and the journalist agree on the story they are telling although this may not be the case. The photographer and the journalist may of course be the same person so of course the photograph and the written story could easily reinforce each other. However, it may be the case that the photographer hadn't planned the photograph to be part of a news story and that the journalist simply uses it to help explain, elaborate on or confirm the story in the written account. It may also be that the photograph doesn't show anything directly related to the events in the story, for example, a photograph of a Concorde used to tell the story of the actual Concorde which crashed in France in 2000 may have been shot a long time before or after the event. If shot before the crash, it may not be the actual aircraft which crashed but that wouldn't detract from the story. However, much more interesting would be an image of the actual aircraft, perhaps the day before the crash or maybe a photograph of the real aircraft on fire (which we did indeed see). The images were stills from a video and were poor quality, but were nevertheless excellent for the newspapers which reported the story. In this case we can see that the photographs back up the story. Although there is no doubt that the aircraft shown in the pictures was the Concorde and it crashed in France and many people died, without the photograph we would still believe the story; the picture doesn't 'prove' it happened. Sometimes photographs 'prove' something happened, or perhaps more accurately they make a story more believable. However, let's take for example a paparazzi photograph of a famous footballer, perhaps a little worse for wear after a night out. If that footballer had a history of aggressive behaviour and an image showed the player perhaps looking a little angry, then many people would believe that the player was involved in a punch-up that night (should someone choose to write a story suggesting he was) simply because there was a photograph showing him out at night looking a little angry. Without the photograph the story would still be interesting but pretty feeble and although it might still believed by many, it is much less likely to be reported. Photographs can help 'make' the news by making stories more interesting if not more believable. This short essay wasn't planned but it clearly shows how many facets there are to photojournalism. Who took the photograph and why? Was the photograph planned? Was it staged? Was it at the time of the event? Who wrote the story and why did they choose the photographs they did to go with it. Did the photographer have a say in their image being used with the story? Who oversaw the outcome? Was it the editor; the proprietor?  Clearly the stories we read in the press and the photographs we see posted alongside these stories cannot always be taken at face value.

One critical viewpoint of documentary/photojournalism is that taken by Martha Rosler's in her essay 'In, Around and Afterthoughts.' (Wells, 2003). In this essay, which discusses documentary photography from the late 19th century to the latter part of the 20th century, Rosler takes a stance which initially I felt was harsh on those practitioners who believed they were doing good; but which I now feel is justified (although her criticism was broadly spread and I don't feel was applicable in all cases). Rosler was critical of photographers who used their images to highlight the problems facing the poor. She felt that the problem with this approach was that rather than bringing a divided society together by means of showing the better-off part of society as a whole the problems that were occurring, it was more likely to simply highlight how separated society was, and perhaps only succeed in helping these people by scaring the better-off into assisting the poor by charity before things turned nasty. This might lead to a hand out rather than a hand up, to use a slightly cliched, but nevertheless appropriate expression, and things would simply return to the way they were. Rosler believed that photographers such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis - well-meaning as they may be - were simply helping to maintain the status quo. I do feel that, certainly in the case of Hine, this stance is unfair. Hine highlighted, through his photography, the plight of child workers throughout the US. I think for Rosler to criticise this work as simply helping to maintain the status quo fails then to take into account what might have happened to the child workforce in the US had Hine NOT highlighted the issues through his photography. Jacob Riis himself said that he had tried writing about the plight of the poor to no avail. (Wells, 2003). I do understand the point that Rosler is making but there has to be a point where intervention by photojournalists helps to change things for the better; a step in the right direction at least. Rosler herself states that there is a 'financially unloved but growing body of documentary works committed to the exposure of specific abuses' (Wells, 2003) so I do find it slightly odd that she sees Hine's work as not being part of this body. Rosler's essay certainly raised some interesting points although it is of course easier to see the potential problems she raises, with the benefit of hindsight. I doubt very much that Lewis Hine considered that by doing as he did, he would simply be maintaining the status quo for these children. It is certainly true that there have been many photographers who have photographed the poor for voyeuristic and aesthetic reasons and although it would be fair to say that there is inherent interest in these images - they show people and places which many would never ordinarily see - the photographer would often not have the interests of the subjects at heart, in the same way that Lewis Hine apparently did. This type of voyeuristic photographic practice continues to this day, it is quite common and I personally have fallen foul of it too. I feel a certain sense of guilt now, pitying the subject whilst at the same time thinking about how great the photograph might be.

There's no doubt that photojournalism and documentary photography don't necessarily show the 'truth'; that the view of those taking the photographs, showing it via their particular medium or writing about it, may be choosing to represent the 'truth' in their own particular way - ways which do not tell the whole story.

Bibliography

Wells, L. (2003). The Photography Reader. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

'William Eggleston - Portraits' and 'Black Chronicles' Study visit. The National Portrait Gallery, London. October 1st 2016

Since being introduced to William Eggleston's photography - as I gradually became more and more familiar with the 'greats' - I have grown increasingly fond of it. I think it would be fair to say that Eggleston achieving 'greatness' was due in no small part to his timing. The fact that he was one of the first photographers to be recognised for utilising colour for artistic purposes in his street photography as well as the fact that there was clearly a great deal of thought put into his image making, means that now, as we look back at the history of the development of photography, his work cannot be ignored. This study visit to the National Portrait Gallery was naturally an exhibition of a selection from his oeuvre, but simply showed some of his portraits; a selection of a genre for which I wouldn't normally associate him. Firstly then, I need to try and focus on separating a review of this exhibition from simply a consideration of his work in its entirety, although clearly placing this body of work in the context of his work as a whole is important to understanding it fully.

