A Narrative – looking back

Pulling some images together for the assignment. These are taken to develop a set of images that create a reflective narrative:

40 Hindburn

40 Hindburn

Midland Road Station

Midland Road Station

72 Kimbolton Road

72 Kimbolton Road

Site of Bedford North Wing Hospital

Site of Bedford North Wing Maternity Hospital

36 Bamford Road

36 Bamford Road

36 Bamford Road

36 Bamford Road

20 Duchess Road

20 Duchess Road

The notion of this narrative is one of reflection, looking back and assessing. The two main portraits are deliberately posed behind glass, the reflection in the glass was designed to add a layer to the image, a patina of thought, impossible to denote for the viewer, but adding a thin veil. I was lucky to have a kind of chiaroscuro light to help frame the subject in the image, my mother.

I wanted the opening image of my mother to be frontal, open to the viewer, but not connecting, looking away in a reflective pose; initially I wanted the window open to remove any distance between the viewer and the subject. However I feel that the additional interference of the reflection brings a tension that adds to the narrative. My concept then was to take my mother to all of the significant places in her home town. Arriving at Bedford train station after her wedding, she lived for a very short time at 72 Kimbolton Road, a bed-sit on the first floor until her twins were born. Bedford North Wing was the maternity hospital, where I was born, and where two of my sisters were born – and incidentally where my two sons were born. After a short while my parents moved to a brand new council house in Bamford Road. Five years later, and two more children later a move to a slightly larger three bedroom house at 20 Duchess Road. Mother now lives at 40 Hindburn.

The process was quite simple I asked her to stand in front of the house and I photographed her regarding the former home. For both of us I suspect there were a lot of memories, we spoke a lot about my father of course but also of my sisters and my brother – their partners, their children. Where they are, what they are doing. The reason to have my mother looking away from the lens was to bring the notion of looking back directly to the frame, though I do have one image at the cemetery with her face on, though not to the camera; this pose serves another purpose. I’m not sure about how the narrative should start, at the moment I like the notion of bookending with the two portraits, each facing into the narrative, containing the story held between them.

I think both of the portraits work well for the purpose I intended, the first image is reflective/pensive, looking out. The last one has more content, with the reflections, seemingly, for me at any rate, to suggest what might be going on between the first image and the last, private thoughts maybe….

I’ll think about it some more. The session went quite well I think.

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Catherine’s Chairs

Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Photography is a tool for dealing with things everybody knows about but isn’t attending to. My photographs are intended to represent something you don’t see.” Emmet Gowin cited in ‘On Photography’ by Sontag p 200

The chairs aren’t Catherine’s, they belong to a chap in his eighties that Catherine knows; he was widowed four or five years ago and other than the couple were childless, I have no other information of this chap. Yet the image, even with this scant knowledge to situate him, or the room, this home depicted – for which I have only ever seen this image – starts to build an image which is more than the two dimensional four sided photograph that I saw recently, is something I find interesting.

I haven’t experienced a loss of a loved one, in that all the people I have loved are still with me. My father died a decade or so ago, but I never felt loss there, maybe a sense of relief, but no loss of sleep. So how the image that Catherine presented spoke so lucidly of loss to me with those few anchoring words is something I find intriguing.

Twin book piles. Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Twin book piles. Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Two chairs, co-joined by an occasional table which is itself weighted down by two piles of books and a ‘silver lady’ statuette. The image is split in half offering a place for two people, a chair, a set of reading each and a wing each from the angel.

Behind one chair is the window to a tended and nurtured garden, net curtaining providing a screen but also a connection to an other world beyond. Behind the other chair is the hallway, a door to the exterior world and four coat pegs; three pegs having men’s hats, the fourth, nearest to the sitting room, has a scarlet scarf and a jacket.

Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

The chairs have been well used, relics perhaps from when the house was first occupied, these comfortable armchairs have had replacement covers that now have their own signs of wear and evidence of use, with stains at the end of the arms where people grasp to get up and down from them. These coverings are now starting to rumple but they both have hearty cushions, though not in the same colour; the one, a healthy pink/cerise and the other a pale/ghostly white.

The television is turned off, but on the screen we see a reflection of a staircase that provides access to another space upstairs, when the time is right.

Reflection. Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

Reflection. Image courtesy of Catherine Banks

A rug lies on the floor in front of the chair with the cerise coloured cushion; it avoids the other armchair as if in a gesture of politeness the chair with white cushion has offered it to the other. One chair seems still to be sat upon, the other looks as though it has been vacant for some time.

