I don’t photograph biscuits, that’s not what I do. Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl at the Benjamin Stone archive

 

I visited the current small exhibition of Sophy Rickett and Bettina von Zwehl at the City Library in Birmingham, which is their response to the Sir Benjamin Stone archive; and to view both the Daniel Meadows retrospective, which is quite impressive.

This is the third work I have seen that responds to that archive, Anna Fox’s ‘Back to the Village’ was inspired by it and I went to listen to a talk by Faye Claridge last year as she spoke about her residency working on the archive . Before attending the talk by these two collaborators I went to see the work (definitely a work in progress), which is on display very near the Daniel Meadow’s work.

But back to the collaboration. As the work is displayed/mounted I could sense the ‘openess’ of the work, how by the images are placed within the mount they provoke a response to the plate as a whole. These plates all have five images, even if an image is a text and even if the image is missing, because the mount has apertures for five images (the structure of the plates are similar – one central large aperture surrounded by four further apertures in the corners of the plates). This plate structure implies a determined placement of imagery, as if there was an association between those on a similar plane, connected by a purpose.

And text. Text which provided an anchor it seems, to the plates of images; seeding/suggesting/implying a narrative direction from which to drift from or to, even if that might be sub-conscious perambulation. I wondered about the presentation and soon after the talk at BIAD later in the early evening started I could see how that came about.

Sir Benjamin Stone’s collection appear in album’s: album 46 for example is titled “types of English, French and Russian women” – and page after page are photographs of women, interestingly there is no denotation of which women came from which country, just pages of female portraits looking out at the viewer, almost as catalogue entries, and perhaps they were.

Rickett and von Zwehl had landed upon Album 31 as their entry (not an easy task it appears) into the archive. Album 31 is entitled “miscellaneous” – though no explanation as to why these images became privileged to be entered in that album, but no matter – it is there they reside. The collaborators used the visual artifacts of album 31 to work out their response and thereby answering my earlier question.

The talk was interesting from a number of perspectives: it was clearly unrehearsed and founded on a PowerPoint presentation with all of it’s traducing potency fully realized. The initial thoughts that were expressed was about their collaborative methodology, and this talk was about how that approach was echoed by the ‘collaborativeness’ of the talk – each taking the lead or withdrawing easily as if the language they spoke was one, but without disguising the ‘seperatedness’ of their travels to the starting point of this work together. It was engaging, serious, often amusing and the talk was better for this unrehearsed, almost haptic, approach.

There were distances between the two artists, most notably when discussing their personal practices, and whilst not meaning to appear pejorative in that assessment because their delivery when talking about their own work was not about the two of them, but a reflection of themselves as a working artist– the collaboration though – which had its own, completely ‘other’ character.

The other significant thought that I took away with me was about the work itself, how these artists, with a common voice, had interpreted the archive and made another piece of work. Similar to the work of Fox and Claridge, whose personal perspectives delivered equally individually voiced reactions, the work presented here gave yet another. Making more work from a base settled in late nineteenth and early twentieth century imagery might enable a freer interpretation and departure from the original photographic presentations. However this work employs very personal work, work that was both discarded but revered enough to not be jettisoned; these artists took from their own archives images that were perhaps consigned to their own miscellaneous album. Images that still had some reason not to be shredded, but without the original target left in them; their resurfacing through the editing process provided the ability to recontextualize themselves. Rickett spoke purposefully about the shifting contestability of images – losing the ‘preciousness’ of the images, how once they meant or spoke about one thing but through the mediation of time and memory they are given permission to present another element in another narrative. Images of half eaten biscuits photographed on impulse for their beauty and resonance, as they lie discarded by a daughter on the wooden floor.

These two artists met every Thursday and went through the process of curating images (text as imagery as well) until coming collaboratively to an agreement. They spoke about how that process would reveal information about themselves to themselves, how sometimes there were disagreements, sometimes evident in the work itself, how it wasn’t all sweetness and light.

