Home Truths

Motherhood

In her opening essay ‘Motherlode: Photography, motherhood and representation’ Susan Bright says “…(the work is) an exploration of the complex and demanding experience of motherhood and of the transitions that occur to women’s identity when she is becoming or being a mother”.  Bright mines a rich seam of narratives from her selected artists exploring motherhood and identity from a broad perspective. I wasn’t prepared for the breadth of exploration, nor the unexpected realization – as an extrapolation of the tropes explored in the twin exhibitions – that these artists that had been selected would present therefore a still limited vista of the possibility of exploration. Maybe it is that motherhood, perhaps the oldest subject of consideration for womankind and mankind alike, is therefore one of the ‘big’ subjects and would be unlikely to be fully served on two floors at this venue?

What I most admired about this exhibition were the diverse approaches to the titular subject, all those who live, all existence in fact has a voice in this conversation and maybe the single most important notion that I extracted from the show was that despite the size of the subject, our views (at least my views of the societal view) are generally very constrained. Whilst everyone has a mother story to tell, the validity of each individual story is as valid as any other’s story; that any single story might seem at odds with our own lifetime narrative doesn’t make it any less or any more valid. And yet the media tends to deliver limited truths about motherhood, where the elevation to perfection might be a royal birth and at the other end of the spectrum that of baby P’s mother. But motherhood is of course more than that; the male perspective is just as valid; we are all of woman born and so the voices of the son on the subject of mother, of mothering, presents an equally valid perspective. What about that of a father (on the subject of mother), or the mother’s view of the mother – a generation up or below?? The list then is long, though the possibilities maybe endless, and it was this understanding that I found the most enlightening, that the subject could, and perhaps should, be looked at from as many perspectives as possible. To limit the spectrum, as this show does – as any show of this enormity would do – delivers a partial view. But if it can be done whilst opening up a discourse in the mind of the spectator – as in this case to this viewer – then it has become more than the sum of it’s parts. We’re all someone’s daughter, we’re all someone’s son.

So, to the work….

And to a man. Fred Hüning, and to death, perhaps the antithesis of the notion of motherhood. This work documents the cycle of events from a stillbirth to a new birth. The pain, the ecstacy, the love, the despair – and here the first, and probably most significant difference between the book of the show and the show itself. Hüning’s use of text (or maybe the curatorial use of Hüning’s text) is absent from the book. Prose is used to illustrate the images at the exhibition in a way which I found very inspiring (I am working on an illustrated poem now as a direct result). It is said that thirty per cent of all pregnancies result in natural termination, most of course don’t make it to through the first semester, but given those statistics it is perhaps surprising that it doesn’t get investigated more often, perhaps it does and I haven’t encountered it.

Ledare’s engagement with Freudian syntax positions itself at the fulcrum of revelation between mother and son, her vagina. It is from where they first meet, he wearing the vestige of his gestation as a patina of the memory of forty weeks; she with an everlasting, undeniable physical connection. But Ledare’s mother isn’t depicted as much of a mother, more as an individual who has allowed herself to detach from the single trope of motherhood, perhaps putting it aside in a deliberate attempt to free herself from those bonds born of childbirth. Ledare’s witnessing of his mother’s expression of individuality, perhaps a rejection of the constraints of motherhood, or the home truth of once a mother always and only a mother?

Elina Brotherus’ work struck home. We waited for eighteen months before we conceived our first son, not long by any standards, but all the questions were there. I remember having to supply a fresh sample of semen in a cubicle at the hospital, my wife having to endure examinations, checking temperatures, engaging at specific times. Checking the sample. Being deflated, then, thankfully, being inflated. Brotherus’ pain is clear, the sense of emptiness in her images as palpable as is her loss and depicted in a way that resonated. To be inspired by this exploration of loss is something that I’m struggling with, that I identify with it so much either speaks to the common ground between us or to the strength of her work, I have a certainty of the latter notion.

My initial thought about this work was that it was out of place – after all this about motherhood, and here was a work that was voided of the titular subject. But of course it was as much about motherhood as Ledare’s and Hüning’s was.