It is a quiet image, a reflective device that is depicted in soft warm melancholic tones.

Nowadays he doesn’t think of his wife, though he knows he can turn around and evoke every move of her, describe any aspect of her, the weigh of her wrist on his heart during the night” Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

It is in the image that I detect that sense of loss, a powerful narrative sense that emanates from this single image. That Catherine had other images that she was working to form into a cohesive set for an assignment was something that I was aware of; but I found that this image drove a narrative that chimed with that sense that I had detected – probably from how Catherine had spoken about this chap who had been widowed. A sense of loss of a loved one, irreplaceable, gone but still with a sense of presence, holding on.

Looking at this image, from a set I created for assignment three – a narrative – I felt a similar sense of loss when I first worked the image, being projected from the absence of a person – a physical absence, rather than a metaphorical one – rather than loss as in an emotional ‘presence’ described beautifully in “Catherine’s Chairs”. These three people, collected in a row with a space between them, as if there was once a fourth but now no longer – seems now a much more prosaic image. Too deliberate. Too elemental.

Documentary, identity and place

Some of the most unexpected outcomes of taking this course are the discoveries that crop up along the way. The course notes require, or at least strongly suggest, various texts and artists to consider and reflect upon. Of course it wouldn’t be much of a course if there weren’t new things that find themselves on the horizon, some of which will surely disappear from view as quickly as they arrive and others will become larger, perhaps more significant in the landscape.

The section marked “Project Documentary, identity and place” suggests, under a sub heading of “Reflexivity and authorship” the work of Alex Webb and in particular his piece on Istanbul. Turkey is another country I have spent a lot of time in, though in the capital Ankarra, rather than it’s most populist city. The first image of the set is “TURKEY. Istanbul. 2001. Ferry crossing the Bosporus.” It is an image of a journey.

On the Mumbai to Elephanta island ferry

On the Mumbai to Elephanta island ferry

Of course all courses are journeys, one starts at a place and sometime later one finds oneself in another place. In Webb’s “Ferry” image we note the vessel is travelling across the Bosphorus, and whilst I remember the many many times I have flown into Istanbul, over this water in order to transit to the capital, I am also reminded of the significance of the water, something I wrote about here, though with Webb’s image there is a less of a tangential connection to the sense of place. The man on the ferry seems to be in a reflective mood, we might think he is reflecting on his journey to work – these ferries in Istanbul are in heavy use for commuter traffic – or it could be that we see him as a Turk on a metaphorical journey from one place to another. From the post Attaturk revolution to a ‘new’ future as a world player. Or we might connote that, as the direction of travel is set right to left, that he represents a gesture of friendship and conciliation to the neighbouring country of Greece. There maybe many reflections that could be read into this image. And so I wonder about whether it is because it is a ‘good’ image that I can do this, or perhaps it is because the reference is from a set of course notes and therefore, like an image on an exhibition wall, it has a higher place because of it.

On viewing all the images a week or so ago, my first reaction was that Webb’s use of titles were both an annoyance and, perhaps eventually revelatory. There are very few images that denote Turkey, let alone the specificity of the ancient city that has now become Istanbul. There aren’t that many that tell the viewer that we are viewing a land whose dominant religion is that of Islam, moreover I first connected these images with the work of Winogrand, of Ewing and that of Leiter.

The notes in the course suggest that “Webb has not simply taken photographs of Istanbul; he has recorded his impressions of a place called Istanbul….”

I can see how Webb has constructed his image set and acknowledge that many of these images might be read in many ways, this is a subject I will return to in another post, but it is my interpretation of the work, how I view these images that is the topic of this reflection.

The sub-heading for this section purposefully uses the word, or perhaps better defined as a term, reflexivity; it foregrounds it, and it is this that I want to consider, as it is something that has provided me with a significant backdrop to a lot of what I have been thinking about, in terms of what I determine art to be for me.

I can understand how Webb might have been feeling as he created his portrait of Istanbul, his reflections determined by his knowledge, or lack of one, of the history of the place. Like Willsdon’s essay on Sugimoto’s image of the Aegean, mentioned earlier; Webb’s comprehension would have been driven by his knowledge and appreciation of this seat of European history, or as Willsdon has it “This is the dead centre of the Aegean Sea. From a European perspective, or at least from any perspective oriented, critically or otherwise, to what used to be called the ‘European mind’, no body of water in the world is as heavy with history and mythology.” Singular Images ed’ Howarth pp 100.

