Category Archives: Coursework

part 5 – project one: absence and signs of life

This section of the course opens on a quote by John Szarkowski from his introduction to William Eggleston’s Guide:

The real location, found objects and characters, combined with technology and the photographer’s eye, come together to create a new world, one balanced loosely between recognition and art.‘ (my emphasis)

On the cover of the book is (the famous) picture of a tricycle, with some anonymous bungalows and a big American car viewed across the street in the background. One morning, as I walked up Theydon Street to the bus stop, I saw a tricycle parked outside one of the houses. I have known about Eggleston for years and although I had not yet started upon this course of study, I recognised this as an opportunity to make some (referential) art, of entering into the Eggleston’s world and of transplanting a tiny bit of his Memphis into my Walthamstow. I reached into my jacket pocket for the Olympus XA which lived there…

fig.1 – walthamstow c.2013

…and click. Like Eggleston, I took a single frame. It’s not quite right. I couldn’t get far enough away from the trike to centre it in the image (and in the space). The tip of the handlebars is annoyingly cut off. Perhaps I should have put the camera on the ground and abandoned looking through the viewfinder. So, I’ve never done anything with the picture til now, but I always think of it when I see Eggleston’s original.


But I digress. After reading the quote from Szarkowsky, we are asked to reflect upon:

  •  Where does that leave the photographer? As a storyteller or a history writer?

A story teller uses narrative to make sense of the society where they live, as they see it. There may be a level of serious intent to their story telling or they may simply hope to entertain. People like stories. We’ve been being told stories since we were kids. When someone asks us, ‘How was today’ or ‘What happened’ we will generally reply by telling a story of some sort.

A historian is just a specialised type of story teller, telling stories that attempt to give a single path through the chaos of events. ‘History’ tends to exist at some point in the past (when I was at school, it became ‘Modern Studies’ after a hard cut off in 1945; now my son is studying the subject it includes events which I remember happening as news). ‘History’ is an academic subject with rules that historians are supposed to follow; it has sub-genres such as ‘family history,’ ‘local history’ ‘social history’ etc. When ‘history’ becomes about an individual it becomes ‘biography’; when history is about people known to the historian or the historian him- or herself, it becomes an ‘autobiography’ or a ‘memoir’.

‘History’ is expected to be made up from a consideration of ‘facts’ stored as such in archives (public, private or personal). These facts – often contradictory; often subjective; always positioned politically in their own time – are then sifted and sorted and hammered into a – supposedly – definitive ‘truth’. This ‘definitive truth’ is in turn able to be examined as – secondary – source material for later attempts to come up with another even more definitive ‘truth.’

This need for history to be written with a degree of hindsight seems to rule out any idea of the photographer working as a historian; possibly a photographer could view their work as parallel to that of a journalist – writing the ‘first draft of history’ – but I suspect that, for me at least, there is a less noble impulse at work than that. I think I take pictures of things that catch my eye and which interest me with a view to putting them together into more meaningful collections later.

We are not historians, but perhaps we are trying to second guess history and to capture things that later, after they have acquired the patina that time can bestow, will become its building blocks. We lay up images as if they were wines, or cheese, in the hope that the mundane facts that surround us will become objects of fascination later on. Some – holiday snaps, news pictures, fashion photography perhaps – like yoghurt or cottage cheese, can be served almost as soon as they are done (although they may of course become more interesting in time) while others will need to age for longer, like parmesan or stilton, in order to acquire the patina of history.

  • Do you tend towards fact or fiction?

Since every photograph I take is of a thing (or a number of things) that have existed in front of my camera – that old question of indexicality popping up again – the basic building blocks of my practice as a photographer can be seen as somehow factual.  But the real magic happens when I put these building blocks together, when I decide that this 30th of a second, belongs next to that 125th.

Since every photograph I make is the product of a string of my decisions – I should stand here, I should cut off the frame there, I should open the shutter… NOW! – these individual facts are formed of – at best –  subjective truths. I exclude much more of my experience than I include. Where I stand in relation to the subject – to use the famous example, when I photograph a demonstration, am I standing with the protesters confronted by ‘the pigs’ or am I standing behind the policemen, looking at ‘the mob’ – will determine the nature of the fact that I present.

The french word histoire has fewer connotations of an academic pursuit than it does in its modern English form. Henry Fielding’s most famous novel has the full title, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling; it is of course a fiction. It is also intended to be read as a story, with the reader aware that  – while all the things that happen in the book have probably happened somewhere, sometime – they are intended to draw lessons from it about life and society.

‘A fiction’ is not necessarily to be equated with ‘a lie’; but it does include an awareness of the extent to which it has been constructed from its elements. Eggleston painted a picture of a place that was very like the Memphis he lived in, but managed to distance himself (and the viewer) from any attempt to portray an all-encompassing portrait of the city. He is operating at some distance from W. Eugene Smith’s obsessive and doomed attempt to encapsulate all Pittsburgh. Eggleston tells his story (or possibly more accurately, recites his poem) about a place that is a bit like the real city of Memphis. I have seen him speak (at the National Portrait Gallery two Julys ago now) and when he does – even when he’s being probed by Sean O’Hagan – he’s giving nothing away…

  • How could you blend your approach?

I thinking blending could come from softening (or removing entirely) the relation between the subject matter and its original context. You can picture something in situ or you can take it away for photographic attention  later. If it is too large to move, you could picture it in some way that limits the clues about it circumstances from around it. The less there is to help ground something, the more easily it floats free in time and space. As such it becomes both more and less itself and less rooted in the specificity of where you found it.

The absence of people in Eggleston’s picture of the trike means there are none of the clues that we can read from people’s appearance. The title is vague – Untitled, Memphis c.1969-70. The (koda)colour palate of the film and the styling of the car glimpsed through the space under the trike’s frame help place the frame in time, but no more accurately than the title. The house in the background seems suburban, American. The tricycle, looming huge and abandoned, maybe says something about a type of childhood. Maybe the photographer’s, or maybe yours, the viewer’s.