This study visit was led by OCA tutor Jayne Taylor who I had met once before on another study visit to Tate Britain for the Salt & Silver exhibition. There were around a dozen or so fellow students, some of whom were on their first visit; one student had only signed up with the OCA the day before! Certainly there was a positive feeling amongst the group as Eggleston is a photographer who has inspired many and I wasn't the only one who had been looking forward to this for a while.

Eggleston himself said that he has a democratic way of looking around, in that everything is viewed equally, so he asks us not to view the images as sentimental or as documentary, but as individual, isolated images, no more or less important than the others; "[T]hey are all equal." he tells us.  There were around a hundred images in the exhibition, so it wasn't huge, and one of the first things that struck me was that the first portraits were in black and white. This shouldn't be surprising of course, given that black and white was the norm for at least the first century of photography, but given that Eggleston is of course best known for his colour photographs, it was an interesting start and this observation was the first note I made. The early images were from the early 1960's and Eggleston appeared quick to start using colour, with some portraits from the mid-60s being in colour. He still shot in black and white though as there were some photos from the 70s which were black and white. Something else that I couldn't help but notice as that Eggleston appears to care little for composition. I doubt this is a fair observation, but many of his images break the 'rules' of composition, often chopping off feet, or having crooked horizons and so on. One reason for this may be that he would only ever shoot one frame of a subject, preferring this than to shot several and then have the problem of deciding which one is best. Although one can understand the thinking here, there is the obvious downside in that if something isn't quite right, there is no going back. This may be the reason why there are seemingly so many 'errors' in his photographs.  

I really like how Eggleston uses natural light. Although the images in this exhibition were portraits and quite often indoors, there were a number of beautifully lit shots. One in particular showed a young girl in the back seat of a car, lit by a low sun. It really stood out for me. I love the way it is lit and how the girl's face isn't in shadow as you might expect it to be. He seems to have created colours that are quite soft and yet at the same time vibrant; I'm not even sure if this is possible but I think others will understand what I mean! This is the kind of image I associate with Eggleston, even though it is a portrait shot. There is another of Dennis Hopper, viewed from behind, from the back seat of a car. Again, the lighting is fabulous and he really captures a certain feel: the open road, the cigarette smoke, the warmth from the low sun. Another image which stood out showed two girls on a sofa, one girl is consoling the other; the caption tells us that the girl who is sad was earlier that evening, rejected by a man who she had asked out on a date. The man would later date the friend who was consoling her. The image looks like a pre-Raphaelite oil painting - it is stunning. The exhibition contains many other beautiful and yet often, unusually framed and lit images. Colour, and his use of colour appears to become an increasingly important element in his work as you walk through the exhibition.

After we had all browsed the exhibition we met up for coffee in the Cafe in the Crypt, across the road from the gallery. Jayne had reserved a table for us and we gathered together to discuss the exhibition and our views. In the free exhibitioin booklet there was a comment from Sofia Coppola, which read: " ... so many people take those simple snapshots of life but there's something about Eggleston that no one can match".  I decided to ask this question to the group but in the end, answered it myself. I said it was purely temporal, i.e. he was in the right place at the right time when it came to colour photography. I look back even now and realise I was wrong. Colour made Eggleston famous but his images are wonderful even without his fame. I do feel that the 'greats' are often over-hyped. This si undoubtedly true. We only see part of their work and who knows what was going through their minds as they took certain shots - certainly not always what they tell us afterwards. Sometimes you take a photograph and then realise it's better for a different reason than the one you took it for. You may admit this or you may not. I suspect many photographers don't admit it. Take Cartier-Bresson for example - undoubtedly one of the greats and deservedly so - he took many intriguing, eye-catching and enigmatic images and yet there would have been plenty that were perhaps taken at the 'indecisive moment.' He may have known what he wanted but perhaps didn't always get it. Or he took many many shots of people and eventually something interesting might show up. It is unfair to pick on Cartier-Bresson in this way but the point I'm making is that we have to be careful that we don't give undue credit to a photographer or put forethought into the photographer's mind that wasn't really there. I often get these feelings when I look at he work of more 'casual' photographers such as Eggleston, Friedlander and Winogrand, and wonder why they are seen as 'greats'. Surely it can't be just being original can it? I'm sure there'll be more on this from me in due course...