Motherhood and apple pie is as normal as daybreak; society depends on that currency and its absence, as described by Brotherus, is still marked as an abnormality, an ‘otherness’. And in considering this notion of ‘otherness’ I wonder about how ‘othering’ these artists become by considering them as individuals rather than as simply (not a simple task) mothers. Home truths determine unwelcome intruders of reality into our lives, they rent the obfuscation of denial wide open to reveal the verité of life usually covered in a warm swaddling blanket even for a moment. Broda’s depression, Murray’s mantling of her fight against the oft found oblivion of post natal feminine anonymity, Gearon’s loss of the mother daughter relationship when the individual starts to disintegrate due to mental health and reversing the mothering role responsibility. Fessler’s road trip to a home bereft of welcome and solace. These works that were sometimes moving, sometimes funny, always challenging and giving a lie to the ‘one size fits all’ notion of motherhood.

 

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The lonely image at the Taylor Wessing show in Bristol

I had seen all these photographs before and written about the experience here, very few of images have haunted my memory since that time. I remember wondering then whether the photographs were created in the hope of being selected for the show, or whether they had been selected from an artist’s archive in the hope of being selected. Of course all these on show had been selected, the selectors role had been accomplished, the sponsor’s needs had been met and the media bandwagon takes the work, or should it be the brand, to another place. Speaking a few days ago to one of the artists on show she wasn’t aware that her work was being exhibited in another city, or in fact being exhibited at all – such is the tenuous link the photographer has with their work once it has passed from creator to benefactor.

I went to see the work to see how time might have mediated my reaction to the work, how in a different environment the work might be received – interestingly there was a piece that described some of the curatorial options, but I found myself thinking about other things, and most notably about how I reacted to individual images, rather than a series of images. These images were all linked; they were all in a big room, on white walls and part of an exhibition described as a portrait show. However accurately that description pulled them together I found that the forces that pulled them apart were stronger, it took an effort of will to focus on individual image after individual image and several times I found myself developing narratives between adjoining photographs of up to four at a time; I wonder if that was a trick of the curators or a deficiency on my part? This confusion led me to consider why I wandered around an image, any image in sometimes desperate attempts to draw narrative, though I have to say that I walked past all the images of ‘celebrities’ – my cynicism of the cause of marketing served by controversy and notoriety leaving me little choice but to absent myself from their inspection. Of course I know that some of these works are from larger bodies of work, from artists who have practices which are as much about developing voices, whatever they may be, and being selected for a ‘prestigious’ show such as this would help them enormously, I have no doubt.

I have been exploring the single image narrative from a documentary perspective, about how the viewer considers an image from the few clues that are depicted and my conclusion – at this stage – is that the more one looks at images, the more one explores the art of photography, the more one reads and considers the vital texts the more I have come to realize that my reading of these narratives is governed and constructed by my own perspectives, my own (lack of) knowledge of the medium. Echoing in my mind, as I walked the prescribed route in the gallery hall, were some of the tropes explored in the Home Truths exhibition that I had seen two days earlier. These remembrances ensured that I linked those sub-conscious thoughts to those photographs in front of me, and the images that now haunt me from this visit are those that may have been amplified by the twin exhibitions.

Some controversy (there’s that word again) over one or two of the images, for example the young girl having had her hair cut – why was she naked? Why did she look so ill-tempered? A comment from the group who listened to one of the staff providing a talk about this and other selected photographs suggested that the photographer had been determined to capture her in a less than happy mood, had manipulated her and thus, for the commentator at any rate , had tainted the image. I wondered about that. I wondered about how constructed all of the images in the show were; it was after all a fiction – a story to be told and released to the viewing world – wasn’t it? And whether it mattered whether the photographer had upset the young girl in order to create the image that was on display. There wasn’t a question to the inquirer about how this information had come to them, whether this ‘knowledge’ about the photographer’s trangressive action toward the model had any authenticity, but it affected many who were in attendance and that is the point. My thoughts went to recent readings on female genital mutilation, the remnants of this young girl’s hair, scattered as it was on the floor, being a symbol of a lost innocence. But my reading of the image is of course another fiction, what I see in the image is a construct of my heritage, just as my seeking, probably sub-consciously, in all of the photographs, imagery associated with ‘Motherhood’.