Then you could take it one stage further and remove the tricycle from the scene entirely, putting it in front of a neutral backdrop. It would cease being something from the place that William Eggleston is guiding you through and become closer to occupying the space of an item from a catalogue of childhood.

  • Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality?

Some things need to stick as close as they can to an objective reality; some things simply matter enormously in the here and now. These things probably will form part of histories yet to be written. Robert Capa’s Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936, still would be a striking photograph if it were a set-up, but once you start wondering about its provenance you have much less space in your head to consider what it means for people to be being killed, in Spain, on that hill at that time. This weakens its propagandistic value considerably. The title makes a huge claim for the photograph; if it is ‘a lie’ how can we trust the photographer? How can we trust the people who publish the picture? How can we trust the people who use the picture to gain our sympathy?

‘The camera never lies’ but if in fact it does (or rather the person wielding it lies about the photograph) how can we ever believe anything? We certainly can believe a little less in the cause of the Spanish republic and – if we were suffering this crisis in the nineteen thirties – become less likely to join the International Brigades or to donate money or to lobby our MPs to intervene.

To go back to Grenfell Tower and my previous assignment, it was important not to fabricate anything and to make sure that the pictures taken in the surroundings of the tower were not misdescribed by the words: the Avondale picture was taken from the Avondale Conservation Area; the Ladbroke picture was taken looking out from the heart of the Ladbroke Conservation Area. The blackened tower block with its empty windows needed no trickery in order to be recognisable as itself, even when partially hidden by trees of buildings. The words themselves are real sentences taken from the real planning documents, which are still available online. I have checked. I have been scrupulous.

I don’t think I would ask a militiaman to pretend he’s just been shot, but the way I presented my – verified, fact checked – words in the Grenfell assignment has no correlative in the objective world. I made those pictures from words printed in a ‘typed’ typeface scanned and then layered them onto a photograph of a record card; I rearranged the words from Gary Younge’s article in the Guardian so that they fitted the aspect ratio of my images, and missed out the other words that surrounded them. I tried my best (and I think I have succeeded) to hide my efforts to fabricate these ‘documents’ and, at their heart, the words – ‘real’ words, from ‘real’ records – are really true. The key thing here is that the viewer is not distracted from what the diptychs ‘mean’, by the facts of their construction.

In Barthes’ essay The Rhetoric of the Image, one of the things achieved by anchoring text is a reduction in the myriad number of possible meanings (the polysemous nature of the photograph) that an be drawn from a single image. It is this process of limiting meanings that allows pictures to be used as evidentiary ‘fact’

fig.2 – this is not my olympus xa

Most of the time it doesn’t matter a bit whether there is something made up about my photographs, any more than it does about the made up bits in novels which take place in the past and contain real events and real people – War and Peace, say or Pat Barker’s novels set  during the first world war that feature her imaginings of ‘Siegfried Sassoon’ and ‘Wilfred Owen.’ Where it does matter is when there are real (and notice I haven’t used inverted commas here) consequences to what the fiction means. There may well be corporate manslaughter charges as a result of the Grenfell inquiry; people have died; people may go to prison.

More trivially, a passport photograph has to look enough like the person holding the passport to allow a border official to identify them. While I would never cross a border without my glasses, I have to take off my glasses for a passport photo. I could  have recently grown a beard which will be shaved off years before my shiny new, ten-year passport expires. My passport picture both looks like me and it does not.

History is supposed to be objective; my experience of things that may form part of history is highly subjective, and rendered even more so by the set of decisions I make (consciously or subconsciously) as I take a photograph. All my pictures exist somewhere on a spectrum running from relatively uninflected to really rather constructed. If they seem to warrant a factual treatment, I’ll try to limit the range of available meanings to those that match my own take on the events; at other times, I’m happy to leave a much wider range of meaning for the viewer to piece together their own sense of what the picture is ‘about’ but even then, I try to limit the meanings to ones that fit ones that I’m comfortable with.

It’s all in the telling, I suppose.


When I look at my tricycle picture now, I still see Eggleston’s original, floating behind it (or maybe in front of it) but I also see a constellation of circles – the three wheels of the tricycle of course, three wheels on the cars over the street and the wheel at the side of the wheelie bin. And I really like the way the trike’s seat sits on the wheel of the black car. I don’t mind that it is an imperfect appropriation of Eggleston’s original. It is something else and that is just fine.

fig.3 – walthamstow c.2018

And, of course,  I still find myself thinking of William Eggleston from time to time, when I’m out with my camera.

 


Reference:

  • Eggleston, W – photographs –  & Szarkowski, J – introduction (1976) William Eggleston’s Guide Museum of Modern Art, New York.
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exercise 4.2 – words and pictures

oxford circus as a gallery space

Choose a day that you can spend out and about looking with no particular agenda. Be conscious of how images and texts are presented to you in the real world – on billboards, in magazines and newspapers, and online, for example. Make notes in your learning log on some specific examples and reflect upon what impact the text has on how you read the overall message.

– IaP Coursebook p.79

Pictures on display –

fig.1 – an absense of beaches

The first pictures I see each morning usually are these, hanging outside the bathroom door. They are photo collages, assembled on a photocopier by German artist Ursula Keller  and purchased from the accountant I shared with her (or possibly the owner of the gallery in Glasgow that represented her) at the time they were exhibited there (around 1995).  The common title of the series – ‘Given the obvious lack of beaches’ – is based on a hopeful quote by Glasgow’s provost, Pat Lally, along the lines that ‘Given the obvious lack of beaches in the city, we need to give our visitors some alternatives.’ Keller had provided some beaches (and palm trees, and sunsets) from elsewhere and added them to Glasgow landmarks like the Barrowlands Ballroom and the University tower.  The title opens them up, preventing them from being merely an interesting visual jape and locating them in a place where they can comment on the shift of Glasgow from being ‘about’ heavy industry and razor gangs to being somewhere that was ‘Miles Better’ – a cultural rather than an industrial destination for people who did not live there.

fig 2 – polaroids

Another grouping of pictures in my house consists of four polaroids taken by me of shadows moving around the house’s rooms.