Anyway - after our coffee and discussion we headed back to the NPG to have a look at a second exhibition Black Chronicles. I was disappointed by this exhibition, for 2 reasons really: firstly it was only small (and strangely split into 3 small sections in different rooms of the gallery) and secondly it didn't live up to my expectations in terms of its scope. I was hoping for a larger historical exhibition showing the history of photography in the hands and through the eyes of black people and to see who might have been the pioneers or 'the black Stieglitz' and so on; but sadly this wasn't the case. However, my personal expectations aside, what was interesting about the exhibition was that it showed many black people who had assimilated or been accepted into British life prior to the Empire Windrush bringing a large group of Caribbean immigrants to the UK in 1948. I was surprised to see several black people elevated to the nobility, although it would of course have been few and far between. Undoubtedly there would still have been a degree of fascination with the ways and cultures of these people, and this is what made these few photographs of those who had settled and were clearly in elevated positions in society quite fascinating. There also appeared to be a degree of mutual respect between those at the head of society in Britain, and those in the similar positions in Africa. There was seemingly no 'looking down the nose' at these 'savages' as one might possibly expect, but what appears to be a sincere respect for their position in society. I wonder whether it was actually later, post-war perhaps, when white Britons people started to become more judgemental of blacks and racism became more prevalent.

I really enjoyed this visit; it was a chance for me to see some of William Eggleston's work in a gallery for the first time and as ever I enjoyed the discussion with my colleagues and with Jayne afterwards.

Documentary and Social Reform

Following on from looking at the apparent 'truth' of a photograph comes how this 'truth' can be depicted in documentary photography; specifically its use in arguments surrounding the need for social reform.

Dorothea Lange's photograph of Florence Thompson as the 'Migrant Mother' is a particularly well-known image taken from her work on the FSA project.

Dorothea Lange's photograph of Florence Thompson as the 'Migrant Mother' is a particularly well-known image taken from her work on the FSA project.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA) was an agency set up in the United States to investigate and address the problems suffered by farmers affected by the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Part of the work carried out by the agency was a program of photography intended to show the hardship and privation suffered by the people the FSA intended to help; sharecroppers, tenants, poor farmers and the rural poor in general. The photography was designed to give the wider a public a better idea of the suffering these people were experiencing. It can be described as documentary photography as the program was designed to create a record of the poverty of rural Americans during this time. This record could then be used not only to inform others of the plight of these people, but could also be used as a device for educating future generations. The agency wasn't all about photography, in fact photography played a relatively small part, but a number of the photographs taken by those who worked on the project have become well known, such as the iconic 'Migrant Mother' shown above.

The FSA had an agenda of course, and this agenda inevitably made the work they produced subjective. The photographers were guided to produce work of a particular type and consequently the images we see from the work is not the whole story of rural life in 1930s America. It is quite possibly accurate and a fair representation but it is still subjective and has a particular slant to it; although this was indeed its purpose. Few people were interested in farmers who were doing ok and had nothing to complain about. The ultimate goal of the photography program within the FSA was to 'introduce America to the Americans'  by showing them the plight of their fellow citizens , and this it did. In the end though the FSA wasn't deemed a success but over 100,000 of the 250,000 or photographs taken during the program are still available to see and are indeed a lasting reminder of the hardships suffered by so many people during this time.

Lewis Hine is an example of a 'socially aware' photographer who used truthful images to reveal to the wider world the hardships suffered by many people during the early part of the 20th century. In particular his work showed the plight of children in the workplace; child labour is something which today is not only regarded as unacceptable but in many countries is also a crime. Hine's agenda was one of social reform and his work is often deemed to have raised awareness of the issue and helped change the laws when it came to child labour. However, not everyone agreed that by showing this disparity in welfare between the well off and the poor actually helped bring about fundamental change. Although there has clearly been an improvement in the social conditions of children and the poor in the minority world (by this I mean the more commonly used terms of 'western', 'northern hemisphere' or 'civilised' world), the rising inequality in these countries, and the continued suffering of the poor and vulnerable in the majority world (i.e. 'third world', 'southern hemisphere') shows that the fundamental goals for which Hine was striving for are still to be fully realised. On the face of it, the work of the FSA and that of Hine could be seen as very similar (and indeed it was in the sense that they were both striving for improvements in the welfare of the less well off) but whereas the FSA were selective in what they chose to depict, Hine was more objective and 'truthful'; he wasn't working to a commissioned brief as were the photographers working for the FSA, his personal brief was simply to reveal the truth of the situation. There is the possibility that 'misleading' the public with staged images or by using images which only fit the agenda could be seen as disingenuous and potentially lose the support they were aiming for.

Bibliography

Wikipedia. (2016). Farm Security Administration. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farm_Security_Administration [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].

Encyclopedia.com. (2016). Farm Security Administration – Dictionary definition of Farm Security Administration | Encyclopedia.com: FREE online dictionary. [online] Available at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3401801471.html [Accessed 28 Apr. 2016].

 

'Photography Matters' - OCA Symposium. CAST, Doncaster. 21st May 2016

I had been looking forward to this event for a while as it was a chance to hear a few of the OCA tutors speaking about their work and areas of interest within photography. In particular I was looking forward to saying hello to my recent tutor, Keith Roberts (who was speaking on family portraits and the returned gaze), as well as my new tutor for Context and Narrative, Jesse Alexander. 

The event had been organised by OCA tutor Les Monaghan (also speaking on making photography for public audiences), , and was hosted by Professor Mark Durden.  Also speaking alongside Keith and Les were Dawn Woolley (speaking on selfies, consumer culture and identity), Derek Trillo (speaking on exploring notions of time through experimental photography) and Rachel Smith (speaking on the materiality of the photograph).

