Assignment One

There were eighteen prints that I produced for assignment one, I had to down-select to ten to fit the brief. Editing these down could have been made using quite a few different criteria, but given that the images were made up of images that I had taken – one camera/one lens as per the brief combined with images that were taken by Carl Gross I decided that Ann and Carl would make the final edit.

When I showed the images to the Thames Valley Group a number of comments were made, one being why not make them smaller, like holiday snaps, another that the ones that worked best – given my introduction to the work, were the ones that had either Ann or Carl in the frame.

Let me back track a little to provide some context to this piece of work. Ann and Carl Gross work a piece of land, actually three and a half allotments in the village where I live, about an acre. All of the produce of this piece of land is sold and all of the money raised is sent to Thailand in support of the Thai Children’s Trust. That they also work to raise funds by giving talks at any venue they can is not part of this work, in this assignment. They have been doing this for many years and the sale of the goods at the Deddington Farmer’s Market for as long as that has been in operation, it was founded in 2001. The Gross’ have been donating for longer than that, have ‘adopted’ children and they self fund annual trips to Thailand to see the work (money for the trips do not come from the sale of vegetables). They are committed.

Moving on.

That photographs can invoke memory is one facet of their value. I have recognized that power with my work at the Echoes Group, part of Artscape, which is within the Oxford Mental Health Trust. However I wasn’t expecting the force of the memoire that these photographs that I had produced would have on the Gross’ when I asked them to choose the ten for the assignment.

I asked them to choose because they are part of the pictures, these combination shots have Gross’ vested in them. And the comments that ensued through the process of choosing brought more context into the series and added to the narrative that I have gleaned from them so far.

So, how well did I think I did?

  • Demonstration of technical skills, materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills.
  • Quality of outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualization of thoughts, communication of ideas.
  • Demonstration of creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice.
  • Context – reflection, research, critical thinking (learning logs, critical reviews and essays).

I am hopeless at reviewing my own work. I have a very low opinion of my capability and will find this difficult. However:

I think the technical expertise is competent, I’m assuming materials means the prints themselves, which I think are also competent. With regard to visual awareness the second series of images – at the market – seemed to provide the underlying imagery that I was looking for. Notably the open hand with coins, the area above the money changing hands, the option to ‘re-fill’ under the counter. The transplanting of orphan’s into the narrative.

If by “quality of outcome” that means, unlike technical skills, that the outcome did in fact provide the outcome that I was seeking, then I think the answer must be yes. That the ideas that I had envisaged for the shoot at the market especially benefitted from the learning curve at the allotment and the discussions at the Thames Valley meeting – all be they short discussions – suggested that the ideas had something going for them.

Overall I am happy with the outcome.

There are other thoughts however. I feel somewhat disingenuous in doing this exercise with the Gross’ over a short period of a month or so and then leaving them to get on with their lives. That they are neighbours isn’t the issue, of course I will see them from time to time, they have indicated strongly that they expect the images I have given them to be used within the charity and the talks they give, so in that sense the work continues. But this short interlude seems all too brief, my capacity to love ‘em and leave ‘em might have been easier if I hadn’t known them for the best part of forty years. However it isn’t the brevity of time that concerns me, it is the lack of depth that I haven’t got to that concerns me. I can see avenues of discovery into the depths of the issues that the Gross’ are working in, that are associated with their work, that, by picking away at the narrative of their work would provide many different seams to be worked. And I am planning to leave them to it because I think that the ‘Echoes Group’ will provide an even broader scope for investigation, both of a personal and public nature, and I wonder if that is not a selfish trait. That I am not prepared to ‘get in quick, dive deep, and get out’ leaving whatever residue behind, might be a limiting factor for how I develop as an artist.

These then are the ten that Ann and Carl decided upon, they discussed at some length which were going to make the cut. It has to be said that the first seven came very quickly, the eighth not much behind but the last two had some real discussions. It was these discussion that most interested me, for it re-contextualised the photograph, it brought back memories which helped them decide what image would best describe how they felt about the events that concerned them several thousand miles away.