I am interested in ‘Open’ works, about the free interpretation of artworks and this collaborative venture by Rickett and von Zwehl presents this viewer with a set of short episodes in a narrative of my own making, their presentation of such a scale that it needed close examination, a strategy that drew me closer to the work and helping to exclude extraneous confusions.

A quite inspiring evening.

 

More War Photography

Wanted to add this video to the blog; How photographs told the story of the Vietnam War

“In a new 50th anniversary book – Vietnam, The Real War – the US news agency Associated Press has chosen some of its most powerful images, taken by photographers embedded with US troops fighting the Communist Viet-Cong.”

I’m having a bit of difficulty with the term ’embedded’ as this term was first used long after the Vietnam war was concluded – or lost as the Vietnamese might say – and denotes the way in which photographers were allowed ‘back into the fray’ post their exclusion after the Vietnam War. As the video says, photographers were unedited, this was being the last time in a major conflict they were unedited, maybe the only time they were unedited – assuming the process of editing can be an non-activity, which I doubt. Nick Ut’s photograph here is an edited version of the image he made whilst running backwards to fame. The self immolating monk, which as the narration reminds us, turned the coverage of the war from the back pages to the front page and kept it there for a decade more with more and more graphic images in a version of the truth that became a touchstone for censorship and political action that reverberates today.

My excursion into the graphic imagery of war and victim photo journalism will shortly come to an end, there maybe one or two more posts, including the edit of a critical essay on the subject and I hope to leave it alone for the rest of the course.

Armenian archive – 9

1904, Hypnotist Mr. Sekerjian

1904, Hypnotist Mr. Sekerjian

This week’s exchange brought some resolution, there were some index cards with their associated photographs; here’s one.

306

306

I’m not sure there’s a great deal to be gained from this coupling. The close-up of the piercing can be seen here:

Face

Face

Hand

Hand

But the next image brought back a flood of remembrance:

 

Khan again

Khan again

 

And the card that accompanied it:

 

313

313

This had me looking in my files and I found this:

Rahim Khan

Rahim Khan

To which this card refers:

311

311

A quick look on the internet provide this:

“Zargham Nizam (son of the notorious Rahim Khan), and the desperate straits to which the Nationalists were reduced in the Amir-Khiz quarter. Towards the end of May, 1907, a fresh quarrel arose between the Shah and his people. It was reported to be the Shah’s intention to send Rahim Khan at the head of 10,000 of his tribal horsemen to Tabriz to suppress the Constitution in that liberty-loving city, and his son was already advancing from Qaraja-Ddgh, looting and killing as he came. The number of persons whom he killed did not exceed 50, but the indignation aroused at Tihran was very great, and the National Assembly urgently demanded from the Shah the arrest and trial of Rahlm Khan. The Shah at first resisted, but finally had to give way and surrender him to the ‘Adliyya, or High Court of Justice, which, after due trial, imprisoned him for some seven or eight months, while his son was also captured and brought as a prisoner to Tabriz.

 In June, 1907, fresh disturbances occurred at Kirmanshdh, Tabriz, Makii and Khiiy, while the disorders in Fars still continued. More important than these was the rebellion of the Shah’s younger brother, the Saldru’d-Dawla, in the West. He was, however, defeated in battle at Nihawand (Nehavend), on that classic field where the power of the S^sanian Empire was finally broken by the Arabs, and the religion of Zoroaster overthrown by that of Muhammad, nearly 1300 years ago, and surrendered to the Zahiru’d-Dawla on June 22. He was conveyed to Tihran and then kept under surveillance, but not otherwise punished.”

Just interesting

 

 

 

 

 

 

Armenian archive – 8

Met with Richard again this week and we had a swap of images and cards. This week, apart from the switch, we had a short meeting after Echoes to discuss the archive and I now have some more background information on the archive; how, for example, several boxes of prints were taken – though the negatives still exist. How Richard was in the department of Oriental Studies at Durham until his retirement, and that I feel he has a lot more information that he might feel relevant to me and the archive, but has not thought to impart it as yet. I am intrigued about the missing images and some of the images that seen to have provided the photographer a privileged position.