Les Monaghan. Photo: OCA Website

Les Monaghan. Photo: OCA Website

After the initial introduction the first speaker was Les Monaghan who discussed his recent work involving photographing a number of randomly chosen local people in a Doncaster shopping centre. The work, entitled 'Desire', comprised of numerous full length portraits captioned with one thing that the person would most like to have. The subject was allowed plenty of time to think about their answer and it was explained to them exactly how their 'desire' would be shown as a caption to their portrait. There was no trickery - no one was to be fooled. One person who expressed a slightly racist or xenophobic desire was spared the humiliation of public display. Les describes himself on the OCA website as being a 'socially engaged photographer, interested in community representation, history and myth'. This certainly comes across in what I have seen of Les's work. A concept which Les referred to in his work was fairness and this certainly comes through in how he handled his subjects for Desire.  'Fairness and effecting change' was, I think, something Les quoted early in his presentation (in fact it may have been the title for his talk!) in regard to how he approached photography. He believes that we can effect change with art and wishes to 'provoke care' with his photography. One question he asked was 'can art give ordinary people a voice?' What is certainly striking when listening to Les and looking at his work, is how he has a genuine passion for inclusivity in his photography projects and how he does aim to 'effect change' with the work that he does. I liked listening to Les and I appreciated his efforts to try to bring fairness and inclusivity to society through his photography. It's the kind of thing I find inspiring and thought-provoking in terms of how I may approach future projects of my own.

The second speaker was Dawn Woolley, whose main discussion point involved the selfie and how it is used and utilised in advertising. Dawn writes the 'Looking at adverts' pieces on the OCA's blog and I always find it an interesting read. She has a similar take on adverts as Judith Williamson does in Source Magazine. Dawn referred to the interesting concept of 'micro-celebrities': people who have large followings on social media and are used by businesses and advertising companies to surreptitiously advertise their products by disguising the promotion within the body of what are purported to be lifestyle tweets. Dawn introduced the expression 'industrialised intimacy' for these social media interactions where we feel a closeness with the 'celebs' which could never have been achieved through television. Even though these micro-celebrities are churning out their words often to the millions there is this perceived intimacy and it enables them to sell products for their sponsors - hence 'industrialised intimacy'. In a Dolce and Gabbana advert which Dawn uses as an example, the models take selfies which we imagine would show their face and the handbag they are lifting to get into the shot. This 'unseen image' - the photograph which the model is taking, which we can't see - is imagined by the viewer to contain their own face, holding the D&G handbag.

I enjoyed Dawn's talk and although photography forms only a part of it, there are certainly concepts and ideas within her work which are very thought provoking and worthy of further investigation.

Keith Roberts. Photo: OCA website

Keith Roberts. Photo: OCA website

Keith Roberts had been my tutor for The Art of Photography so it was always going to be interesting to listen to him speak and of course to say hello afterwards. Keith's talk covered his long term and ongoing project which he covered in some detail. His talk was titled Photographic Archival intervention within the Edward Chambre-Hardman Portraiture Collection 1923-1963. Edward Chambre-Hardman was a well-known photographer based in Liverpool. He was best known for his landscapes and cityscapes but Keith has managed to gain access to his archive and reveal another side of his work - that of his portraiture. In fact it was Chambre-Hardman's portraiture which paid his wages. Keith was very comprehensive in his explanation about the logistics of the project from the outset and admittedly a lot of this was at quite a high level - only really to be fully understood by those who had worked on this type of project themselves -  but nevertheless, it was quite fascinating to see the level of thought that had gone into this work. Overall, Keith project was very impressive and it is liekly there is much more to come from Chambre-Hardman's archive. 

Rachel Smith Photo: OCA website

Rachel Smith Photo: OCA website

Rachel Smith is a Fine Art PhD student and she spoke next on The Materiality of Images: Exploring Creative Practice. Rachel's talk, was in some respects quite difficult for me to follow. Some aspects of what she said made clear and interesting points about the actual physical aspect of a photograph, but a lot of what she talked about covered areas unfamiliar to me, and I have to say, slightly uninteresting. Unfortunately (and certainly after the passing of time since I went to the talk ) I don't recall a great deal of Rachel's talk which I can now relate to. That said, there were certainly some things which struck a chord with me. One of which was how the materiality of a 6x4 print suggests a 'snapshot'. This kind of thing would not normally be something I consider, but clearly following this theme could lead to interesting ideas.

 

Derek Trillo Photo: OCA website

Derek Trillo Photo: OCA website

 

Derek Trillo was the final speaker and his talk was on exploring the notions of time and experimental photography. Being still in the relatively early stages of my study of the arts, this is the kind of title that still frightens me a little! Following Rachel's slightly esoteric talk I was afraid that Derek Trillo's talk was going to be equally difficult to follow, but this turned out not to be the case. Although I recall enjoying Derek's talk I must admit to only really recall parts of it after reading the reviews written by others. I read the reviews on the myocafotosnstuff blog which reminded me of some of the points covered in Derek's talk and why I had enjoyed it. One point mentioned, was how the passing of a few seconds can affect how sunlight hits a building and therefore the entire mood of the shot is changed. Time is clearly relevant here.

Following the individual presentations there was a group Q&A session hosted by Prof. Durden before the day was concluded.