Carl in the community

Carl in the community

Image One: Carl works the land, implanted into the Thai’ community. The connection with Carl’s familial heritage of farm work – though he is a teacher by profession – brings the world’s together. Carl from Michigan in the USA, this refugee camp near the Mekong river in North Western Thailand. Technically the biggest issue was to grow the foreground post by about a third to provide a dimensional quality to the introduction of Carl into the mid ground. Carl particularly likes this image and I think it is because of the clear focus of his efforts.Ann commented on the ‘closeness’ of the refugee.

Cash money

Cash money

Carl’s hand. Posed for me at the Farmer’s Market. They didn’t have any coppers in their cash box when I asked Carl to pose – so they are my coppers, the orphans are Burmese who, when they can find work it is in the new China factories and they get paid between $1 and $3 a day for a long day  and a 13 day shift. No particular technical issues, some background visual distractions taken away in order to fully foreground the hand and it’s contents. It is simple visual construct and I am aware of it’s propensity to be cliched, but it has a more than an element of truth about it.

Shelter

Shelter

I wanted to obtain a shot that provide a view of the space under the counter. I wanted to provide a metaphorical view of the shelter that the Gross’ provide. That some of the children are clearly praying adds to the poignancy. Ann suggested, before I said what I had intended, that it looked as if the children were praying that the people brought all the goods so that they might eat. Technically the superimposition wasn’t difficult. I think it works quite well.

In the Rhubard 2

In the Rhubard 2

Rhubarb is generally selling at between two and three times this price, that the boy is watching the viewer is a strong compositional element I think. But also the people in the background are turn ing away from the scene, not wanting to be involved. No real difficulty here, the picture is Carl’s from his last trip, I simply posed it there behind the rhubarb and then emphasised it in some post processing.

Thank you

Thank you

Another purposeful shot. The base image of a commercial transaction taking place with space above it knowing that there would be plenty of emotional stock from Carl’s photographs to use to emphasise the issues they were dealing with. From a technical standpoint the young Burmese girl whose eyes are directed at the viewer fitted very nicely on the out of focus young girl eating very fancy cookies. The fantastical Burmese girl in traditional dress did provide some technical issues, but as soon as I found the attachment to her golden backcloth in the architecture of the stall the rest started to fall into place. It is important that she is looking directly at the financial transaction, almost blessing the exchange as a kind of deity which is emphasised by her garb. Angelic?

At the refugee camp in North West Thailand. The crosses are part of some frames that Carl uses at the allotment

At the refugee camp in North West Thailand. The crosses are part of some frames that Carl uses at the allotment

A complex image that I was glad that the Gross’ chose, though at the Thames Valley meeting it was suggested, and I take the point, that the Gross’ do not appear in the image. But this is how I read my construction. The central figure is a beast of burden walking away from the memento mori of the crosses behind her, urging the little girl ahead of her. This little girl looks back anxiously, clearly concerned over the welfare of the woman; is she looking back to the future? The young girl is a representation of the future both in her age but also in her apparel, the older woman represents the past, her traditional dress, the back-breaking toil, her age. This is amplified/echoed by the presence of the young boy looking on from above, almost as if ready to step into the young girls shoes when the old woman can’t make it anymore. That there isn’t anything growing in the area that the precession is coming from adds to the paucity of hope in the picture. Technically a difficult one to produce. I wanted to integrate the old woman in amongst the crosses, to have her directly connected with those symbols. I needed to emphasise the young girl’s face as her expression is important to the narrative. The aura of general bleakness was enabled by the addition of the allotment scene, which carried with it the crosses as nothing was growing and I removed as much greenery as I could from the scene.

Ann told me that the old lady was bringing material to re-cover the roof that her husband was repairing, a constant struggle. Ann commented that the young girl was looking in the direction of the cottages on the edge of the allotment – we all bring our experiences to the picture. The author is dead?

A young man whose arms have been blown off by a mine

A young man whose arms have been blown off by a mine

This young man has graduated from a student to a teacher in the academy (if that is what can be called) that taught him to be an electronic technician. I wasn’t aware of this when I made the image. I wanted to transplant him from the environment of a technician’s workshop in Thailand into the allotment in rural Oxfordshire. Though technically quite intricate, it works less well than others as the contextual references are few. That he is now planted into a field may seem odd, but then the viewer is likely to be an Other so maybe would take that visual aberration on the chin. That he is now sitting on Carl’s chair is known only to me, as I had to point that out to Carl. Not a failure but something to learn from.