While Keller’s titles are complementary, these have simple date/time titles orientating the viewer to the point in time when these unique traces were plucked from the sun’s progression around the house.

They’re pretty abstract photographs – you need something to anchor them, if only to let you know that you’re looking at moments in time, and the patterns are made by that .


fig.3 – on the way to the tube

Images in the Street – 

As I cycle to the station, I see advertisements – on buses, on hoardings and on buildings. I go into Tesco to pick up the paper. The building itself is covered in pictures (to the left of fig.3 there’s a bowl of curry, labeled EASY) and surrounded by words. The text that jumps out here is the one they want you to notice (whether you are going to buy anything or not) – FRESH; it relates easily to the massive bowl of green salad. But it’s not quite as fresh as all that – like most of the food in an ‘express’ (or ‘local’) grocer’s the salad is preprepared, something covered by the small print – “Salad you won’t have to wait for” – this is a fuel stop, not an artisanal bakery or greengrocer. It’s opposite the station so you can pick up something for supper on your way home. But it’s the word FRESH that hooks you and sticks in your mind so you know that it’s an alternative, next time you need it.

fig.4 – you could be this person too (or if not, that one on the other side)

And then, when you enter the shop, you’re flanked by a pair of larger than life people offering you food (they are literally ‘putting food on the table’). One is male, one female. both are captioned with a very personal description of the food they have just made (from FRESH ingredients; from closer to scratch than popping a ready meal into the microwave) – these are ‘Jane’s Fishcakes for two, or one’ – you are invited to identify with these cooks; they are like you, they care about food, they smile invitingly, proud of their efforts. They even have their own signature dish…

 

They are also at odds with the reality of the inside of the shop of course, but never mind, you can aspire to the sort of life they seem to embody (even if it is possible to infer from that caption that Jane is currently single, and eating double portions to compensate) and maybe even go to a full-on supermarket (a ‘big’ Tesco) at the weekend, and do some proper cooking then.

I buy my paper and cross the road to the station…


On Public Transport –

On the tube (in the tube?) the sort of adverts and the amount and type of information varies according to how you will encounter them. London Underground is a complex machine for processing people and moving them from one place to another. There are places where people are expected to stand (on Platforms) and places where you really don’t want somebody to even break their step (in the concourses) and places that are somewhere in between (escalators, where people will stand – on the right – and move past the walls at a predictable speed). And then on the trains you will be static (sat, or strap hanging) for long enough to read text and even jot down a URL or phone number (or take your own picture with your phone).

I’m not sure whether it is men or women who are supposed to be drawn by the Heist tights’ ad: I quite like a shapely bum, but I’m not going to bet my bottom that my tights are better than theirs. Am I supposed to buy a pair for Fiona? Or do women look at other women’s pirouetting arses and want to emulate them? It has associated the word Heist in my mind with tights; with nice tights that do nice things to women’s bottoms; perhaps this is all it needs to do.

Versace Jeans are hardly evident in the pictures that line one of the station’s halls, but the pictures  – black and white, moodily lit, medium sized and in frames- combine with the cumulative display to create the idea of an exhibition in a gallery. Versace jeans are ‘art’ they are a cut above more vernacular jeans. But I’m still not likely to exit the station onto Oxford Street and buy a pair. But, again, the brand has stuck in my head with a set of associations. Boo Hoo (also plastered all over the station) clothing is a bit flash, a bit flirty, a bit young, a bit common; Versace is for people a bit older, with a bit more taste.

The London Transport adverts (posters) encouraging approved behaviours in us, the passengers, are obviously drawing on Gillian Wearing’s series from 1992-93 showing people with placards, but without the tension between the words on the placards (which in TFL pictures are printed, so official, rather than the handwritten interior statements in Wearing’s) and the appearance of the person depicted. Again there is a reference to art, but its effect here is to comfort: the people holding the placards smile; if we all did as the words say, the tube would be a nicer place.

(Interestingly at Euston, the same pictures have been modified – presumably by station staff – with the addition of glued on, handwritten statements, like “Welcome to Euston”; these instantly seem less corporate and more personal; I wondered if the particular TFL staff members in the altered pictures worked at that particular station)

Heading home from Oxford Street, who wouldn’t fancy a holiday, somewhere warm with a pool?  Heading home from Oxford Street after a had day’s shopping, feeling a bit skint, who wouldn’t fancy a chance to save some money  on that holiday? Don’t the kids look happy? don’t they seem free (as well as ‘free’)? Doesn’t the water look cool? Wouldn’t you like to be anywhere else but waiting for your train home?

And then, sitting on the train, you have time to look at the pictures arrayed above the heads of your fellow passengers. Often they have exemplary people, ready for you to identify with them and to find out more by reading before signing up to realise your dreams through education or through buying clothes or through  guaranteeing your family’s prosperity by insuring yourself before you die and leave them in penury or through investing in some sure-fire winner.

One of the things that is odd about the ‘Beach Body Ready?’ ad discussed on the OCA Blog  is that it is confrontational rather than aspirational. The Rodchenko-esque (another borrow from art) man looks off, like the woman who has realised her bold dream, into some future-tense middle-distance; the woman in the bikini looks at you daring you to eat her protein-rich whey powder and get into shape for the summer.

And I do wonder whether all the borrowings from art are to make the advertising people feel better about themselves and whether they are dropping in a bit of Rodchenko here, a bit of Gillian Wearing there as a way of nodding to the people who know like me (or you of course most likely if you’re reading this) that they’re capable of more somehow, like an actor saying ‘I don’t have to do this rubbish you know – Larry thought most highly of my Laertes…’


In the Newspapers –

I’ll be writing more about news pictures and their relation to their captions and headlines in a later exercise, but I’ll say something here about layout on the page and the cumulative effect of groups of photographs.

While i’ve been collecting newspaper pictures, there have been two stories that have been illustrated by galleries of faces – London knifings (in the Sun) and the Guardian’s investigation which kick-started the reexamination of how the home office treats immigrants. In both cases you are presented with a typology you don’t want to be a part of. In the first you have the victims of knife crime and in the other, the members of the Windrush generation, caught out by their lack of the necessary documentation and so threatened with deportation.