Once again, I have written up this study visit way after the event and consequently my recollection is not as good as it would have been had I written it up more quickly after I had attended the symposium. Although I took notes and have re-researched the work to a degree I am conscious that my views and comments may have been affected by the effects of the passing of time. That said, the event was highly enjoyable for me and although at the time I felt that some of it was at a slightly higher level than I was at, there were may aspects that resonated with me and may serve as prompts for ideas for research points or future work of my own. It is useful to know that the talks are all on video and can be re-visited perhaps when I feel more comfortable with some of the concepts discussed.

References: https://myocafotosnstuff.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/photography-matters-symposium-21-5-16/ accessed 13/10/16

"Strange & Familiar" and "Unseen City" - Study Visits - Barbican and Guildhall Art Galleries - May 7th 2016

The sub-heading for "Strange and Familiar" the first exhibition of this study visit, was 'Britain as Revealed by International Photographers', and is a collection of images from the 1930s to more recent times by several well-known non-British photographers. The exhibition aimed to show how these photographers understood - or perhaps misunderstood - the social, cultural and political identity of Britain. Not all the work was perhaps entirely down to the choice of the photographer as indeed some work was commissioned to portray Britain as imagined by others, in a stereotypical sense. Sometimes it was difficult to differentiate the two - indeed the photographers themselves may have found it difficult to be objective, and not simply be drawn towards telephone boxes and bowler hats. That said, there may well be a reason to incorporate irony into the image.

Our tutor was Rob Bloomfield whose views I always enjoy hearing. Rob quite rightly takes a very critical stance when reviewing exhibitions and often sees things which I haven't picked up on. Although I don't always agree with his views, his knowledge and intense scrutiny, particularly of the curatorial side of exhibitions, is always enlightening.

Strange and Familiar is a large show comprising the work of 23 photographers. The quantity of work from each photographer varied but each had several images on show. What is important to consider - as I am becoming increasingly aware, and often repeat in my reviews -  is to what extent the curation affects the exhibition. This exhibition was curated by Magnum photographer and author Martin Parr, and included some of his own (owned by him not taken by him) personal images and books. We must remember that although the exhibition is meant to show how a foreigner views the UK, the images chosen by Parr actually become how Parr has chosen to show the UK by using photographs taken by others; the photographs weren't necessarily taken by the foreign photographer in an attempt to show the UK how they saw it, although some of course were. Additionally we need to consider which images might have been excluded from the photographers' work.

In previous reviews I realise I have been too descriptive, and have simply re-written (or close to it) what the exhibition is and what's on show, rather than critically reviewing it. As I progress through the course I am aware that this isn't sufficient and I need to start thinking (and writing) more deeply about what is going on. That said, I will continue to say what I like and don't like and why, as I believe this too will help me perhaps reconsider my own personal view on photography in general.

I must admit at this point that completing writing up this review took me several months and it is now October - so some of the comments I am making from here on in are based on my old notes and memory! I'm afraid I was held up by life getting in the way!

The list of photographers whose work Parr has selected for this exhibition included the likes of Garry Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Paul Strand, Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Gilden and Raymond Depardon. There were works by several other notable photographers too but this list of names is enough to demonstrate the artistic weight, if you like, of the work exhibited. For me the exhibition was certainly 'likeable' as it the photographs were easy to grasp, predominantly straight photography containing a fair degree of nostalgia and humour. It would be difficult to not enjoy it purely as a spectacle but as an example of how foreigners see us I doubt it really answered this question.

The second part of the study visit took us to the Guildhall Art Gallery and Parr's 'Unseen City' exhibition. This was, in a sense, a strange collection of photographs and certainly had us thinking about what Parr was actually trying to show, if anything. On the face of it, he was meant to be showing what goes on behind the scenes in the City of London and during its various, rather pompous, events. Parr has been 'Photographer in Residence' to the City of London since 2013 and this collection of images was made over a period of time as he photographed various events from Lord Mayor's shows to inaugurations and the like. Most of the images were taken in a snapshot manner which did become slightly repetitive after a while. One thing that seems to linger in my memory was that there was a lot of red, not only because the walls of the gallery were red,  but also because of the many costumed people in the images were wearing red, or walking on red carpets.

Knowing Martin Parr's style, myself and my fellow students were looking to question his motives in a few of the images, as it is likely that he is not necessarily being fair to his subjects! Although my memory of this visit is not the clearest, I do recall feeling a little disappointed overall in what was on display. It was quite repetitive and didn't perhaps live up to what I have come to expect from Martin Parr. Perhaps in his role as Photographer-in-Residence he was on more of a tight rein than he might have been, and therefore less critical of his subjects; or maybe he was just too clever for me on this occasion!

I am going to post this now even though I haven't been particularly thorough with my review as trying to review the exhibition solely from memory and a few notes isn't really appropriate.

 

 

 

The Photographer as thinker.

Reading an article in the BJP this month made me realise why I might be taking less photographs these days. In the interview with Brazilian photographer, Iatã Cannabrava, he makes the point that  "to take a photo is not just to click ... as there is a lot of 'click' in the world". What he is espousing is that photographers need to think and plan more before 'clicking'. This resonated with me as I do now feel that I need more of a reason to take a photograph than I used to. Most of us feel impelled to photograph sunsets and so on although it is quite likely we will never look at the photo again. Although there is nothing particularly wrong with this I do think that as a photography student I now need to concentrate more on thinking, planning and aiming for a particular result in advance, rather than simply firing off shots in the hope that something decent turns out. This type of photography often results in generic and cliched images which serve little purpose. 