All this leads me to develop another fiction for the image above, a fiction informed by a life that has generated a generation and that they have then done so themselves in turn. And from this a wisdom (not necessarily wise-ness) has been created in me which permeates into the means by which I can create some sense from an image, rather than a collection of disparate photographs underpinned by commercial interest without a hint of an artists intent. This fiction therefore becomes a sense of a truth, maybe a home truth, not mine, but another’s that I am witness to.

The edge of an emotion; this point of inflection is visiting the lips of this young boy. Should he smile at what is before him in the hope that what he sees is part of a new game, the rules of which are still alien to him? Or should he release the tumult of pain that is rising in him at what he still cannot fully comprehend? He senses something terrible has happened, he has never seen her like this before. Holding his left hand open he appears to skewer the thumb of his right hand into it as if in an attempt to make sure he isn’t in a nightmare, will he wake up and find her as she once was? Or is this real – this scene that he still stands slightly adrift from?

She sits up on the bed, her surgical gown is open to the waist, her left breast is exposed. Only one of her legs is on the bed; the other placed on the ground, maybe to steady herself, maybe to be ready to move toward her son who still regards her with that incomprehension.

She knows he is at a tipping point, but at the moment she has averted her eyes and looks out of the frame, away from the boy, away from the dressing on her breast that covers her nipple, away from the red marks around the dressing, away from the surgical stocking that keeps in place another dressing on the leg that rests on the bed. They are in a hospital ward, a non-too beautiful hospital, a blind is drawn on the window, there is an omnipresence of gloom and despair. The boy’s lips continue to twitch, his eyes never stray from his mother; she who has nurtured and protected him is now in need of his protection?

Original caption:

Leonora Gregorian was tortured and raped in front of her four-year-old son by Azerbaijani troops before Armenian soldiers rescued her, Nagorno-Karabakh, March 1992.

Post comments update:

Questions, but any answers?

Catherine and Keith have very generously offered some critique to some work that I’ve been engaged with recently, and so I am going to try and answer some of those questions both in an attempt to respond to their thoughts which they’ve kindly provided, but also to try and work out why I have taken the direction that I have – it isn’t very clear even to me as I start to write this, so there will be some extemporizing!

‘….. I think it needs a lot more discussion and exploration of what it is that you’re aiming to convey – your artistic statement.’

‘So my first question is what is the intention of appropriating an image.’

‘The second question is what is your intention when substituting text for an image.’

The start of this work is directly associated with what I plan to discuss in my critical essay which forms my next assignment in Documentary, and for which I have chosen the text from Susan Sontag’s On Photography:

“….Antonioni has already chosen what parts of the operation [of the film] I can watch; the camera looks for me – and obliges me to look, leaving as my only option not to look.”

How I see this is that Sontag is suggesting very clearly that either we look at a photograph or we don’t. We can either accept the two-dimensional single point perspective or we reject it out of hand.

Rejection is the easiest consideration to muse over. Deciding not to look may be down to many reasons; bias, abhorrence of the subject, rejection of the artist based on previous experience etc etc.

Engagement with the image though is a very different matter. If we accept, and I do, that all images – and in particular, and pertinent to this response, single image narratives – are a fiction, a contrivance designed to position the spectator to a specific point of view (remember I am discussing this in respect to the role of the War Documentary photographer, not to all photographers who have the need to document and tell stories, though I am beginning to consider this as an extension of where I think this may go. I do want to leave the traditional documentary photographer behind me, perhaps after this assignment…).

I suppose one of the key themes behind this short investigation is the notion that I consider the image to be a very unreliable witness, leaving aside issues of image editing. A lack of dimension, a perspective mediated by so many controlled and uncontrollable circumstances and just a moment in time, leaves the image adrift in a sea of possible misinterpretations.

So I thought about a couple of things regarding war photography, firstly as I say above, the reliability of the image isn’t built on any firm foundations – from Fenton through Capa to Hammond there have been abundant questions on veracity and this is not meant to challenge any of those photographers work from that perspective. I do wonder about their need to deliver more and more abhorrent images, but that I think is a commercial question that I’m not considering at the moment.