The knife victims’ pictures are obviously not taken by a professional – everything about them screams ‘cameraphone’; they are dead; the pictures have been provided by relatives or combed from social media sites. The pictures remind the viewer of other galleries – of the world trade centre dead or British armed forces’ personnel killed in Iraq, or last years victims of knife crime in London. You read the headline to find out about the specifics of the story, but you already know its outline.

The Windrush pictures on the other hand have been taken by a professional. Their arrangement still says ‘victim’, but there is still the chance of the shared situation they find themself in improving. After all, they’ve a newspaper and a professional photographer on their side. You read the text to find out who they are and what has been done to them. You hope that something will be done.


Specific, Technical Pictures –

We are in the middle of the process of selling my house and buying another one. We have now reached a point where we are poring over the survey of the house we are buying. It has a number of directly illustrative photographs, showing details of points that are described  in the text:

‘a previous masonry paint finish has been removed in recent years and defective bricks have been sensitively cut out and replaced (see fig. 10 which shows such a repair)’

…and that is exactly what you see when you look at the photo. Taken on their own they would seem a strange set of seemingly randomly chosen details; with the text the are of one thing and of that thing only. Later in the survey, it comments that another described detail is visible on Google Street view which is offered as evidence that a a specific crack has not got worse since the street view pictures were taken in 2008 and so appears to be long-standing and not anything to worry about.

In the survey the pictures are of things you – the emptor – should consider carefully as part of your caveating. There, look – we’ve told you; we don’t think it’s serious, but – if it turns out to be – don’t say you weren’t warned…

You can contrast these tightly composed pictures with the expansive wide shots of my flat (or indeed the house that we are buying) from the estate agents’ sales brochures. There the pictures are about conjuring up as much space as possible and drawing you in to imagine living in such a place with ‘high ceilings’ and a ‘large kitchen diner’ opening onto a ’50 foot garden’… Yes please!


Most of the pictures I see in my day-to-day life are presented to me as hooks, designed to get my attention and draw me into reading some text. That text tends to tell me what it is I’m looking at, particularly if there is any potential ambiguity in what the image ‘is of’.

research point – barthes’ ‘the rhetoric of the image’

Read ‘Rhetoric of the Image’ and write a reflection in your learning log.
• How does Barthes define anchorage and relay?
• What is the difference between them?
• Can you come up with some examples of each?
• How might this help your own creative approaches to working with text and image?

– IaP coursebook – p.79

My final assignment for Context and Narrative drew heavily on Barthes’ essay by using it to provide a model for a ‘made up’ image in the form of the pasta advertisement, juxtaposed with a poem. In planning the image I engaged quite closely with the text, but I shall try to recap here. It is certainly a text that warrants careful re-reading.

Anchor and Relay:

Both are terms relating to text associated with images, a practice so widespread that it is difficult to find ‘pure’ uncaptioned images anywhere. Images are viewed as ‘polysemous’ with a huge range of possible interpretations and meanings. Text can dominate this plurality of meanings when the image ‘duplicate[s] certain of the text by a phenomenon of redundancy’ (anchorage) or else the text can be used to ‘add fresh information’ to that contained within the picture (relay).

So:

  • Anchorage – Text answers the question ‘What am I looking at?’, narrowing down a number of possibilities to that expressed in the associated text. The image becomes a single thing, with an approved reading supplied by the words. In other words the text dominates the process of producing meaning for the viewer. This is the most common way that text is used with images (in newspaper captions, advertisements etc) and represents a reduction of the possibilities of the image.
  • Relay – new, extra information is provided by text (or speech in the case of comic books or films) which augments and moves on the content available in the image itself. Instead of dominating the image, text works in a complementary way to the content of the image.  Image and Text play equal parts in a narration, organised as a series of syntagms (ie in a sequential, progressive way).

Anchors lend themselves to certainty, shutting down options and seem directly related to an indexical reading of the photograph as a direct objective trace of a real object; they specify which set of connotations are sanctioned for the use of the viewer. Relays offer more scope for interpretation and work on the part of the viewer, expanding the possibilities for both connotation and more complex narratives. Relays also  – at least tacitly – acknowledge the possibility of the existance of a narrator, telling the story, while anchors present a story as existing, a latent presence within the image.

Some Anchors – Labels on pictures of food in menus or above the service area in take aways; newspaper captions; labels in family albums; simple descriptive titles.

Some Relays -Dialogue in films (or caption cards in silent films for that matter); Allusive titles relying on knowledge not contained in the image (classical painting based on Greek or Roman myths, say); captions where the information relayed is not present in the image.


I could use this, immediately, in revisiting my (superceded) early idea for assignment three. I had hoped to be able to show my thought processes as I chose where to be at set points in my journey to work in order to be able to make the simplest transition to the next stage.

Starting at Walthamstow Central, sitting in the 3rd coach from the rear of the train allows me to step straight into the way out at Oxford Circus, where – after I go up one level on the escalator – I can then get the easiest, least congested path to the Westbound Central Line Platform. Then if I wait by the waste bin, opposite the peeling paint, I can get on the next train after arriving at White City, disembark and go straight up the stairs.

There was way too much information to get across here, to leave it entirely to the pictures. There is a lot of discussion online about the limitations of the philosophy of ‘show – don’t tell’ in visual story telling; indeed Barthes questioned the idea that we are becoming a more visual/less verbal culture in the original essay in 1964. If I could have added text in some way – sometimes anchoring by reducing the chaos of what you were looking at to a manageable chunk of information; in others adding relays such as recordings of (or the script for) announcements about the next station – I maybe could have got it to work.