Project 1: Eyewitnesses

An eyewitness often holds a position of importance, particularly from a legal perspective for example, when they are relied upon to help implicate criminals. The eye-witness was there; they saw what happened with their own eyes and are able to report back what they have seen, ideally in an objective, accurate and truthful manner. Many of us have grown accustomed to feeling that we too have been eye-witnesses to an event simply after having seen a photograph. But of course, we're not, and there are many reasons why what we see in the photograph is not necessarily an accurate coverage of the events. These days it is certainly not uncommon for doubt to be cast on the veracity of what is depicted in a photograph, whether it is because we believe it was 'tampered with' in some way - such as by using digital editing - or we suspect that we are being misled by how the photograph is 'spun' to depict events in a certain way. So although we may think we have 'seen it with our own eyes', we haven't and we shouldn't be so quick to trust the version of events as told by another person. Unless we witness events ourselves and have a 100% objectivity to those events then there is always going to be an argument against what we have seen and are describing to others.

Citizen journalism is when a member of the public, who is not a professional journalist, creates or contributes to a news story by supplying information direct to a particular medium, for instance, their local newspaper. In some cases the 'citizen' may create their own medium, such as in the case of Eliot 'Brown Moses' Higgins Bellingcat website. In the case of photographs this may be where a bystander supplies an image of say, a car crash, and it is used by a newspaper who would've been unable to send their own photographer to cover events. The amateur photographer may benefit financially from this or they may not. Sometimes people will supply images just to get a credit; to see their name in lights, so to speak. Often these images will be poor quality, taken on smart phones or tablets and are simply something for the newspaper to use to pad out the article. It is possibly better to have a poor image of the pile-up than none at all. In many cases, the photographer will simply be acting on instinct. We see it all the time: certain situations precipitate the mass use of the phone camera - we all seem to feel the need to record events to show that we were there. Let's say Paul McCartney did an impromptu gig in Covent Garden - very few people would be able to resist taking photographs or making videos even though the quality would likely be mediocre to poor. They wouldn't be recording events because they planned to bootleg the recording or sell the photos; I believe it would be in part to show their friends that they did indeed see Paul McCartney (although it is unlikely anyone would accuse them of being liars once the news came out that he did in fact appear there) but predominantly it would simply be an instinctive reaction. It would be almost impossible to NOT try to document this unusual occurrence, even though hundreds of others would be doing the same thing. In the earlier case of the car crash, I think the same would apply, although in this case photographs might be taken for insurance purposes or to apportion blame or implicate one person or another. The bystander though is likely to take the photograph instinctively, simply because they can. It might be needed by someone later; it might help; they may get some money or just thanks or a mention in a newspaper or website. The photographer is unlikely to have a particular view on the incident one way or the other - they wouldn't be taking sides, they would simply be recording the event as they happened to come across it at the time. It would be different of course if the photographer had seen the accident and felt that one side needed to be supported. In this case they may only take shots which appear to benefit the side they are supporting. There would be a switch from objective to subjective; the photographer suddenly has a reason to take certain photographs.

I believe that the situations above show that the photographer can indeed be objective when presenting an image or images for a news story. We can understand that when there is little or no time to think about it, the likelihood is that the image will be at its most objective. As soon as the photographer is given time to consider the situation, then subjectivity will start creeping in and the situation may be recorded in a different way, depending on the personal views or any agenda the photographer may have.

In this exercise, I am asked to consider examples of where citizen journalism has exposed or highlighted abuses of power. Clearly in a case like this, there is the possibility that a photograph was taken with the absolute intention of highlighting a particular abuse of power, although not necessarily so.

Ian Tomlinson (r) shortly before his death.

Ian Tomlinson (r) shortly before his death.

One example of citizen journalism which fits into this category is in the case of the death of Ian Tomlinson. Without going into too much detail about the happenings, several photographs were taken of events surrounding the assault by a police officer on Tomlinson, some of which were objective and some not. One thing is for sure, without photography (and video footage) Ian Tomlinson's death would very likely have been put down to natural causes, as the likelihood of there being a connection made between his assault and his death would have been small; the two events happening a little time and distance apart. It was only when the connection was made that some of the photographs and videos of events emerged. In an instance such as this, where police assault a member of the public, it is very likely that most of us, given the opportunity, would make an attempt to document it. We might see what we would consider to be a crime being committed and would feel duty bound to record the evidence. To me this is an objective viewpoint: it is an interesting scenario but we are recording it with disinterest, although perhaps with a view to ensure the offenders are punished. Had I been a protester however, simply on the look out for ways to catch the police up to no good, then my photographing of events would be much more subjective as I would only have had my camera out for that very reason. I wouldn't be taking photographs of smiling police officers shaking hands with protesters; there would be no photos of this sort on my memory card, only ones of angry looking police misbehaving. Similarly, had I been the mainstream press, I would have been much more excited by this sort of event than by protesters walking quietly along. I would have a very good idea of the photographs I wanted and it would have been ones of violence and disorder. My choice of photograph would have been extremely subjective. Had I been a police photographer recording the events of the day then of course I would certainly not be on the look out for police misdemeanours, only for trouble causing protesters or perhaps police heroics. Like the press or the protester, I would have had an agenda and my photography would have been very subjective.