Carl's sheds in the Burmese refugee camp in North West Thailand

Carl’s sheds in the Burmese refugee camp in North West Thailand

Another that the Thames Valley group thought lacked the presence of the Gross’. That their allotment sheds are built with greater likelihood of longevity is seemingly lost on the viewer, and I agree. That these sheds are now sitting in a refugee camp that was first set up in 1963 and is home to some 45,000 people who have fled the tyranny of Burma isn’t apparent either, that the only running water is urine is also lost on the occasional viewer. Ann and Carl thought this image one of the stronger because they know these things, because they have and still witness the atrocious conditions in the camp, that they know what some of the refugees have had to cope with and still do on a daily basis. Some of the refugees have been resident in the camp for a decade or more, waiting, hoping for an exit into Thailand. That the police run the brothels, that the children are abused, are often infected with HIV. This is the failure of the picture, not to have delivered some of that narrative. The technical issues seem trivial besides the awful associations that Ann and Carl remember by witnessing the image re-imagined in this way. Bereft of people it provides no contextual narrative, it is empty of power without some form of indicators of what this terrible landscape has born witness to. Since the return to democracy (of sorts) in Burma the Thai’ authorities, quite naturally, want to repatriate these refugees; however not all want to return. The memories, the fact that they may not remember a life before the camp, there may not have been a life before the camp will all militate against a swift resolve to an ageing problem.

Anne harvesting leeks on a bitterly cold morning. The small patch for vegetables that has been supported by Carl and Anne in an orphanage in  North West Thailand that Carl and Anne support

Anne harvesting leeks on a bitterly cold morning. The small patch for vegetables that has been supported by Carl and Anne in an orphanage in North West Thailand that Carl and Anne support

Another relatively straight forward image. Ann, wrapped up warm against the March cold (I know as I was there, bitter) working the land connected to the land that they bare witness to when in Thailand. It works. Technically another that was relatively straight forward; a couple of decisions to consider. Firstly about scale – should I try and place Ann within the frame at a scale that would be visually in keeping with the background image of the Thai’ countryside – I decided that to make her obvious, to ensure (force) the viewer to confront the enigma and question her presence. This was also the reason behind the other visual decision which was to not try and harmonise the colour temperature (or rather transfigure Ann into a warmer climate).

Carl sowing shallots and a Thai worker at the orphange in North West Thailand

Carl sowing shallots and a Thai worker at the orphange in North West Thailand

This was the first image I made after receiving the suggestion from my tutor that utilising images from Carl might be a way to ‘bring” Thailand to me. It is clearly of two men (one may be a lot younger than the other, but nevertheless working the land) in accord for the same purpose, the feeding of the orphans. Technically it was a very straightforward image to create, the base image of the allotment provides an anchor to the image and the Thai’ image seemed to just fall into place – almost glide into position without the need for scaling. The perspective seemed to harmonise very well. I think this image works very well, maybe because of it’s inherent simplicity?

Market Day

I always knew that market day would offer many more possibilities. Since starting on the notion of bringing the two countries together, the visible financial transactions would bring a new twist to the narrative that had so far only been focussed on that old Marxist measure of “value added” ie labour. Taking the Gross’ to Thailand and implanting them there with all the concomitant contrasts of light, of temperature, clothing, life in general is one phase of the story. Now I had the opportunity to bring Thailand to the Gross’ or perhaps better described as bringing Thailand to the commercialisation of their predicament.

Carl had printed some of his own photographs from his last trip to Thailand in February. I placed some of them around the stall and ‘posed’ them for the camera.

In the Rhubarb

In the Rhubarb

In the Rhubard 2

In the Rhubard 2

Sprouting brocoli

Sprouting brocoli

Cash money

Cash money

These are more of the ‘edited’ shots that artificially bring Thailand to the Farmers Market.

Weights and Measure

Weights and Measure

Shelter

Shelter

Thank you

Thank you

Having thought about what images I had received from Carl I deliveratley tried to pose some of these shots to accomodate the type of composite I wanted to make. The first three are what I had envisaged, the top two about worth/commodity, the third about how the Gross’ and the charity provide shelter. The forth one I deliberatley left a space, not being exactly sure what I going to put in the space, but I wanted the payment to be a key narrative device.

