Thoughts about the course Documentary

It is perhaps apposite that at the end of a course one might reflect on what one recorded at the beginning of it, and in this course the question was raised about the nature of Documentary. In my post entitled ‘What is Documentary’ I concluded with a quotation from ‘Transparent Pictures: On the nature of Photographic Realism’ by Kenneth L Walton “And this is, I think, what Walton refers to at the end of his piece. That there is a…”failure to recognize and distinguish between the special kind of seeing which actually occurs and the ordinary kind of seeing which only fictionally takes place, between a viewer’s really seeing something through a photograph and his fictionally seeing something directly. A vague awareness of both, ….,could conceivably tempt one toward the absurdity that the viewer is really in the presence of something.”

Coming blessed or burdened with my personal and professional background I suspect that I have always had a notion of the difference that Walton refers to, but I was, I think, more interested in testing the veracity of the image as opposed to the veracity of intent. A natural Post-Modernist’s cynicism of image’s innocence and purity has been informed by researching the medium’s practitioners – with a distance still to travel – and one which has provided a healthier and much broader perspective of this visual medium under study. Where I think and hope I have moved to is into the purposeful use of fiction to illuminate a truth, and here it has also scaled my ambition. I don’t now expect to reveal a ‘big’ truth; that aspiration needs to be matched by an ego of equal ambition. I think though I want to score stories of much quieter narratives. Investigating smaller particles of life. Fontcuberta’s investigation into the fallacy of photographic truth for example, has been a key revelation along with other artists studied along the way. A document is something that informs, what and how it informs is in the gift of the creator of the text; it’s nuances or otherwise are variables to be manipulated with a purposeful intent whether in an ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ narrative form.

The course also seems a smaller venture than the other course I have undertaken concurrently with it – Gesture and Meaning – but I feel I have travelled a further distance and ploughed a deeper furrow, more straighter and less deflected.

On average I think I have averaged a visit to a gallery every week, and when I haven’t its because I have been to more than that number, and in that process I have traduced my earlier comprehension of what “Documentary” is and I wonder if that was the purpose of the course, if so it has succeeded. Of equal importance is the development of a cohort of students with whom I can talk regularly with, to confide in, to ask questions and to seek, in some cases, authority in testing margins in the territories that I am researching. I am aware that in Level 3 I will be expected to cultivate a cohort, to find ways to network and to build a professional web as I develop myself from where I am to a fledgling artist in practice. I am also aware that the Thames Valley Group is another vehicle that has allowed me and fellow students to coalesce and filter ideas and I have gained from that greatly; as well as much as meeting practicing artists, Fiona Yaron-Field, Anna Fox, Tom Hunter amongst others as well as tutors for which I am very grateful. I have enjoyed this course immensely and I feel, as I suspect I should do, on a path looking forward to the next phase and thanks in no small part to Sharon.

 

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014 part III

I remember last year’s DB exhibition and how the arrangement of finalists had affected me, specifically how the impact of one exhibit as it rested by another artist’s work. Probably most affecting was ‘The Afronauts’ by Cristina De Middel next to Bloomberg and Chanarin’s work ‘War Primer 2’.

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

I am equally sure that whilst the emotional response was less for me this year, it must surely have an effect on the viewer to have such disparate work on show in such close proximity when the only contextual touchstone is that they have all been proposed to win a prestigious prize in the photographic calendar. Lorna Simpson’s work reminded me of the discussion that took place at the Thames Valley Group’s previous meeting a couple of day’s earlier. Simpson’s view, in my opinion was very ‘female’ a gendered perspective and singular amongst the other practitioners on view at TPG’s annual show. The earlier discussion raised, amongst other subjects to do with feminism and the arts, whether a view could be determined, or determinedly, feminine. Last year’s solo female’s work (one hopes this isn’t a case of tokenism – perhaps I’ll check previous year’s statistics?) ‘The Afronauts’ wasn’t, I think, a particularly gendered set, but I concede my view may be masked by how I felt about the work as a whole.

 

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

This work didn’t deal with war, as it’s co-companion on the fifth floor Richard Mosse’s work did, the expressed and hidden violence of a land desecrated by men for men; no Lorna’s work was intimate and personal, a look at a life projected through time. Small and needing to viewed at close distance, it had no notion of power, it was a look at how people were with each other, even if the other was, seemingly, the other side of the camera. The subject and the image maker seemed intimately bonded.