I wanted to investigate Sontag’s notion that we can either decide to look or look away, and if we do look then we only have the one perspective – that of the photographer’s. I’ve been considering a lot recently about the rhetorical strength of the single image; how firstly that the image is very mutable, mediated through cultural/sociological/gender/time (and other) related modifiers. And so if the image is a transient object, a fleetingly settled narrative, then how can society provide it with any currency that might be considered ‘true’? And by voiding the frame of an image I wanted to see if the transcription the spectators provide themselves with alters, whether the image, introduced by either my fiction, or the original caption, can be a more reliable witness to the contained image, or at least as reliable?

Sontag posits that our interpretative options of the image are fixed, the narrative is set by the image and directed by the caption; of course I can only agree. I decided then to look at some very strong (visually graphic) war photographs – deciding on war photography rather than on ‘victim photography’ from the Ukraine, or warring African countries, though I suspect there would be plenty amongst that genre to fulfill this exercise, to narrow the challenge. I looked at war photography from over a century and a half and took examples that spanned that era, almost the era of photography itself; photographs from Felice Beaton in May 1857, to Suzanne Opton in 2004. My image decisions were based on known (to me) images, and images that had very graphic content. Initially I set a frame – the same size for all of the images I mutated – and then regarded the image and composed a colour to reflect my reaction to the content of the image, no two images had the same colour. In some circumstance that process was easy, the orange colour of the soil in the Sudan, the colour of the mud in the soft brown monochrome image, for other images it wasn’t so easy and quite disturbing. I then set about writing about what I saw, knowing that I would have a very singular view of these images, but it meant that the single view was the only consistent structure in the series of images that I presented. From a hundred and fifty years of photography linked by theme and by my rhetorical comprehension of those images. The most recent work I decided to fill the frame with nothing, voided of all tone. To emphasize that, I contained the frame within a black (every tone) surround. This had an additional layer that I hadn’t thought of before, that of black and white, right or wrong – polar opposites of an argument, of a truth; another contextual layer that I hadn’t predicted – maybe it should be in tones of grey?

I’m not sure I appropriated these images, but I do consider them now my interpretations, perhaps they are now my images? And I also wonder that if I take this any further I shall create images that do not have the original photographer’s caption. I appreciate that all the above asks questions regarding authorship, but I slowly coming to the notion that these images will become original, that the authorship will rest – for whatever little time these things take – with myself. Appropriated perhaps?

To sum up. I would say that there is a validity in re-telling an image in textual form, Fiona Banner has done so with the nude (although her works are hers from the outset) and that re-authorship is as genuine as the original. That my interpretation of the image, mutated through my place in a history defined by class, gender and sociological construct and reconstructed in a different form, relies on the strength or not, of my ability to create a picture in the mind of the spectator. That that picture is inevitably a further original, another product of the mediation from the photographer’s perspective through my interpretation and to another temporal, and fleeting vision adds to the process I think?

Too difficult to look at? Why not look at this in another way?

I’ve been considering ways by which I might start a ‘critical essay’ for this course. It is a course I have enjoyed immensely and one which has provided challenges from many different perspectives, not least the challenge of how to begin the essay aforementioned.

The notion I want to discuss/investigate with the essay is based this assertion:

“Antonioni has already chosen what parts of the operation [of the film] I can watch; the camera looks for me – and obliges me to look, leaving as my only option not to look.”  pp 169 On Photography, Susan Sontag.

And so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that in order to research this proposition I have been looking at a lot of images and reading a lot of references from authors on the subject of the documentary photograph. Fred Ritchen, Susan Sontag, Susie Linfield, Martha Rosler and others. The list of photographers would be too long to be interesting.

Broadly it starts to appear that there are two camps, on the one side those that have decided, through the need to preserve dignity of some sorts, and also, because the continued presence of these types of images have removed their initial shock value, reducing their ability to surprise and therefore less likely to move the spectator to action and, therefore, an implicit acknowledgement that the photographer has to continue to ‘up the ante’ in respect of shock value, to keep the money coming in, that the spectator is becoming/ has become inured to their currency.

And on the other side of the coin there is an argument that the world needs to continue to document these atrocities, these offences against mankind; because if the world is made oblivious then the perpetrators may continue their inhumane treatment of people, that those who have suffered in unfathomably bad conditions – be they may man made or natural disasters – need their stories being told, to enlighten, to inform, to let the world know.