Anyway this week’s selection has some echoes within some of the discussions within the college campus (if such a term is appropriate).

presented as they appeared to me from this week’s batch:

Something Khan. Two things to remark on here: Firstly the very obvious military pose, shoulder harnesses of ammunition, the rifle held by a man who looks as if it isn’t exactly the first time he has held a rifle. And very smart shoes. Smart shoes in the Middle East suggest a position in life’s hierarchy.

Two with rifles, in the same place and I would venture to suggest, the same time – give or take a 1/125th second. Now I think perhaps a hunting party – though hunting for game, not hunting as a game as in war.

And then this, stripped or their paraphernalia, sitting and regarding some documents. And nothing to suggest either hunters or militia.

Then this venerable old lady, I wondered about the affectation on the framing?

Surely a Grandmother shot, stiff and upright as per the previous hot, and not really any sense of softness with the child in her arms?

Am mother – with that expression , no doubt.

And then these two child shots. I thought about the recent discussion in the WeAreOCA blog about pain, these shots seem to have an essence of Arbus about them; slightly awkward

Armenian archive 7 – an answer

I received a new batch of photographs and cards today. Initially I thought they were all going to be mundane. I don’t mind mundane – mundane is how things normally are, we can have too much excitement – until I saw this card which of course provides an answer to a picture I viewed a few weeks ago and which I wrote about here. Richard and I do not discuss the pictures or the index cards, he knows I will bring back what I have each week and will exchange them for new boxes or bundles. So I had no idea what he would bring, nor he, I think, what I had viewed from the selection box he chose.

3366 "The Head Butcher"

3366
“The Head Butcher”

Now the card generates more questions, some perhaps posed when viewing the photograph; who are the veiled women? Was he called the “Head butcher” for a reason? The 80-90 years ago is now 100-110 tears ago.

It is what I had thought.

So who then was this photographer that enabled him to position himself where the ‘head butcher’ would look to, as maybe a Roman gladiator might do to the sitting dignitary in an arena in the Roman times, to receive notice that he had performed and performed well. What have we, as viewers to this scene, witnessed – as Catherine might suggest.

I have agreed with Richard that we will sit down and discuss this archive. I need to know about how he came upon it, what his connection to it is and what, if any, his expectations are.

Armenian archive 6. The spectacle

Original image

Original image

I had flipped through the recent couple of boxes from the Armenian archive a few times, almost in an attempt to ‘find’ something. I was probably alert to the scenes that promoted the spectacle from the public executions images in the previous selection from the archive I was provided with. I returned to the photograph above after remembering it.

Click for larger version

Click for larger version

In Barthesian terms it was the size and ‘publicness’ of this that caught my eye and suggested that I look further. The space in the centre ground is a stage, for those masses who have gathered to witness. The military presence, those in white tunics and rifles who seem to be holding back the hoards on on-lookers to this public enactment, which isn’t easy to decipher, and in order to better investigate I transformed the image to a uniform greyscale after scanning the image at a high resolution in order to investigate the image in greater detail.

That it is a public spectacle is, in my mind, without question. There are many people striving to get a view of the proceedings of the central area in front of the viewer.

Detail

Detail

As if it were a sports match, the crowds seek a place with the best view, climbing trees or any elevated platform to witness the enactment that had either happened, was happening or was about to happen.

The gender of the spectators is an interesting point to consider. There are a few women in the central arena:

Detail

Detail

But they are alone amongst men. The only other women I can see are at a very respectful distance, behind the walls of the buildings in the rear of the image:

Detail

Detail

Within the central area, and seemingly holding a privileged position is this man, and he looks directly at the camera – towards the viewer:

Detail

Detail

Another man looks on from the right of the image:

Detail

Detail

Though neither of them are looking at the floor. The man on the right of the picture looks to the horizon, whilst the man on the left looks directly into the camera, to the viewer, as if the photograph – this record of a spectacle was a record of this man’s endeavour – whatever that may be, was to be used as witness to the scene around them, as testimony.