There is certainly a great deal of subjectivity in photojournalism as professional photographers will be working to a brief, even if it is one they have set for themselves. They will be looking for certain shots to fit a certain premise or theme. Citizen journalists however are often bystanders or passer-bys whose photographs are also often taken with disinterest; i.e. with objectivity. However, this isn't to say that the photograph isn't then used by a party who certainly isn't disinterested; the context is very important to the reading of the image.

As we can see, there are several reasons we may dispute the 'truthfulness' of a photograph and I think this is why unless we are eye-witnesses to an event we can easily be misled by what we being shown. In fact, even if we are eye-witnesses, it doesn't actually mean we know the truth about the situation we are viewing. As Magnum photographer David Hurn was quoted in 'On Being A Photographer': "If I were called, or called myself, a documentary photographer it would imply, to most people in this day and age, that I taking pictures of some objective truth - which I am not ... The only factually correct aspect of photography is that it shows what something looked like under a very particular set of circumstances. But that is not the same as the underlying truth of the event or situation." (Short, 2011)

So when looking at a photograph, some examples of what we should perhaps ask ourselves are:

  • Where is the image displayed and why might it be displayed there and not somewhere else? .i.e. why in a gallery? Why on the front page of The Daily Mail and not the New Statesman?
  • Who took the photograph? Why did they take it? Were they working to a brief? Do they have an agenda? How might they gain from taking the photograph?
  • Was the photograph planned or spontaneous?
  • Is there a caption and if so, who wrote it and why?
  • What is the photograph of? Can it be verified?
  • Were there other photographs taken at the same time that can corroborate the event? If so, why were they not used?
  • Was the image used to make a certain point? i.e. a photograph of dead fish may be used to highlight the effects of pollution but how would we know how the fish had really died? The photograph may have been of discarded by-catch, which would be another issue altogether and possibly amore worthy one for discussion.

Bibliography

Short, M. (2011). Basics creative photography 02. Lausanne: AVA Academia.

 

 

"Performing for the Camera" - Study Visit - Tate Modern, 2 April 2016.

The "Performing for the Camera" exhibition was held at Tate Modern, Bankside, London.

The "Performing for the Camera" exhibition was held at Tate Modern, Bankside, London.

I was lucky to get a place on this study visit as I was actually only on the reserve list until the day before. Fortunately someone had to pull out and I got their spot.

When this study visit was announced I had a look at the video made by Romain Mader, a Swiss photographer who has created a fictional narrative about his Ukrainian girlfriend/wife. It was an intriguing concept and it drew me in to the exhibition; it looked really interesting and I was looking forward to seeing the rest of the exhibition. Unfortunately for me, the exhibition overall was disappointing. 

Performing for the Camera was split into fourteen rooms so it was rather a lot to take in in one visit. After slowly viewing the images in the first three rooms, a fellow student pointed out the number of rooms we still needed to get through so I took a quick stroll through to the end to try and get an overview of what was to come. I realised then that I was not going to be able to spend as much time as I'd have liked in each room and towards the end I had started to rush. 

Each of the rooms displayed all or part of one of the eight themes of the exhibition. The themes were:

  1. Documenting Performance
  2. Staging/Collaboration
  3. Photographic Actions
  4. Performing Icon
  5. Public Relations
  6. Self/Portrait
  7. Performing Real Life

The first room held the introduction which showed work by Yves Klein, Aaron Siskind and Charles Ray. The introduction embodied the overarching concept of the exhibition, that of the photographing of a performance. Each of the three sets of images showed moments of a performance frozen in time; moments which would pass quickly and never be seen again. The photographs froze the performance, which would continue after the shutter had closed, but the still images themselves then became works of art in their own right. In fact all three were meant to be seen as the photograph not the whole performance; they were meant to be frozen moments of time, with the build up and aftermath being unimportant by-products. 

Documenting Performance was a clear theme and consisted of photographers operating 'remotely' to record a performance. There were many images by the duo of Harry Shunk and Janos Kender who were well know as photographers in the art scene in New York and Paris from the late 1950s tot ehearly 1970s. One might describe these images as reportage, where the subjective view of the photographer is what comes through - the performer is not directly involved in what the photographer chooses to capture. The performance would have occurred regardless of whether the photographer was there or not.

In Staging/Collaboration the concept moves on to where the contribution is shared between the performer and the photographer. Again we have a clear theme. In this case, the performance would not have occurred without the photographer, as the photographer is integral to the end result: the production of an image or images of a performance directed wholly or in part by the performer themselves. 

Photographic Actions was a slightly confused section where we saw, for example, the photographing of an artist in the act of painting as 'photographing action'. Photographing action could really mean almost anything and I felt the photographs in this section could either have been omitted or been incorporated into one of the other themes.  