I am a novice in the world of documentary photography, photographic journalism; I have sought advice from practitioners and read their works and studied to some extent their output. However one thing did occur to me several months ago, whilst reading these accounts, especially Linfield’s Cruel Radiance, Photography and Political Violence – which doesn’t have that many photographs, and doesn’t talk about photographs a great deal – was, and this is perhaps due to the lack of imagery in the book, the strength of the written word. How the word starts to gain primacy, which was something that I wasn’t finding difficult to understand, it was that I hadn’t considered that (the word) as a means by which the spectator could come to the place that the photographer had intended to lead the viewer/reader.

I started to note in the pages, passages that provided the reader a ‘view’ of the event, but not especially, or expressly available, in the photograph. How the descriptive power of the word had superseded the image it was purporting to depict and perhaps had provided the reader more information regarding the scene unfolded(ing) in the view of the frame before the writer, How the writer presented more information than the image provided. How the photographer had perhaps managed to imbue the image with enough referencing material and that, coupled with the cultural, historical and anthropological awareness of the reader develops the image from what was once there.

I fully appreciate that the image is whatever the conversation between the spectator and the photograph becomes; but I am interested in whether when that conversation is limited by the image language skills of the viewer as opposed to the written narrative.

Linfield describes one image thus: “standing at the edge of an earthen pit in what appears to be a forest are two naked men. Each clasps his hands before him, probably to preserve some last semblance of privacy by covering his genitals. A bit behind them is an old man, also naked, whose legs are very thin and who stands slightly hunched over; he still wears a shoe or a sock. To the left of these three stand two others; a naked man and a naked young boy who wears a cap that is tilted slight sideways. Only the child holds his hands behind him.

Behind the five naked prisoners stand six men, some in uniform, some in neatly attired civilian clothes (coats, ties, fedora); alongside the victims, in profile, stands a uniformed soldier. Many of the clothed men – that is, the perpetrators – hold what looks like canes or sticks; the soldiers of course have guns. To the far right of the frame stands another uniformed soldier on a little mound of earth; he turns his head to look at the camera and points to the tableau below (though it is hard to miss)…. “Sniatyn – tormenting the Jews before execution.11.V.1943.””

To another of her descriptive passages I, rather arrogantly, rewrite her narrative and wrote this: He sits his barefoot almost naked body on the ground, wrapping an arm around his legs, his eyes fix on an indistinct shape in front of him. We are told that what attracts Nsala’s gaze is a solitary hand and a foot, the remains of his five year old daughter who has been mutilated, murdered and then eaten by representatives of the Anglo-Belgian Rubber Company after an attack on their village for failing to meet their rubber quota. No remains of his wife were left.

The image to which this relates is this:

Nsala_of_Wala_in_Congo_looks_at_the_severed_hand_and_foot_of_his_five-year_old_daughter,_1904c2

Returning to Sontag’s posit that the viewer has only two choices to look or not look I decided to explore the notion of to look but not see, reducing the options. Interposing a fictional narrative – my interpretation of the scene, fictional because I only have the image as a referent – between the image, as a block of colour suggested by the images actual narrative and the caption provide by the photographer. Each image is framed by a similar tone throughout the series within the canvass of the overall frame. All are taken from ‘War/Photography Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath’ Houston Museum of Modern Art Yale University Press.

Kenneth Jareckec2

RA3c2

Fingersc2

Felice Beatonc2

Ernest Brooks2c2 Greg Marinovich2c2 Howard Castleberry2c2 Life Magazine2c2 Nanking photo2c2 Suzanne Optonc2

Edward Tinkerc2

Patrick Chauval 3c2

A document thrice removed

Tsunami

Tsunami

Caption

Caption

Yesterday I went to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, it was where some work of mine will be incorporated into work that Artscape has done with the Echoes Group, the opening of which will be next week – something I’m looking forward to quite a lot. However I wanted to see a couple of small photographic exhibitions they have some resonance to the notion of Documentary. The first exhibition is about the work being done to restore thousands of photographs destroyed by the last Tsunami in Japan – I have cropped one of them above together with it’s caption. Clearly the curators saw the connection between the previous Tsunami and the most recent, how the record of one was nearly destroyed by the presence of another, and with the image still covered in the evidence of the disaster this, photograph (of a photograph, of a photograph) of a photograph connects the spectator with an event that most Japanese didn’t even witness, but witnessed vicariously through a media that documented on their behalf. And here is one of those documents being presented and viewed, half way across the world on an exhibition wall as a testament to the twin disasters.