And what is it he is holding away from his side, this man on the left? Looking at the viewer, and holding whatever it is away from himself as if he doesn’t want it contaminating his clothing:

Detail

Detail

Two knives or a pair of shears? It is difficult to discern, even at this magnification.

And what of those other people, those men near the women, what can we make of them?

Detail

Detail

It appears to me to be about the man in the middle. Is he being held back or controlled in any way by the men on each side of him? If so, why? Or is he being consoled?

And what is this? this collection of objects that are strewn(?) displayed(?) scattered(?) around the central characters in this diorama:

Detail

Detail

Does that look like a hand and forearm – lower right? Or does it just look like one because I have seen other atrocious images from this archive before and now expect, maybe want, to see others? There is a spectacle in this image. The image is one of spectacle, we are invited, from a privileged position to view the very public event. What though are we witnessing? Entertainment or something else?

This photographic image has been living inside me now for a few days, when I first saw it I moved quickly past it and returned to it late when I wanted to see what I could ‘find’. And whilst I don’t want to over intellectualise my reading of the image, I am re-reading Camera Lucida again and the notion of Punctum and Studium are within me also.

Barthes talks a lot towards the end of part one of his book about these twin aspects, and of how we are drawn to certain images. About how images can work on the mind of the viewer after it has been looked at. I suppose when the sub-conscious works to uncover some connection to the image. “Ultimately – or at the limit – in order to see a photograph well, it is best to look away or close your eyes” p53. Is that then what happened when I looked away? That this image ‘worked on me’? Initially I wondered about the unnamable object(s) in the centre of the image carelessly/or carefully lain on the dirt floor as the ‘Punctum’, but that was after I had studied the image and I started to study the image after my curiosity had been roused from, well, I’m not sure where. So, now I think it was the crowd; that swell of male spectators to witness whatever it was they witnessed.

The trio of masked women, the man being held back, the man standing with some kind of instrument in his hand are all evidences of ‘Studium’ therefore? No matter really, as it surely isn’t the point to wonder why we are drawn to an image, but maybe the point is what the image reveals about ourselves that is more interesting. That these punctures and studied readings will paint a picture of ourselves/ the reader. I then found Barthes’ comprehension of Mapplethorpe’s self portrait, as an ‘erotic’ photograph quite interesting, and this was after he had ‘read’ the image by G. W. Wilson: Queen Victoria 1863 p56/7, where he remarked that the ‘Punctum’ wasn’t anything to do with the mounted “majesty” but rather the “kilted groom”, which he saw as ” I can see his function clearly: to supervise the horse’s behaviour:..”. Well, as an ‘other’ to this Victorian mis en scene, both in terms of a Frenchman and the discovery of the notion of Mr Brown’s ‘other’ duties, why would Barthes think otherwise? The, and particularly Barthes’ French ‘egalitarian’, view of Royalty will not have been fed with an overreaching benevolence. A servant serves, what other point can there be? Barthes is informed by this ‘knowledge’; he ‘knows’ certain things and those things he knows have placed the servant mistress relationship firmly in it’s place. She above, he below,

young man

This image by Mapplethorpe is defined by Barthes as an ‘erotic’ image. Barthes writes: “The photographer has caught the boy’s hand .. at just the right degree of openness, the right density of abandonment: a few millimeters (sic) more or less and the divined body would no longer have been offered with benevolence …. the photographer has found the right moment, the kairos of desire.” p59. The “photographer” is Mapplethorpe – so an image of narcissism? Well it wouldn’t be the first time Mapplethorpe has been accused of that, but somehow I don’t think this is what Barthes is meaning here.

