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?

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15 thoughts on “The lonely image at the Taylor Wessing show in Bristol

  1. Your reference to individual images links to my own recent thinking around this topic in relation to Exhibitions. I’ve been realising more and more that I prefer to look at series, and preferably of the same artist, so that I can gain a deeper sense of their intentions and creativity.
    Your narrative paints such pictures that no images are needed.

  2. Thanks Catherine. I wondered about having the caption there, what do you think? I’m still not sure about how to present the work if I took it any further. Sharon suggested that by looking at the original work it spoilt the effect – what do you think?

  3. My immediate answer is that I really don’t know what I think. My second is that I think it needs a lot more discussion and exploration of what it is that you’re aiming to convey – your artistic statement.
    I’m not as well-read as you on this aspect so I’m looking at it in terms of denotation and connotation and the importance of including one’s own responses to an image – the feminist, post-modern view (?). I’ve looked up the image and the brief caption appears matter of fact yet suggests so much. If you’re intending to encourage the readers imagination, without them seeing the original work or caption, then your narrative can be read in many different ways. Having written that then maybe I’m coming towards Sharon’s view. Given that this is about photography so some type of image might need to be present is there another way apart from blocking out the picture completely? This is me, because a suggestion of something can often work better for me.

  4. I too have a strong preference for looking at a series rather than individual images. My comments on my visit to the Taylor Wessing echo these sentiments.

    I think it is universally accepted that photographic meaning is context driven. Context refers to many things – under what circumstances the work was produced; the environment within which it is viewed; the background and cultural conditioning of the viewer and so on. Clearly text presented along with images is part of the contextual framework.

    Your work seems to me to be doing two things. First you are appropriating an image, albeit you are not showing the image explicitly but it is an implicit part of your work. Second you are substituting text for the image.

    So my first question is what is the intention of appropriating an image. Strategies of appropriation are frequently associated with challenging the notions of authorship and the unique photographic art object. Also such a strategy could be used to draw attention to the overload of images or specifically in your case the overload of ‘conflict’ images. The artist decides to use a preexisting image rather than add to the deluge.

    The second question is what is your intention when substituting text for an image. Interestingly I have read a lot of critical texts recently which refute the idea of a photography as a universal language. Arguments about context, cultural codes and so on abound. The point is also made that the description of visual imagery depends on language for its articulation. So by substituting text for the image itself you are drawing attention to the need for photographic meaning to be expressed in terms of language. By creating your own fiction you are showing how imagination can take a story in one particular direction, but what this does not do explicitly is illustrate that multiple meanings/fictions are possible.

    This is a brief attempt at deconstructing your work. I hope it makes some kind of sense. At least it offers some cannon fodder for debate…

  5. Catherine/Keith, I have thought about your questions and comments and have updated the original post. Thanks for your interest and comments. Much appreciated.

    • John there is a lot going on here and it’s very difficult to debate your ideas through comments on a blog. I would like to discuss it in more depth face to face when we meet on the 13th. To be honest I am finding your lengthy posts a bit hard to penetrate…there are a lot of questions/issues in play. Would it be possible for you to summarise your intent in a single or perhaps two sentences….it is always much more difficult to say less rather than more.

      • Of course I would welcome the opportunity to discuss and look forward to it. Between times I will TRY and capture what it is I am attempting with this work, but to be truthful I don’t know precisely what it is! I have this notion about how all photographs are fictions; about how the viewers are directed by a purpose they can’t engage with, because they don’t know who or what it is AND about the effectiveness of war photography – it’s inability to tell a whole truth and to engender a sense of fatigue in the viewer. Yes I know it’s too many subjects, but I’m hoping that soon I will whittle it down for the essay……..

  6. Definitely best for face to face discussion. Would it be simpler if you separate the critical essay from the photography work you’re engaging with? Another aspect is my question, “What is it that you want the viewer to feel, see, think” when they look at your work?

    • That’s a good question Catherine, I feel they are inextricably linked, though I wish I could let go of them! I wonder what Fiona might add to this with the work she has done in Palestine/Israel?

      • I know they’re linked but it might become clearer if you separate them out for a while as the one led to the other. Reading your response to Keith above I looked at that video again. Yes, I do think t hat’s what you;re talking about. It led me on to look at this http://www.broombergchanarin.com/afterlife/ . We’re going to have lots to talk about on the 13th.

      • Interesting video. I had forgotten about Broomberg and Chanarin’s The Day Nobody Died….. it has some resonance with your work, although in their case the refusal was not to take the image rather than not to show the image….

  7. Pingback: Assignment four – critical essay, reflections on tutor response and moving on | John Umney - Documentary

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