I think I will try this, using a mixture of new pictures and audio recordings to augment the slideshow version of that assignment for exercise 4.5…

Reference:

  • Barthes, R (1964) Rhetoric of the Image from trans. Heath, S. (1977) Image Music Text (Fontana Press, London

I have spent a fair amount of time working through the search results produced by using the search string  – Barthes Anchor Relay – on google. It is interesting how everyone seems quite certain of what an anchor is; thinking on relay – mostly still centred around Barthes’ identification of it as a feature of cinematic or comic strip narrative –  is much more diffuse.

exercise 4.1 – looking at advertisements

OCA tutor Dawn Woolley writes a regular blog  called ‘Looking at Advertisements’. Read one of Dawn’s articles and write a blog post or make a comment on the site in response.

– IaP Coursebook – p.75

I looked at two of Dawn’s posts: the Protein World “Beach Body” post and then followed up by having a look at the related post looking at an earlier Protein World advertisement.


I had picked the first post to read because I remembered seeing the advert on the tube when it’s campaign was active in 2015. I remembered noticing the advert for two main reasons: when I first saw it, I was struck by how confrontational the image of the woman was; then a few days later I noticed it had been overwritten in marker pen with a phrase I hadn’t seen deployed in public since the late 80’s – “This Offends!”

The original advert – I saw it as one of the array of advertisement cards above the windows of a tube train, angled down at me – was above my eyeline, compounding the way that the centre of the image is firmly set around her navel. it is her body (or rather her flat, evenly tanned stomach) not her face that is ready for the beach. This is less apparent on a screen, although one of the blog illustrations does show it in its original setting on the tube.

The discussion of the photography in Dawn’s blog (and in the comments that follow)  is mostly concerned with the passivity of the woman in the image with her eyes shut, or in shadow. I (the viewer of the advert)  am looking at her; she is not looking at anyone. I am active; she is passive. Indeed, looking at the image and the way the shadow falls on the yellow background, it is not clear whether she is lying down, on a yellow beach, sun bathing, while I am positioned to stare down at her. There was concern that – unlike the earlier advert featuring a man – the photograph could not be traced back to an “art photography” context, but not that this would in some way validate the objectification.

It appears to fit in nicely with Berger’s critique of the treatment of women as subjects of a male gaze in fine art (in Ways of Seeing).  I followed the link of the 2015 post back to the post about the previous year’s ad:

Here the discussion was much more around the appropriation of the style of Alexander Rodchenko’s photographs, taken in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, which often featured pictures of heroic individuals, rendered strange by the angel they were viewed from. Unlike the woman, with her closed, shadowed eyes, the man’s chin juts out and his eyeline is set on some distant horizon where the promise of the ‘Protein Revolution’ – another, link back to Rodchenko, verbal this time – is realised in all its glory. His right arm is frozen as it swings over the camera. It doesn’t matter that you can’t see his pace properly because this is  synecdoche (the figure of speech where a part stands in for the whole) – it doesn’t matter that you can’t make out the face, you’re looking at the six pack.

Figures of speech of course are drawn from classical rhetoric. Similarly – as much as the allusions to Rodchenko and revolutionary Russian, this draws on half-remembered ideas about classical statuary. The man in image two is standing, frozen, towering above you like a collossus; the woman could be a caryatid. And photographs of people in poses drawn from classical statuary have been used to legitimise the sexualised gaze pretty much since photography began.

Just as the “beach body” picture could be seen to fit into the category of the ‘cheesecake’ pinup, the male torso depicted here is a fairly standard ‘beefcake’ shot, objectifying a paradoxically feminised image of the hairless but honed male body with the repeated muscular V-s pointing down below the (eyelevel) waist-band of his trousers. This is homo-eroticism, but not so overtly that a militantly straight body-builder would be put off buying the product,

I am not the target audience for this. I feel no envy (or a wish to be like the man pictured). I do not desire the man himself. I am certainly not going to pick up a tub of whey protein and take it back home to Fiona so she can get herself beach-body ready in time for summer.

However, I do think of Clive James’ description of Arnold Schwarzenegger looking like “a brown condom stuffed with walnuts” and this in turn leads me on to Steve Bell describing David Cameron as looking like a condom stuffed with ham. Neither comparison is flattering. Both are funny. Both are powerfully visual. The fact that this is what I think of locates me as someone who sees themself as above all this bodybuilding stuff, as a mind rather than a body. I also think of the pilot in Airplane asking the boy who is visiting the airliner’s cockpit, ‘Son – do you like Gladiator movies? … Have you ever seen a grown man naked?’. I find it all slightly ridiculous while hoping I don’t come across as appearing superior (not a flattering look).

Returning to the adverts though, it’s interesting how poor the text is at closing off these unauthorised readings of them. I assume that – as a man – I should wish to have a six-pack and am prepared to do something about it; how I am supposed to regard the woman, I don’t know; I have even less idea of how I would be supposed to view her if I was – the assumed target of the second ad – a woman. Maybe I’m supposed to make women envious simply by going, ‘mmm –  nice’ but she seems too fierce (or as I said at the begiining of this post, confrontational) for that. Both pictures seem to be too open (and to remain so, despite the text) to prevent unintended readings at odds with their text. They are strong images, and they provoke; if they were less strong, I assume that – as someone who is not part of their intended audience – I would not remember them. If the beach body ad was less strong, it would not have been defaced by angry women. Similarly, a weaker image in the first ad would not have led me to distance myself from it through humour. Both adverts provoke, but not necessarily in the way that their makers intended.

exercise 3.2 – so, what’s so unique about simon, then?

through a glass, beerily

Make a list of some aspects of your personality that make you unique. Start taking a few pictures that could begin to express this. How could you develop this into a body of work?

– IaP Coursebook, p.66

Well first, there’s all the physical stuff that could be used to identify me in a variety of – not particularly promising – situations: my fingerprints, my teeth or my DNA. Then there is my retina, which could be used at some point to get me into secure buildings. All of these could be turned into pictures, but they wouldn’t be very indicative of my personality or my perspective on things, what I think or indeed who I think I am.

My own DNA is a unique mix of my mother’s and my father’s chromosomes; my personality  – despite my mother’s (often exasperated) statement that I was ‘just like my father’ – is a mix of the two of them in much the same way that – when I look at photographs of them, or myself in the mirror – the lower half of my face is my father’s while my eyes, I think, hidden like hers  behind glasses, are my mother’s.