I now need to decide two things before submitting: Firstly how to submit and secondly what to submit from the work already created. The next couple of days should provide the answer.

Portraits

A little while ago I started to do some with in collaboration with a Therapy Centre in Banbury. Partly to do with the course, partly to get involved with an organisation i.e. to start building up a new network. I had documented some of their therapy spaces and they clearly liked what I had done as they asked me to quote to do some portraits of their therapists and staff as they rebuild their marketing data. The Centre is due to have a birthday celebration very soon and wanted to refresh their web-site and generate new brochures.

After agreeing the price (and re-agreeing a new price after the brief became extended) I decided that a very simple two softbox set-up would probably work. The centre wanted the portraits to be consistent and I didn’t get long to take the images as they were often in between clients or travelling to get to the centre in order to have their portrait taken. One of their consulting rooms provided a fairly plain wall, and I was concerned that I needed to get images that were as ‘soft’ as possible. Soft in the sense that they needed to appear approachable – as one of them said during their session – “I want a potential client to look at my picture and feel they can talk to me”. Oh and the last session was today at 1pm and the artwork needed to be completed and sent to the printers by 4pm. No pressure then.

Staff and Therapists

Staff and Therapists

Quite fortuitously for this exercise the twenty portraits sat very well in a matrix. I’m not sure about the result, about what it might be saying – very happy that they all seem to be fairly ‘Soft” despite one of them saying that they would rather have had their eyes gouged out and boiled in oil than sit for a portrait, only one or two were happy to have their picture taken – most were resigned to the fact. I had a couple of ‘glasses’ moments when I had to remove them (rather than just tilt them down) to reduce or remove the glare from the flash units or windows. I had no real control over the timing – some were done at 9am some were done at 2pm, so outside light was ‘up and down’!

Quite pleased with the result though I’m not sure what it says about the subjects……

As an aside their website gets something like 4000 hits per week and they will put a link to my website. Though what the viewers will think looking at a therapy centre one moment and the Rockie Mountains the next I have no idea. However I know I must find time and consideration to renew my web-site as it has sat moribund for the past two years.

No pictures from the Dark Side of the Moon

Some years ago a curious thing happened to our family and to some other families within our community. I was reminded of this just yesterday whilst looking at some photographs.

Cynthia taught our sons the piano, she taught a good deal of children in and around the village, she didn’t live in our village, she lived in a slightly larger village just a few miles from where we still live. Our youngest son displayed all the characteristic signs of the recalcitrant boy who couldn’t find any enthusiasm to practice on our piano, he gave in, but went on the learn the guitar and form his own band, writing and recording music (well at least to his and his generation’s ears). Our eldest son though stuck with it. He didn’t manage to pass grade one, but retook it and then, seemingly, sailed through grades two through five. He practiced, he enjoyed it, we all knew he was never going to be a concert pianist, but he and we got a lot out of it.

Then one day a new family came to the village, from Yorkshire I think, certainly from a long way away. They checked around for a piano teacher as their daughter had been successful at various grades and wanted to continue. They happened on Cynthia, who, as she did with all students to her music school, welcomed their daughter with typically open arms.

It was soon after the next set of exams that things changed, we had a message from the new people that they didn’t think something was right, that things weren’t all they should be about the way in which the exam had been set up. How, normally their daughter normally sat her exams in a place set up for it and they seemed concerned about the certificate that showed their daughter had passed the exam.

Cynthia you see, invited the examiner to her house, she had done so for years, in fact about the same time as our son had failed his grade one. Cynthia felt, as she explained to us, that the homely environment would be more conducive to the children sitting the exam, they wouldn’t feel so nervous, they would know the piano and they would know that Cynthia was in the next room should anything go drastically wrong. But nothing ever seemed to. Cynthia seemed able to get the same examiner each time and that would also help the children to relax and perform to their best abilities.