Performing Icons was an interesting section. I liked Samuel Fosso's African Spirits where he dressed up as iconic black figueres - both male and female and created portraits of him so dressed. I do really like Cindy Sherman's work so they were good to see here too. Noticeable now was that the photographer is now also the performer and consequently completely integral to the work.

The Public Relations and Self/Portrait sections didn't really work for me. I felt like they could have been incorporated into another section or could have been left out altogether. Sometimes I feel that curators try to get certain works on show even though they don't really seem to fit into the theme of the exhibition.

Performing Real Life was for me a take on the way photographs are currently taken by many of us, particularly young people. We portray ourselves in a way we want to be seen by others, such as on Facebook, but often mocking ourselves, creating fictional narratives and making ourselves appear different to the way we really are. We all perform for the camera in one way or another.

In summary, I was slightly disappointed with the exhibition - I was expecting more but I'm not quite sure what. I did feel that the themes of 'Performing for the Camera' were often only loosely linked to the photographs on display and that the photographs on display were often more about the subject than about the photography, i.e. more about the performer - and their performance or creation - than about photography. Clearly this is part of the idea but for me it was too much about the performance than the photography. Although some parts were enjoyable and there were some excellent photographs among them, there were many sections which felt padded out with photographs of slightly bizarre art installations. I couldn't help but feel that this exhibition was more of a vehicle for the curator to display his interest in the avant-garde whilst masquerading it as an exhibition of photography. I did rush a little towards the end, and the sheer volume of work on display and the blurred lines between the themes meant it was difficult to keep track of what was going on, so I may well have missed some of the concepts, but nevertheless, having had time to ponder, my overall feeing afterwards was one of disappointment.

Update on progress ...

I recently emailed Jesse Alexander - my tutor for Context & Narrative -  to update him on my lack of progress so far. Although I have been reading around the subject and have been through the course manual, I haven't actually done any written work or taken any photographs for C&N yet. This, I explained, was because I am currently focusing on completing The Art of Photography which I have got quite behind with. I hope to start adding work to C&N by mid-March at the very latest.

Ways of Seeing by John Berger

This will be my pocket book for the next few weeks as it is relevant to Context and Narrative  (it's on the essential reading list) and portable (it fits in my pocket). It's focus is on an area which is really starting to intrigue me about photography - how they are read. I'm looking forward to working through it. This book was one of a couple I bought yesterday at Waterstone's. I also got The Photographers Eye by John Szarkowski, which I've been meaning to buy for a while. 

Update. Apparently Berger also wrote a book along similar lines but just about photography - I will need to investigate this. I enjoyed reading Ways of Seeing even though it was predominantly aimed at painting and only the final chapter is devoted to photography. It almost goes without saying though (as the book is on a reading list for a photography course) that there are many useful ideas and concepts which can be equally applied to photography as they can to painting.

Introduction to Context & Narrative

As I begin this course I thought it might be an idea to note down my initial feelings and understanding of what 'context and narrative' means to me. I have read some of the course literature already and have bought and read 'Context and Narrative' by Maria Short, so I do have a basic understanding of the subject and what to expect from the course.

Context is very interesting when talking about photography as it is something that a lot of people will overlook or not think about and yet in fact there is a context to every photograph - it isn't always consciously in the mind of the photographer, but it is still there. Context is something that I am continuing to get a better understanding of as I progress with my studies. Where a photograph is shown makes a big difference to how it is viewed. A photograph can take on a whole new meaning if it is shown on the cover of the Daily Mail compated to the same image shown on the front of New Internationalist for example. How the photographer thinks about the subject may also affect the context as they will choose to photograph it in a certain way - this is also affected by who the photographer is (journalist or family member) and why they took the photograph. Additionally how an image is displayed also affects the context: the same image seen on my blog has less gravitas than if it were seen on display, enlarged and in a frame in Tate Britain. These are simple starting points for me, to what is a very interesting topic. 

Narrative can be described simply as story-telling and most of us might say we are familiar with how photographs can do this... but are we really? John Szarkowski in the introduction to The Photographer's Eye says that photography has never been successful at narrative, and even the attempts of early photographic magazines to tell stories through sequences still relied on text to describe what was going on. I found this observation by Szarkowski slightly odd as I was under the impression that narrative was a common idea in photography and the captions weren't really required. Of course, I understand that text and captions help the viewer to more easily understand the story that the photographer is trying to tell so perhaps there is more to what Szarkowski is saying than I have considered. Maybe we really do need text to allow viewers to understand what any hidden narrative a series of photographs may have - if indeed there is one. In fact the more I ponder this the more I find myself agreeing with Szarkowski that individual photographs, particularly when taken 'out of context' can tell us a very different story to the one that the photographer may have been trying to tell - that is, if there is no text present to clarify things.

References:

The Photographer's Eye, Szarkowski, J. 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Course Materials

Today I have received my course materials for my next course: Context & Narrative, which I'm really looking forward to getting stuck in to! I still need to concentrate on completing The Art of Photography as I have a couple of assignments left to do, but I wanted the courses to overlap as I have over-run with TAOP and need to get weaving and make some inroads into the next course. I have made very slow progress up until now and things need to change if I'm to go for the degree, but I am very determined and fully intend to put the hours in now so that I can get back on track. Although the next few weeks will be predominantly used up by completing TAOP, I plan to do some groundwork for Context and Narrative.