Both the two proceeding paragraphs use the phrase ‘I think’ quite a lot too. I think that’s characteristic of me and my personality. Here are some other ways I might characterise myself:

  • I’m inquisitive. Or nosy. Or not afraid to stare.
  • I’m interested in things
  • I prefer humour to concern.
  • I tend to approach things from the outside, even though in many ways, socially, I’m an insider.
  • I’m fairly introverted but – like many introverts –  I spend a lot of my time performing.
  • I prefer one-to-one meetings where the contradictory aspects of myself are less likely to be exposed
  • I like to put things (and sometimes people) together; I’m good at association.
  • I have traveled quite a lot.
  • I don’t mind eating alone in restaurants.
  • I can draw on a wide range of cultural references.
  • I am (and can be overly) analytical.

And I have read enough about psychology to know that any process of self-analysis can include a lot of transferred hostility. There could be elements of this in my reactions to this course…


I’ll look more closely now at one of those characteristics – ‘I have traveled quite a lot’ – and see where it leads. You may be able to fit others into my argument as you read…

I’m sure I was not the only person who – opening the curtains after waking up from their first night in a room on the north-west corner of the Hotel Rossiya in Moscow – thought ‘Wow!’ and took a quick snap of St Basil’s Cathedral. Quite a few of them would then have taken a more considered shot later, having worked out how to open the window (it was a sixties’ building, not a totally sealed and air-conditioned box) and got a desktop tripod out of their luggage to take a night shot. Lots of them would have gone on to do a matched night/day pair.

 

So there is nothing unique about either of these pictures (in fact they’re a visual cliché, signifying ‘Moscow’ as lazily as the Eiffel Tower does ‘Paris’ or Big Ben ‘London’). The rooms on that side of the hotel offered (past tense because the hotel was demolished more than ten years ago now) a good enough vantage point on Red Square for it to have been hired by people looking for a postcard image or similar. I’m sure there are published professional shots which don’t look too different to mine.

But just as most people would only have taken one, quick shot, even fewer people would have stayed at the Rossiya on a number of occasions and have taken pictures of other views from the windows of other rooms. Like this picture from opposite corner of the building, looking south-east down the river towards one of seven great tower blocks, built in Moscow in the late forties,  by German POWs:

fig. 3

This is still a cliché, but to a much lesser degree. Put it with the other two and it begins to become an – admittedly clichéd – response to a place.

I took (made?) these pictures a long time ago and, while none of them has any pretension to art, they aren’t bad as travelogue. They also are great as an aide-memoire. Looking at the two of St Basil’s, I can remember setting the camera up on the tiny tripod and tripping the timer so there wouldn’t wobble as I pressed the shutter; and I can remember the cold of the outside and the tiny flurries of light snow billowing about outside and the great window held back by the curtain. Looking at it, I can almost remember what it felt like to be me, 14 years ago now.

fig.4

Back in the present, I still look out of windows, and I still take pictures of what I see there. Indeed, there have been periods of time (usually when I’ve been travelling) when I have taken a photograph every day, of what I see when I first open the curtains.  Sometimes I’m reflected back at myself, either partially or clearly as if in a mirror. The repetition can be traced back to people whose work I have come across and liked, like Nigel Shafran; embracing the reflections in the windows I look through (and not cursing, and trying to eradicate them by varying the angle or using a circular polariser) after reading Tod Hido’s  ‘On landscapes, Interiors and the nude’ (aperture, 2014). The space I occupy will leave traces on an image what it is that I’m looking at. In cinematic terms, field and reverse collapse into a single, complex plane.

This pair of window pictures have repeating compositional elements: upper left – a rorschach-type blob; a diagonal space running from top left to bottom right; the hard vertical of the reflected banisters in on and the tree’s trunk in the other. And then,  fig. 5 (looking out of Tate Modern) makes me think of of Saul Leiter, reflecting back some of my cultural life; and fig. 6 (from my living room window in Walthamstow) adds the narrative human element of the two men and the child in the street.

I have no idea who they are or what they are talking about, as they stand underneath the nicely lit autumnal tree (the reason I picked up my camera and walked over to the window that afternoon) but they are the why I carried on looking and why I have done something with the picture rather than let it help form another stratum of digital silt on a hard disc in my attic. Not quite a punctum perhaps, but certainly something to  hold my attention, make me wonder and make me think. Hopefully they hold you too, as you try to identify what’s going on.

Three things come together in this sort of photograph: I occupy a space, in time; the point at which I make the picture is determined by the things I am interested in; and then there is an element of randomness, since I cannot control what is going on outside of ‘me’ but can pluck a moment from the chaos that swirls around me.

Physically, I always occupy a piece of three-dimensional space that is mine and – for that instant – mine alone. If I lift my camera to my eye and take a picture of what it is in front of me, I will have a picture that is unique to me and my viewpoint at the moment I took it. Talking about his early-70s work, American Surfaces Stephen Shore has described his process at the time as:

“At random moments, whenever I thought of it, I would take what we would call today a screenshot of my field of vision. What was I looking at? What was the experience of looking, like? And I used that as a reference of how to make a picture, rather than the more conventional language about how a picture is supposed to be constructed.”

https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/45/717 (accessed 29/1/18)

I used this approach for the diary sequences I made during part 3 of Context and Narrative. It is quite easy to maintain this when you have a finite amount of time in a place that is unfamiliar. It is harder to apply it to your everyday surroundings. This is something I am beginning to work with, creating bodies of work from the normal stuff of my life rather than the bits that are in some way exceptional. I have spent a lot of time recently looking back through my archive. The addition of elapsed time helps with this. Ostensibly dull pictures from ten years ago seem fascinating as things change and what is depicted is no more. The pictures taken in London become as distant as those taken somewhere abroad…

Over time, my photographs become a running commentary on where I have found myself, and what I have seen there. They also contain traces of more than fifty years of cultural input. Put together, it all begin to indicate something of who I am.