But the newcomers were insistent, despite a little nervousness regarding upsetting an established village custom, they convinced me to try and organize a meeting of the parents of the children that went to Cynthia. The meeting was well attended and the newcomers, haltingly at first, started to describe their concerns. About the use of a house and not a building set up for the purpose of music exams. About how the certificates were delivered and most curiously about how the certificates were drawn up.

The temperament of the meeting turned from a tolerant listening to these newcomers, to one of wonderment and then puzzlement. Yes, there was something wrong with all of that. How could it be that there was something wrong about the way Cynthia had taught our children to ply the piano, after all they could all play, but we started to look at the certificates, and then the dawn started to rise. We saw that these documents had obvious flaws, that the compiler of the certificate had made basic spelling and contextual errors and had used typex to correct them and wasn’t that letraset?  Sometimes not even correcting some of those very basic mistakes, dates were wrong amongst other blindingly crass errors. The collected parents all started to look at previous as well as current certificates, realizing that not only had the certificates been concocted probably by Cynthia, but that we, as parents, hadn’t noticed anything wrong. That these certificates were valueless, that the Cynthia Garvey piano school was a sham.

I agreed to go and see Cynthia, but by the time I had met with her the news had broke. BBC Oxford had the story and it even made the Daily Telegraph – it must surely have been a slow news day. She was repentant, the school stopped operating, she moved away leaving her son (who had been the forger of certificates) to live with the aftermath. The children either gave up the piano, or like our son retook their grades with a bona fide teacher – he passed grade five again and then, because it was all going to get serious gave up.

This curious episode came to mind when I looked at Cristina De Middel’s “The Afronauts” at the Deutsche Borse Photographic Prize 2013 down-selections at the Photographers’ Gallery, and it didn’t make me feel any better that I had found a link to my past. I also wondered about the emails (previously faxes) , that I seem not to get anymore, whereby a Nigerian or some (supposedly) other sub-Saharan countryman would try to con me by saying they had millions to give me if only I would give them my bank details. That the supposedly sub-Saharan emailers were actually Russian (apparently) or some other gangster organization in country a long way from the dark continent, matters to me now only in the context of the installation on the fifth floor in Ramillies Street, W1.

It is with a sense of amusement now, that our family look back on that event with Cynthia, after all our eldest son learnt to play the piano, he can still turn his hand to some tunes nearly a quarter of a century later.

My ruminations on the past came to the fore after reading the letter from “Dr. Kabunda Kayongo Ministry of Technology. Which was addressed to “The Director  Ministry of Technology” Middel’s ‘humorous’ part invention regarding Zambia’ failed moon shot program(me)! The ruinous grammar, the riotous typing invites the reader to pour not a little derision on both the text – when deciphered – and the idiocy of the project therein described.

 

I wonder about a few things when confronted by this body of work. I wonder why Middel chose Zambia to be the butt of her joke, why not Portugal, after all the Spanish have been using Portugal as butt for all their ‘stupid neighbor’ jokes for centuries, much like the English do with the Irish, or the Swedes with the Norwegians or the Sjaellanders to the Jutlanders, the red rose to the white roses. Would Portugal have been a better choice? Perhaps to nuance a re-flamed interest in the conquest of a new Other world, another Magellan setting forth across the uncharted domains of mid twentieth century space? Perhaps the Portuguese weren’t stupid enough. Perhaps they were too like Middel, not Other enough. Ridicule is a poor form of wit, and this is what I felt about this work, sure it has the surprise of originality, the originality similar to that of the Jackass generation. Africa doesn’t need this type of attention. Afronauts! What part of this story is told in a positive vein? We are invited to laugh at the subjects, the impossibility of their quest, that it isn’t or was never real is beside the point. That she states in her interview with Sean O’Hagan that the model she was looking for needed to be ‘African’ seems to sum up so much – not Zambian? Not Ethiopian? Not Egyptian? Not Afrikaans? African – apparently our perception of ‘African’ is of a big black man looking at us with attitude! And the biggest job on the project? Spending two days on changing a street light bowl into a helmet! Here’s the video of all the finalists with O’Hagan where she seems somewhat boastful that the Nigerian Space Programme have subsequently been in contact. And that she has shown her work in South Africa – though she doesn’t say which work or when or where.