The series of 75 images are precisely editied. The first image has the man crossing the Bosphorus from right to left, the last one has (another) man travelling left to right. The second and penultimate images have images of Taksim square, which of course is now being synonymized with contemporary popular unrest in a city that has seen more unrest over a longer period than perhaps any other city on the planet. And whilst these images of Webb’s take hold of my imagination, this article by Roger Scruton comes to compound the eddying of my memory, news items, comprehensions and other encumbrances.

Scruton’s article attempts, quite well I think, to situate the current issues in Turkey and elsewhere in the Islamic cauldron that is called the Middle East, as a consequence of a history that isn’t a decade or less in length. That the issues that Turkey and it’s neighbours face are as much to do with how the West, and maybe the UK in particular, have placed them in over centuries. Whether I agree with that Scruton says, after he hasn’t finished the series yet, is largely immaterial, what he has done is to remind me, just as Willsdon did, that there is more to the eye, than what is held by it.

Russian and Nationalists execute opponents to their view of how the land should be governed in North Western Persia, bordering what is now Turkey and what was once all part of the Ottoman Empire.

The course suggests in the following text attributed to Sekula “Documentary is thought to be art when it transcends its reference to the world, when the work can be regarded, first and foremost, as an act of self-expression on the part of the artist.” Alan Sekula, in Liebling, 1978, p.236) And what I understand that to mean is, that if Webb decides that his work on Istanbul is a work of self expression, or as the course notes denote” “..he has recorded his impression of a place called Instanbul.” then who am I to disagree.

My thoughts though suggest that the notion of reflexivity that stem from the titular instruction could also intimate that the viewer to this work would take it on another journey. That as Webb, in the Magnum catalogue has defined, through titles, the place and therefore the cultural connotations of that place, then dependent on the cultural background of the viewer it re-presents the narrative dependent on the viewers contextual perspective. I now see Webb’s work more as a documentary and less as an impressionistic vision of a city at a place and time. I see the conflict between old and new, I see that in terms of where it was and how it has now become, How Attaturk’s visions have been appropriated by different and conflicting purposes.

Widening the view of Webb’s work and looking at his personal site, which may or may not have an alternate perspective as the Magnum site where the Istanbul series is situated, I am intrigued by his series on the Southern Caucasus. I have never been to this area, though my impression is that these could be re-titled Anatolia, or even Istanbul without too many visual conundrums to demystify. However as soon as I connect the Caucasus with photography I connote to Vanessa Winship whose work I first saw in Hereford a couple of years ago and which I wrote about here, and then to the recently published work “she dances on Jackson‘ which, whilst a long way from Istanbul, provides me with a greater sense of the document as a work of art than Webb’s initial entry to these thoughts on the choppy waters of the Bosphorus. And whether that water is entitled Bosporus or Bosphorus matters not, but it was the start, the embarkation that took this reader, as it did Webbs’ traveller, to consider the journey where the guidebook is as much to do with the cultural baggage as the ticket’s destination.

Thames Valley meeting August 18th 2013.

Thinking now about the day yesterday I have some mixed feelings. I think that the level of commitment shown by all was exemplary, the quality of the work, from an intellectual perspective gets stronger, the respect shown to all by everyone is extremely conducive and encourages the participants to be open about their feelings and responses to the work. It is an entirely positive environment.

My own work regarding the development of a narrative – here and here – was discussed during the time allotted and I think that I need to consider a number of possibilities before submitting for assignment three.

I had coupled the image of the butterflies with the wishes clearly defined above an image that had been taken within a short time of seeing the ‘wish’ and therefore informed by that image. Discussions took place about how the presentation affected how they were ‘read’, about how the butterfly image subordinated the other image by the placement within the frame of the paper with the two images on. That I printed the two images of equal size maybe also helped to reinforce that subordination. Questions were raised about how important the text image was to the narrative – I am concerned at this point that any narrative would be ‘too enigmatic’ without the text. This ambiguity question is a difficult one for me to cross, to allow the free association of the image to be the only transport medium of idea to the spectator. I will need to gather nerve to do this.

I think I will need to perhaps re-shoot the responses – this might be interesting, as time will have coloured my responses to the texts – or re-edit them, both in how they appear in the narrative sequence and/or how they occupy the frame.

A note I made on the day ‘Need to foreground the emotional response over the text. But how to do that and provide an entry into the work?” Would/could that be done with a statement? I am loathed to provide titles, so maybe captions, where the caption contained an image of the butterfly?