Any uniqueness of approach cannot be said to come from the individual pictures, rather it only becomes possible when you put those pictures together into sequences of increasing length and complexity. You could compare the pictures to words (we all use the same lingusistic building-blocks in order to communicate, even if some people do still manage to create neologisms) and sequences to sentences. At this larger level there is still scope for originality, for the unique, even when the individual elements have been worn shiny through use. I’ll close this post with eight words, two of which are repetitions, one of which is repeated twice; all of them consist of a single syllable. Any English speaker will use those words every day; the sentence is nonetheless unique, and – providing the bit of the culture it comes from is a thing that we share – immediately identifiable: 

‘…and yes I said yes I will Yes.’ – James Joyce; Ullysses (1923)

exercise 3.1 – mirrors and windows

‘MIRRORS AND WINDOWS has been organized around Szarkowski’s thesis that such personal visions take one of two forms. In metaphorical terms, the photograph is seen either as a mirror–a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it projects itself on the things and sights of this world; or as a window–through which the exterior world is explored in all its presence and reality.’

– Press Release by the MOMA, announcing the 1978 exhibition Mirrors and Windows


‘Go through your photographic archive and select around ten pictures. Separate them into two piles: one entitled ‘mirrors’ and the other entitled ‘windows’.

  • What did you put in each pile and why?
  • Did you have any difficulties in categorising them?

It would be interesting to see you place the same image in both camps and review your reasons for doing so.’

– IaP Coursebook (p.60)


fig.1 – glasgow, september 12th 1993

Transparent and self-explanatory, this is as close to being a pure record of an event as any photograph I have ever taken. The only caption that needs to be added involves an anchoring ‘where’ and ‘when’. Even though it is a slide, taken with a non-time-stamping camera, it could probably be timed to within fractions of a second. It is also exactly what I set out to take that day – a picture of a building being blown up. Window.

fig.2 – deir el-bahri, egypt; march 2005

This is a picture taken while I was on holiday in Egypt in spring 2005. I had just walked over the hill from the Valley of the Kings. I was using my first non-toy digital camera (a Fujifilm finepix s304, for anyone who is interested in these things) mainly to take details of the friezes in temples and tombs while I saved ‘proper’ photography for film.

You could call it a window to the extent that it clearly describes something present in front of the camera, but at the same time, it entirely lacks an independent, historical context separate from the fact that while I stood in front of a lot of walls in Egypt – this one is in Hatshepsut’s funerary temple on the west bank of the Nile opposite Luxor – I chose to draw an abstracting rectangle around this bit of this one. My sensibility trumps that of the long-dead Egyptian who made the relief. So, a mirror.

fig.3 – kibble palace, glasgow 2003

While this is definitely a window (albeit a very dirty one). It was taken just before the Kibble Palace –  a Victorian glasshouse in the Botanic Gardens – was closed for renovation at the end of 2003 and was taken very much as a ‘before’ picture. Three and a bit years later it had been taken to pieces, cleaned up and reassembled again and I took this…

fig.4 – kibble palace, glasgow; august 2006

…which I choose to view as a mirror, as it’s not really about the reality of the reconstructed Kibble Palace so much as it is about abstract qualities of its design – symmetry, geometry, structure – and the blue of the sky. And everything about its composition draws attention to a notional me, head craned back, underneath the central circle, camera pressed to my face.

fig.5 – byres road, glasgow; 2006

This is straightforward street photography, a window recording a scene which took place in front of me. It is about the policeman and the expression on the man in the green fez looking out at me and about the old couple looking in through the back of the back of the bus stop. It is also about Jim Carrey  on the film poster sprinting out into the traffic.

If it had been a different advert there – one which didn’t shout FUN in big red letters, behind the seated man’s Keaton-esque blank expression – I probably wouldn’t have taken the picture. I have no idea what’s going on, but I think it is amusing somehow. Also as time moves on and things change – Antipasti, the restaurant on the corner across the road has had at least two incarnations since then for example – there are things there you never would have noticed when it was taken which are interesting now. It’s a window – I’m outside the event, looking in.

fig.6 – candice at paragominas airport; april 2008

In the same way that fig.5 handily labels itself as a bus stop, this tells you exactly where Candice (a colleague from work) and I were when I took this picture. And again it is somehow comic in effect. However, this picture is much more two-dimensional than fig.5. – indeed there is little or no sense of depth to it whatsoever. It is full of rectangles which are parallel to the plane of the digital camera’s sensor. I have no idea what Candice is looking up at (it’s an airport, so it could be a plane overhead, but I think there is a veranda roof above her; I have no idea where the complex ramp that makes its way up from the kerb in the foreground to where Candice sits leads; but it is a series of zigs and of zags. It is more important that Candice’s top and rucksack fit into the narrow spectrum of reddish browns in the picture and that her trousers are the same shade as the field behind the white letters of the sign than that it is Candice, at Paragominas.

It could be a window, but really it’s also a mirror; I’m taking a picture of an idea that is forming in my head rather than of something that is happening in front of me.

fig.7 – pristina, june 2006

This picture is also quite abstract, and contains a lot of lines and geometrical shapes placed deliberately within the frame, as well as depicting a contrast between old and falling apart and modern and shiny. However, that’s not really why I took it.

Apart from the unfinished Orthodox cathedral – ‘a provocation’, a Kosovan colleague called it – in the centre of town, this was the only physical evidence I ever found that some people in Pristina had spoken Serbo-Croat rather than Albanian. The next time I was in Pristina a couple of years later, the sign had gone just as the restaurant’s owners had before my first visit.

It is about the place; it is about history. It is not judgmental. It is not about what I think of the situation. It is a window.

fig.8 – kyiv, december 2006

And this is a whole set of windows, acting as a single great mirror. At the time, I took this, I had no idea that a man called Lee Friedlander existed, so it isn’t a conscious homage, just an attempt to capture the three – or is it four? – shapka and greatcoat-clad me’s standing outside the museum with my  back to the River Dniepr. Friedlander is characterised in Szarkowski’s book as a creator of windows, but I think this has to be put down as a mirror. It is completely an attempt to place me in a place, taking a picture, rather than to describe the place itself.