Cynthia, might have misled her charges, but she never ridiculed them, never set them up, never laughed at them. Middel, thanks perhaps to the throng following Parr’s speculative punt at Arles last year, is surely laughing now, with the prospect of another £30,000 added to the cache of a ‘rare-book’, a re-invented conceptual artist, author, perhaps now considering which key to set the opera “Zambia in Space” in – or perhaps that should be “Africa in Space”. Well she can’t ask Cynthia, she’s passed on.

Whether there is a scintilla of substance in the ‘back-story’ concerns me very little, after all there are a million pipe dreams in the world that come to nothing, as there are dreams that were never intended to come to anything. This work though now is a beacon that, if ever there were a need to focus attention on, attracts the viewer firstly to a “warmly structured and humorous” body of work that has every possibility of confirming many prejudices that are institutionalised in western society.

Landmark: THE FIELDS OF PHOTOGRAPHY at Somerset House

Landscape

Landscape

A big exhibition, not least in it’s (or rather Ewing’s) ambition given the scope of the sub-sections: Sublime, Pastoral, Witness, Landmark, Scar, Control, Datum, Delusion, Hallucination, Reverie. Looking back at this list I started to wonder about the curating of such an exhibition – some 80 odd photographers and something like 170 photographs. Courageous? Curious? Did Ewing decide on these sub-genres beforehand and then decide what is out there to fill the alcoves in Somerset House? No, I think perhaps he chose the images and then decided on how best to narrate the exhibition with them.

Ewing

Ewing

Whatever the means, the end is a part monumental, part untold, part curious juxtaposition of sometimes seemingly disparate images in close proximity – which overall didn’t tell a story, rather told lots of stories – even within those hallowed halls off the Strand. Talking of Strand I had just read, before setting out, David Bate’s essay “Art, Education, Photography” in Liz Wells’ “The Photography Reader – p435 – 442 and in particular, and in relation to, the Modernist” movement that Strand at one time inhabited. Bate talks about how that modernist movement revelled in the single image, how “..Strand’s call for the ‘integration of science and expression’ (machine and human vision) is most famously consolidated in Edward Weston: “Sharp focus and full light were to be combined with the new post-cubist principles of composition’ and paralleled in Europe by the ‘new objectivity’ photography of Albert Renger-Patsch, etc.)…. Despite the modernist emphasis on the single print, it was the series or suite of pictures that showed the constancy of vision of the photographic seer as ‘genius'”. – p437

There was plenty to think about, for example why did Ewing put Shibata’s prints of momumental subjects next to Burtynsky’s monumental images. To start this review with an overall feeling about how I felt at the end of the exhibition might seem an odd way to start, but I felt I had witnessed an explosion of beauty, whatever the subject these photographers had decided upon they have utilised technique’s to extol the (or perhaps their) wonderment of the beauty of the landscape. Whether the subject/object of the image was a natural wonder or the unnatural wonder the images were nearly all produced with a craft honed through careful attention to the techniques of the tradition of landscape photography and it was no surprise that Adams, one of the progenitors of the modernist movement was represented, and indeed perhaps also misrepresented by Friedlander, who raised the question about what it is we see (witness) in the section entitled “Witness”. Whilst David Maisel’s abstracted visions of water had me questioning my belief in the veracity of image making with the apparent transgressive toning of his images.

Ghengis Khan’s “Le Dust Bowl Chinois” was another that asked very direct questions. “Were they really there?” I asked myself of what appeared to be cigarettes, or models of cigarettes, or superimposed cigarettes into a nicotine toned vista of what appeared to be a central location in Beijing. That Beijing is one of the most polluted Capital cities in the world, that the Chinese are one of a few countries that has a ‘growing’ market for cigarette consumption, that it (China) is a global economic force for capitalism and therefore a prime target for what it (China) used to describe as the pollution of the West. An interesting and haunting image.