I can’t see how I would have moved forward without this session.

Working on narrative

In Dominic Willsdon’s essay “Hiroshi Sugimoto Aegean Sea, Pilíon 1990” published in ‘Singular Images’ ed’ by Sophie Howarth we take at face value the title of the print; it defines so much for us, the viewer/reader. The Aegean Sea at Pilíon looks across the water towards Troy on the Anatolian coast, he mentions the nearby Dardanelles, Gallipoli, Thrace, Constantinople, Macedonia, and in three short sentences conflates three thousand years or so of history. pp 100. “This is the dead centre of the Aegean Sea. From a European perspective, or at least from any perspective oriented, critically or otherwise, to what used to be called the ‘European mind’, no body of water in the world is as heavy with history and mythology.” pp100. Willsdon goes on to reflect on the Iliad and The Odyssey, drawing also on the earliest literary references of the Adamic language – Genesis in the Old Testament – before reflecting on the influences of modernist photographers, the likes of Ansel Adams and his perspective of Yosemite. This burden of reference on an image that might otherwise be suggested as being an exercise in tonal containment, or as Ansel Adam himself might have put it; zones two to eight.

These comments on Sugimoto’s photograph (not awfully well reproduced in the book) had me wondering when I started to try and edit a set of images for assignment three – A Narrative. Of course I am not trying to draw together my images and Sugimoto’s, however I am thinking (again) about the directive use of text. If, for example, the Sugimoto image had been mis-read – like for example in the introductory essay to Hatje Cantz 400 page tome entitled “Hiroshi Sugimoto”, where Kerry Brougher talks about one of Sugimoto’s  Dioramas, taken in the American Museum of Natural History, “…of a polar bear hovers over his victim. Caught just after the kill, the photograph shows the beast poised over a freshly dispatched penguin, suspended forever…” The print doesn’t depict that of course, how could it. The good folk at the museum wouldn’t pair a slaughtered penguin from the Antarctic region with an Artic carnivore. So it could be that we might be misled, especially with such an enigmatic image such as that with which we are presented with, quite poorly in this case, by the usually fine publisher Aperture.

The narrative of Sigimoto’s image is, in Willsdon’s essay, guided wholly by the author’s flight of fancy, informed perhaps by a classical education and schooled in European history. Sugimoto himself has spent a good deal of his life in the west, living as he does between New York and Tokyo, but as far as I can find out has offered no reason for the view he chose, above looking at atlas’ finding seas with interesting names, going there, spending a few days before making a few exposures. A great concept, if you can afford it. But that’s not the point, or rather it’s not the reason why Sugimoto’s image, or Willsdon’s reading of it has come to mind.

I have over twenty images strewn over the carpet in my lounge trying to elicit a narrative that might comply with the brief on assignment three – A Narrative. The images all have two photographs per print. The one having an image of a paper butterfly with an anonymous wish written on it and the other a reflective image culled from another set of images that provided, in my view, a reflective comment on the butterfly wish. I am considering the notion that I might be able to conjure any number of narratives from any formulation of sequences. I can envisage differing complexions of stories depending on how these images might be viewed – from left to right, from top to bottom, two banks of five, five banks of two. I have already discovered that by randomly assembly the images other tales might be woven together.

A beginning, a middle and an end is what the brief mentions. It is entirely possible to create a fiction from any set of texts, the reader’s interpretation of these wishes will demand a response that creates a narrative, the gaps will be filled in, the narrative journey from one set text to another will be bridged in the sub-conscious. And so, on the one hand the brief will have been met. The start of the narrative will be defined by how the set is laid out, the central section – those five or six texts – will, with any amount of clashing scripts, provide a conduit to ‘the end’. The viewer will know it’s the end as there won’t be any more in the series, no more images to travel to, no extensions, no epilogues. Amen.

Willsdon provided the reader the directions to those sites of civilization as if Sugimoto had intended to take us there. The archipelago jutting into the Aegean was a presentation of Willsdon’s mind, his sub-conscious, informed by his life experiences and served as a self evident truth. But what if, like Brougher the image hadn’t been the one we, or he, had thought. Aperture had either slipped up and introduced another image altogether, or the sub-editor had misnamed the image ‘The Sargasso Sea, Bermuda”? I have no knowledge whether Sugimoto had ever considered the Sargasso Sea or not. It is certainly a water that has the weight of history and a uniqueness about it that could provide a draw to the artist. And the reason I ask myself this question, is whether I should care about a couple of things. Whether, for example, the fiction is based on a fiction, surely Willsdon’s is, it is his fictive fantasy conjured from his background. Or, whether I should worry about the generation of a greater fiction, by that I mean altering the text, adding a text, deleting a word, a letter to tell better the story that I feel impelled to relate.