(It’s a marvellous museum by the way – really quite un-triumphalist, or at any rate as un-triumphalist as any museum with a 300+ foot tall titanium statue of a fierce woman holding a sword and shield on top of it could be.  If you get the chance, visit!)

fig.9 – chisinau, moldova; may 2009

With this picture – and the one that follows it – the intention is entirely abstract; they are about colour and shapes and how the frame is divided into subsections. I could probably go through my archive and pull out enough pictures that could be titled ‘Eating out, abroad, alone’ to make a reasonably large book I had to look at the metadata I had added to fig.9 before I could work out which country I was in, but having done so, I think I know which cafe I was eating in when I looked up and decided to fill the time by solving the problem of how to picture the awning above me…

fig.10 – moscow; december 2009

…but in this one, I know exactly – down to the seat I was sitting on – where I was (which probably makes it less successful as an abstraction than fig.9) when I took it. That place – a restaurant just off the Arbat where I was probably waiting for a plate of plov spiked with quince and lamb – sparks off a whole stream of associated memories for me to do with people and place and moments in time and tastes, but almost certainly none of them are available for you to decode from the picture itself. However, I am inside the situation that both pictures have grown out of. They are both mirrors.


So, that’s six mirrors and four windows. But they don’t necessarily need to stay that way. For example, I have classed fig.2 (the Egyptian frieze) as a mirror, but if it was used as an illustration in a book about Hatshepsut’s temple (‘Frieze, Deir el Bakir, birds and lotus motif [detail]’, say) rather than as part of my ongoing travelogue it would become a window in a trice. Candice at Paragominas Airport does indeed show Candice at Paragominas airport; the fact I see it about flatness and geometry doesn’t mean anyone else needs to; I’m sure Candice wouldn’t. As I’ve already said, Lee Friedlander is placed amongst the windows by Szarkowski, despite the astonishing level of subjectivity screaming out from every frame. And Bruce Davidson – who I have always thought of as someone working within the tradition of straight reportage has his pictures placed amongst the mirrors.

I think that the pictures used in this post establish the extremes of my own particular Mirror-Window spectrum. At the window end, fig.1 is pretty obviously what it appears to be while at the other, fig.9 is nothing more than a composition in red and white. Most of my pictures fall somewhere in between. There is danger in expecting that my own, internal thoughts about the content and meaning of my pictures will necessarily be readable by others without extensive captioning or other ways of establishing an ‘authorised’ context for them.

 


Before the exercise brief, the coursebook says that ‘we’ll define these terms [Mirrors and Windows] from the point of view of the photographer. That is, if the photographer is an insider, we’ll frame it as a mirror; if they’re outside looking in, we’ll frame it as a window.’ and I’m not sure how well that really works for me. Rather, I suspect that – at the same time I raise a camera to my eye – I am stepping outside of the situation; however I don’t think this renders every picture I take a simple window, showing something that is in front of me and to which I have no connection.

Fortunately, the introduction goes on to say: ‘You may wish to challenge these notions in your responses to exercises and assignments That’s fine, so long as you use effective strategies and critical analysis to back up your point and give reasons for your methods and intentions.’ So, that is what I have tried to do.

The more time I have to make a picture the less likely it is to simply present a straightforward depiction of what my camera is pointed at. I was on my own when I took eight of the ten pictures in this post. In six of those, I was able to determine exactly when I was ready to take the picture; I was able to play about and experiment; in the other two, i had to act before my subject dissolved and the picture was gone forever. It is those two that I have placed most obviously at the window end of the spectrum, but two of the others (fig.1 and fig.3) I would class as windows as well.

The final two pictures (fig.6 and fig.8) were taken when I was with other people, but I have classified both as mirrors. All the tests I have done, suggest that I am really quite introverted; where extroverts charge themselves through being with others, introverts a drained by being in company. I suspect I use the practice of photography as an excuse to withdraw into myself for a bit.

Another factor would be the extent to which I am comfortable in my surroundings. The two pictures from the Kibble Palace are of somewhere i know very well – I have been taking pictures in there since 1983 and know not only what it looks like to the eye, but also what it looks like photographed (to paraphrase Gary Winogrand). It is possible that as a subject for me it has grown stale. Similarly, most of the pictures from work trips were taken during a second or later visit – I had got the initial, purely descriptive pictures and views out of the way and was finding out what I could spot in a situation. And when I took the Pristina picture on my first visit, I was doing something that I was comfortable with – exploring somewhere on my own with a camera. The place may not have been familiar, but my approach to it was.


The photographs used in this post were all taken between 1993 and 2009 with a variety of cameras in a number of locations.  A couple of them can be found on my corner of flickr; but until now, most have never seen the light of day. I think they are representative of the sort of pictures I was taking before I started the OCA photography degree. I had come across Walker Evans by the time I took (made?) the later pictures, but generally they can be considered as naive, vernacular art.

If presented with the same subjects today, I would probably still take most of them, but I would do so from a position of greater knowingness. The context of their making would have changed and they would all take a step or two closer to being mirrors. So perhaps, in this sense you could map them onto ideas of being an insider or an outsider; now I am more inside photography and the context it provides. I am preparing to identify myself as a photographer, instead of someone just taking photographs…

Project 2.2: Aware – Harry Callahan and Julian Germain

Two of the photographers we are pointed towards during this project seemed to have sufficient similarities in approach to be considered together, here. Julian Germain’s For Every Minute You Are Angry You Lose A Minute of Happiness (2005, but taken between 1992 and 2000) and Harry Callahan’s pictures of his wife Eleanor and his daughter Barbara, tiny among the geometry and space of Chicago (taken on outings between 1952 and 1954) both were made without any seeming expectation of their becoming a finished body of work. Both series were made under ‘real’ conditions but – and presumably this is why they are here in the ‘aware/studio’ half of the chapter – using heavier, larger format equipment than the lightweight cameras used by Evans or Kuzma or Parr in the ‘unaware/street’ half. Continue reading