I was amused to see Struth’s ‘El Capitan’. For those that know the scene the people on the right of the image who appear to ignore the “largest piece of granite on the planet” – as the Californian’s like to sub-title El Capitan, and are in fact looking across to “Half-Dome” and the “Bridleveil Falls” – and why not? They are just as iconic, yet here we are repeating the Ansel Adams road to the sense of image and place in a single image. Struth though invites us, or at least those not vested in a prior knowledge of AA’s work, to wonder at why that lump of granite isn’t a view of awe and wonder for these tourists on the ground floor of the image. That Struth sets the image up at around 10 feet on a square, situates El Capitan as the “big’ thing to be wondered at, perhaps nothing else in the exhibition comes close, except maybe Epstien’s BP Carson Refinery , California. So was Struth inviting us to mock these tourists? Or wonder at our incredulity at their apparent insouciance at the ‘common-placeness’ of such an apparition in the West of America, and a photographic icon being wilfully being ignored?

Talking of big. Elger Esser’s “Sacramento River” was another huge picture that dwarfed others around it. Robbed of tones I wondered about why this image was produced in such a way – surely not to subvert the genre, it was in the ‘Pastoral” section, so perhaps to look back and romanticize the past, to look as perhaps an (another) Outsider into the panorama that is America, this time the West Coast with it’s resonances. Again I am reminded of Bate’s essay as the artist seems content with collections of individual images, despite his proud assertion that he studied under Bescher in Dusseldorf. And in the show these 170 photographs from just over half that number photographers meant that the viewer is left liable to extrapolate to understandings (readings) that perhaps weren’t meant by the artist, but instead a projection of the curators choice.

I have notes on many of the photographs in the show, the essence of which might suggest as many strands of possible research, but they won’t all get done. Too many thoughts in too small a space, too many thoughts on too many big subjects, about the environment, about politics, about the human condition, both observed and, in this case, observing. And I suppose the photographer who lit most bulbs for me was Burtynsky, and he offered, for this viewer at any rate, the most beautiful images in Somerset House.

I am very glad I went.

Memories session two

Window light

Window light

I’m not sure if I should know where I am going with this project, but I don’t. I have perhaps more of a notion that the work will provide/produce something that has a resonance for the users at the sessions. I certainly hope that someone else, other than me, will find something out about themselves by creating a small, but definite portrait of a facet of themselves with photographs collected into some kind of narrative.

The memories project that I’m running with the Echoes Group had its second session today; last week I briefed those present about the project; this week most of the users brought things to show (mostly old photographs) and tell. I had an enthusiastic comment from one of the clinical staff who wasn’t at last week’s event but had heard how engaged the ‘ward users’ had been about the session – unfortunately they couldn’t be here this week due to staffing issues.

I was there early, I’m either going to be early or late owing to the vagaries of the bus system in Oxford city centre, and was a bit concerned that the naked white walls of last week were covered by a new installation, thereby reducing the overall light in the room which might have hampered the photography – in the end it turned ok.

Window light and textile installation at Fusion Arts

Window light and textile installation at Fusion Arts

As with last week, the notion of looking back helped free the users to open up and talk, this week they nearly all had mementos to use to illustrate their narratives. Liz, has an identical twin sister and brought along some gifts from her, this twin has been in America since 1976 and it is clear that she misses her, born ten minutes later than Liz. We took some pictures of some gifts and I will scan some images that she brought in. Liz’s husband, a milkman, also featured in her memories, he was clearly a good milkman as she had a picture of some gifts that he received from his customers when he retired.

John brought along a set of pictures of his wife Pat, declaring them to be a portrait of his wife including the telegram that she sent to her mother when she qualified as a doctor. Richard had some interesting photographs that were doubly interesting because of the text on the reverse of the photographs. Graham tried to find a wedding album from 55 years ago, but has failed but he did bring some very early twentieth century photographs which he will bring again next week for me to scan. Tom, the Artscape leader, brought in some of his memorabilia including some of his degree work from Brighton where he graduated in Fine Arts – I’d like to see more of this work.

There was perhaps too much discussion. Tom felt that the day was a bit haphazard and gave me some advice about how to structure next week’s session – to have the users do some practical work on their own, to give them a little focus for at least 30 – 45 minutes. I have an idea about what that might be.

Below are two images that I created as part of what will be one of my memories:

Passport

Passport

3rd April 1976

3rd April 1976

 

Reflections on a day

I decided at the last minute to take a camera to the Thames Valley Group’s second meeting yesterday, that the bag provided safe anchorage for my sandwiches was certainly part of that decision making process, and whilst I was glad of the sandwiches, I didn’t use the camera. I had hardly used it during the first meeting two months ago, when the Group had met for the first time, eager to show we were real photographers by clicking away – this time however there was no need to prove anything and I think I only saw a solitary camera being used on just two occasions.