My inclination is to continue to think and explore how these images might combine to add to the simple narrative provided with the text. I need to settle with these images, map them, work with them and try to trust my instinct that there is something there to explore.

Thinking about narrative

Assignment three has the notion to produce a set of ten images that, as a set, tells a story and conveys a narrative in colour.

To say that I’ve been feeling down about the course as a whole which, together with the other tangential issues of studying with the OCA, would, to put it mildly, be understating things. The trip to Arles was perhaps too inspiring, too rich in ideas, too full of work and ideas that I had a reaction to it that suggested a futility in continuing, knowing that I would never match up, nor approach, nor even veer near the artistry of what was on show. I had thought of requesting time off to consider my options. I may still do so. I now recognise the distance to travel and it seems unlikely, at this distance, that I will achieve that goal. I had a brief chat with my tutor who suggested a couple of things to try and thankfully, didn’t pressurise me to work towards the next assignment.

Coming away from Arles I have become more and more aware of text. It has clear purposes, it directs and informs, it positions and denotes more easily that imagery. But with that authority it can also mislead, misdirect and misinform; sometimes wilfully and sometimes without malice aforethought. I am becoming more and more attracted to the significance of the word as part of where I think I may head to, whether I’ll reach that particular end is another matter, but no matter – I am told it’s just about the journey!

I’ve been away again; post Arles, we decided to go away. Nothing to do with the course, just about being away. A few days in Cornwall, some peace and quiet (even in August) to walk and talk. It was suggested that I took my camera both by my wife and by my tutor, I wasn’t going to. Why? What for? I did and was happy that I had. A couple of years ago I would have packed a big case with at least two cameras, plenty of film, some lenses and a tripod; we would have walked miles, trekked up and down hills/mountains, across woods and forests and around lakes and seas. Looking for and finding pictures that provided a singular look at a subject. I call them thin pictures, Jesse Alexander has them as ‘Easel Art’ and he is much kinder than I  “‘Contemporary Photography’ also stands up to ‘Pictorial Photography’, which is really about vision on a much simpler level. In my article I quote Paul Hill describing the tradition in pictorialism, for ..’easel art’, which implies two things: firstly, that the thing might need to be appealing to look at (which much contemporary photography – in itself – is not) and secondly; that the thing is meant to stand alone, without the company of other photographs.” I won’t link to it here, but his original article is here and his recent reference to it can be found on his blog site – I absolutely don’t want to ride on his coat tails. So going away without a camera would have been a first in about a quarter of a century, and I had intended/expected to come back without an image.

What I found that sparked some contemplation was text. At the Eden project they have an installation whereby people make wishes on paper butterflies and pin them to a (very) large net. I would hazard a guess at around ten thousand wishes so far; most are in a heap on the floor as the net gets lowered for more access. But the wishes are still pinned to the net, the hopes and dreams of those impelled to express their desires, were continuing their journey of hope or desire. I was immediately struck by the possibility of generating a narrative from the material that connected, for me, anonymous individuals to a ‘wish’. I decided to try and also take some pictures that I felt connected me to those wishes, to appropriate the texts, as if they were mine, to contextualise an ‘other’s’ emotions with my experience. And so I took a lot of other, non ‘wish’ images, with a very singular purpose which was to look for images that, from a personal perspective had a strong sense of symbolism that I could associate the imagery to the text. Knowing what the words had said, what sort of emotions they were expressing and what the words meant to me would, I hoped, inspire the images that came through that process.

Whether I’ll use the images for the next assignment or not isn’t yet an option. I have to live with them for while and see what they say. I have done a first pass edit and have come up with a few images. I decided to couple the text to my image, to couple the appropriated narrative pinned to the netting with an image, which whilst it will never denote the context of the text, goes someway to express my associated thoughts about the text. What I mean to say is that I had the text in my mind whilst I took all the images that I have freely associated with the butterfly wishes.

Images are diptychs – a text coupled with an image. A first pass, but at least I am thinking about what the course is requesting………………. The composite images are in no particular order. I feel that I should be able to develop a narrative with these texts and images – whether it will have strength to get through the assignment is another matter entirely.