What this blog is about isn’t a discourse of the atrocities found in old archives, or one on the differences of ‘erotic’ to ‘pornographic’ imagery, rather it is about how I understand how we(I) come to read/comprehend images. If Barthes finds the Ghillie in attendance to one of our royal forebears a singular visual metaphor for the subservient relationships within the classes in British life, he is not wrong; if others find another narrative underpinning the image, they are equally right. The same can also be said about the Mapplethorpe image, that Barthes finds it distinctly erotic, but not pornographic, is for him a learned response.

My studied response of the scene from the archive is one of horror. I am he who has written here, I am that man who wonders and wanders, who knows that what I know, as a truth, is still only a temporary grasp on reality that will surely change with new information as it drifts my way. If others see that image without taint from this viewer they will perhaps see some other entertainment, perhaps a sporting show, a boxing or wrestling match? However I can’t rid myself of what I see.

I look forward to seeing the next batch of images on this macabre journey through an Iranian/Armenian photo history.

Armenian archive – 5

I met with Richard again yesterday and I received the next instalment of two boxes of photographs – about two hundred more photographs – I suppose I have now seen about 600 of them, which would mean about 3400 more to view. I was a trifle wary after seeing the images from previous batch; however there were no similar images that made me start as last time.

I knew that an attempt to catalogue the archive had been started, the project had begun with re-photographing the archive – all the images I have seen are those re-photographs – and an interview with the owner of the photographs had created about 300 annotated cards before, sadly, the owner became very ill and passed away. This time, along with the two boxes of prints, came a number of those annotated cards, and interestingly, the cards were not connected to any of the photographs in either of the two boxes.

I want to concentrate with this post on those cards. I was, I suppose, disappointed that the cards were disassociated from the photographs and I quickly looked at them and put them aside. The photographs had held a particular fascination since the previous batch because of the nature of some of those images – see here . However, something had been playing on my mind in respect of those cards and when I ‘re-looked’ at them I started to ‘see’ something in them. I started to build a personal picture with just the text to conjure the narrative forming in my imagination. I suspect that having viewed over 600 images from the archive has informed my subconscious, but I think that anyone who would read these cards would infer something from them.

633

633

634

634

634a

634a

634b

634b

635

635

These five cards appears to me an innocuous series, connected only by the index reference numbers 5 cards perhaps equates to five photographs all around 1912? A dancing bear/performer, a Turkish song or poem, something about an Ark and the damage done to it by the Russians. Nothing to be really concerned about, but equally there is a visualness that seems to seep into my mind.

Then comes this:

660

660

660b

660b

Now this absence of a comment disturbs me. That there is an index entry for the image 660b, what was it that prevented the interviewee from providing a caption and what happened to 660a? That a set of (at least two) sub references to image 660 have been (possibly) created and one with a card, suggest something, though I only have my inquisitiveness to inform me. I have included the prior image reference, but there is no reason why they should be connected, after all this is a an album, mainly a family album – despite the images in the previous post (which starts to disturb me more and more, why would they be there in a photograph album……? I know this is informing my thoughts as I look at the photographs and these cards). The image 660b could be a standalone image. I am sure Richard picked a random set of cards, so I don’t think he was trying to lead me somewhere with an “edit’ other than he has clearly ‘edited’ the set by choosing the ones he randomly picked up!

Then this short series, which I imagine are connected:

667

667

668

668

669

669

670

670

671

671

672

672

673

673

674

And finally a short story:

686

686

There is a card for 687, but it has no text. An absence which provides an echo perhaps for 686?

687

687

I am now fascinated by the prospect of what narratives these cards hold. I have imbued them with content as much as the archivist has done by their very creation, even when there is no content just an index number. I have enabled them to become objects by photographing them and placing them in a sequence. I have enabled them to communicate by editing them in sequences – not in a sequence that would destroy the previous archival process of index, but given that I have no idea what, if any, narrative editing had been done to the original photo album, nor, in subsequence, what the archivist had done. I have developed these objects into a new piece; whether it might be called art is for another discussion. I am though, very excited about the potential of this as a way of presenting documents in ways that could present a narrative in a contextually challenging way.