There was an eagerness to start the day’s agenda – first section looking and discussing student’s work, second section a working lunch and then lastly, a workshop on Semiotics. There was an eagerness to become engaged with the student work being displayed, there seemed to be very little concern or self-conscious reserve hampering discussion. There was an openness of expression that was fostered by all and encouraged by the Group’s ethos.

The student work on display reflected, for me, their personal position in their respective developments, no matter where in the course structure they were. Each piece of work, all printed, had an intellectual engagement by their author that could be, and was, challenged by both the Group and the Leader in a constructive manner, leaving the artists with questions to resolve and possibilities to explore.

Two aspects of the first part of the days events struck me: Firstly, and this is in relation to my own work which comprised two nascent projects, the ability to expose and discuss the notions/concepts that underpinned what I wanted the work to try and achieve. I had put the work into the public domain via my course blogs and had some feedback, but the cross-fertilized discussion with the physical presence of the work on the table – in the hands of the students commenting – provided invaluable and considered feedback. Secondly, the process of editing. This was exemplified by our Leader who I think, with every student’s work, viewed it with an experienced eye and challenged both the underlying concept as well as the ordering of the images. I’m not sure whether it was just the ‘freshness’ to the work that enabled this process or just the clear level of experience, but the way the work could be used to derive another narrative or a similar more nuanced narrative, was something that I was particularly struck by. For my own part I took away the need for both a critical review of the clarity of my own concepts from the “Identity” and “Gross’” series, and furthermore, with the Gross’, to better define/exemplify the cooperative nature of the subjects involvement in the Thai’ orphan’s domains and needs. I am still at a crossroads in deciding how/if to take these projects further, but I have a feeling that I am engaged with both and that the thirty minutes allotted to me to expose these twin projects have left me a lot further forward. I am sure that the same could be said for the other students as well.

The afternoon session, though slightly hampered by IT issues, was extremely valuable. The Group was led through some basic fundamentals of Semiotics as written by Barthes, Chandler and Clarke, but many students had also brought along texts by other authors on the subject that they had found both personally instructive and enlightening – surely, given the subject, a welcome addition to the resources utilized by the Group! To then discuss the principles with a text and photograph assisted the process of comprehension, before the students were split up into three groups to look at – what else but – some advertisements to then present to each other their ‘reading’ of the their chosen selections of advertisements.

I am fairly certain that most, if not all, of the students at this event will have read the texts that were provided by the Leader prior to the event, These students had probably read them before being asked to prepare for the meeting. It is likely that the work being exposed during the first session had been laid bare on Blogs or “Flicker” sites, and may have received some feedback after having done so. But my overriding impression of these last two events is that the advancement of the comprehension of some of the fundamentals of photography as an art form has been given a significant boost by being able to sit down and have a conversation, firstly with other students, who by their very presence are committed to developing their understanding of the medium, and secondly with a tutor who provided both a commitment that equaled that of the students present and a strong sense of purpose to those students that empowered them to move forward with their studies, to imagine that they might have something to say, rather than just something to display. That this medium is more about how to explore and communicate as it is about pixels and tone, how to search or recognise a narrative and how various techniques might help to contextualize those notions into a cohesive piece of work that represents something that is deeper than ink on paper (or pixels on screen).

My personal battles with the notion of beauty have started to move away from where they were. I cannot imagine that they would have strayed from their long term moribund state without the discursive opportunity provided by a square table populated as it was by fellow travellers. The hope that this would work via an on-line blog, a Flicker disrupted “topic’, or the slow grind of the Student OCA site is, I think fanciful. To be able to see into the eye of the correspondent more than equals the sum of all the words typed into a blog/Flicker entry. This may have a lot to do with how we were led, I am more than happy to suggest that is so, but more than that it is the opportunity to have real discussions, conversations, sharing ideas – no matter how fanciful – in an environment that isn’t populated by a screen and a lonely and frustrated typist, is worth much much more, than the cost of the day.