The second are some very formal prints created in Bombay (now Mumbai)

IMG_0772c2

IMG_0772c2

My edit of the image taken above

Wordsc2

I was interested in these prints for a few reasons, firstly I suspected that I would be in the presence of beauty, platinum prints are usually very gorgeous to look at and these were no exception, low contrast, soft with a wonderful subtlety of tone. Secondly, these were formal portraits and I have seen a lot of formal portraits this year, in Arles with Lebanese and Egyptian. Malick Sidibe’s images are a constant reference, so I like to view these colonial and post colonial images as they generally project something that I feel is artificially aspirational, and these portraits of seemingly, a single extended family have that appearance. It seems also to bring to the fore what I can only suspect is some institutional racism on my part, giving them – the contract between sitter and image maker – little movement in my projection of their identity, as creations of, in this case the Raj.

Not especially significant in the general scope of the course but things to consider………

Memory, that most fallible and enabling of devices

by the riverMy earliest memory stems from when I was just a few years old, I would say three, maybe four, but probably three. The family was outside our next door neighbours house back-door (which of course was to the side of the house and not at the back; it was called the back-door to be the opposite of the front door). This back door was paved to the front gate, so-called because it was at the front of the garden, in front of the house, and so was appositely named. My father challenged me to a race home; I remember vividly he let me run-off first – I raced to the end of the path, opened the gate, two steps to our front gate and then I hurtled toward our back door. I knew I had won – he had let me win maybe – but I wasn’t thinking that of course, no-one had overtaken me, he hadn’t overtaken me. My head still in racing position and I never let up until I got to the end of the race, and when he stood there and stopped me, ahead of me, in front of me, and not lagging behind I couldn’t understand what could possibly have gone wrong. I left first, no-one, least of all him, had overtaken me. My mother was there shortly after, they both laughed. I looked back towards the gate, the gate that I had, as a two year old, fallen against and gashed my forehead requiring two stitches – I don’t remember that fall, though I still have the scar. The pavement that I had just ran down was where I had  tripped over sometime previously and knocked my two front teeth out; I don’t remember that either. But I do remember my parents laughing at my confusion and how it was that Mrs Young, our next door neighbour, had volunteered to show me what had happened, how it was that I had ran the race whilst he had simply strode across the boundary wall in what I suppose for an adult, would have been a three pace race.

I don’t remember the picture either; it was shown to me last week by my twin sister, that’s her seen in the picture slightly lagging behind me. I know where it is – by the White Bridge across the River Ouse, nearby what became Newnham swimming pool. I don’t recognise the joy in the face of that boy either. I was clearly some kind of celebration, a long way from home for a Christening, so not that I’m sure. This place was quite close to my father’s parental home, though I suspect they wouldn’t have been with us. So I’m all at sea, on what this the significance of the bow-tie, smart socks and my twin sister’s pretty dress. And she can’t remember either.

runningPhotographs do possess strength, not only the strength to invoke memories, but also to invoke responses:

All this is true, up to a point. Photographs are evidence, after all. Not that they are to be taken a face value, necessarily, nor that they mirror the real, nor even that a photograph offers any self-evident relationship between itself and what it shows. Simply that a photograph can be material for interpretation – evidence, in that sense: to be solved, like a riddle; read and decoded, like clues left behind at the scenes of a crime….. A photograph can certainly throw you off the scent. You will get nowhere, for instance, by taking a magnifying glass to it to get a closer look: you will only see patches of light and dark, an unreadable mesh of grains. The image yields nothing to that sort of scrutiny; it simply disappears.

            In order to show what it is evidence of, a photograph must always point you away from itself. Family photographs are supposed to show not so much that we were once there, as how we once were: to evoke memories which might have little or nothing to do with what is actually in the picture….” Annette Kuhn, Remembrance. The Child I Never Was. The photography reader ed’ Liz Wells pp 395

I was very pleased to have found this photograph, and to have had time to (re) live in it for a while. We don’t know who took the photograph, so to whom I am running isn’t known. I suspect it wasn’t my father.