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

This quiet conversation with the viewer (quieter still perhaps after the Congo perils of Mosse’s work) in tender monochrome tones allowed the viewer to consider the relationships that existed for women of colour a half century earlier in the West Coast of America and have those thoughts mediated through a lens today. No less deep because of the apparent leif-motif of the production compared to Mosse’s carcinogenic perspective of riotous colour, but no better because of the proximity to it.

And so to Jochen Lempert:

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

Harking back to the recent Thames Valley meeting at which I had decided to air my first attempt at an “Open Work”. This piece had been with me since I created it a month or so earlier – I have written about it here, here and here. I presented these images as I had coded them from a large set of images and I wanted to see if any of the other people present could muster a narrative from them. I have to say that if what I hoped to achieve was even a connection to the image set then I failed; but no matter. The general comment that maybe it was ‘too open’ that I provided no sense of an emotional hook to attach the viewer to, maybe the ‘my narrative’ that I refused to explain was too obscure, or ‘too loose’ to be made liminal for others and that if I had provided, even a sense of a narrative/contextual axis to pivot from it may have worked. I’m not sure, but the experiment taught me some lessons and I am very grateful to the group for indulging me.

And so back to Jochen Lempert’s work. Well the first thing that struck me was the text; there was some and more than I had expected. Whether this was a strategy on behalf of the artist or the gallery I have no idea, but situating text there was. In fact I think the material to accompany this exhibit was considerably greater than any of the other artists, with a handout to title/explain most, if not all the images.

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

And whilst the images on the wall had no title or caption, the viewer was allowed the privilege to consider the printed document and edit their way through the imagery. As a strategy for ‘Open Work’ I found that interesting, the images were numbered – which usually predetermines an order – but there was no other indication as to which way, or indeed order, one should contemplate the works on view. On one hand most of these images had, as a common visual theme, the natural world, they were all monochrome and analogue based. As regards my reaction to them as a whole, as a work with an underlying narrative I couldn’t discern one, even with the text. I do think however that I was maybe looking to deeply, or not deep enough and that I need to do some more research into this to be able to connect in a form that is attractive to me.

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

 

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

 

Assignment 3 closure

In the end I have decided to call a halt to this project, at least for assessment purposes. The assignment that I sent to my tutor still exists on the blog and the print that we agreed would supersede it is enclosed in the assessment box ready for delivery.

I can sense a much longer journey for the work that I did in the assignment but I need to close down and concentrate on completing some other work to ensure that the assessment is completed on time. So thanks Mum from the file called Mother narrative. It’s been a piece of work…..

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014 part II

I have written about Richard Mosse’s work previously at The Photographers Gallery where they are mounting the Deutsche Börse work. Of the other three artists I didn’t expect to be drawn to Alberto Garcia-Alix’s work and I left it ‘till last, as it was closet to the exit from the fourth floor and knowing that coffee would be closer; but drawn to it I was. Russell Squires wrote about it here for the WeAreOCA site

I didn’t really feel any sense of the work from the images on the wall, certainly they were graphic, wonderfully printed and presented, but over the last few decades I have seen lots of very good prints, expertly made and created to draw the viewer to engage. These images weren’t any worse, nor perhaps any better at developing that discourse – but I felt it was (yet) another set of visually graphic images of an artist in torment, or perhaps an artist’s recording of his torment. What I hadn’t bargained for was the video.

The single images portrayed the said artist’s torment but I wasn’t ready to be engaged with it, I had purposefully walked right on by these mounted photographs to view the Lempert piece, that I had been looking forward to – the subject of another post – and had expected to walk right back after a cursory glance on my way to the coffee. There was though something about the audio (the soundtrack to the video) that perhaps triggered a purpose to linger longer than I had planned.

The deadpan, monotonic commentary that accompanied the video with, in the main, still images the sub-titled translation that worked extremely well. I wonder now whether there was a purpose in the English sub-titles given the need to focus on the image, then script, then image and maybe script again that forced a connection that a voice-over in English might not have achieved?

The language of this artist was very poetic and the complete experience of image/audio and text held me there on the viewing bench for the duration. I was transfixed.

“And time keeps moving backwards” the narrator is translated as saying, of course all photographs are memories – how could they be anything else? But the statement, in the context of the artist’s life, was all the more poignant for the story he narrated. Addiction is perhaps the single greatest act of selfishness that humans have devised for themselves and we saw those selfishnesses, heard them through the narration, how he continued to sacrifice, in the same way many addicts do, all those around him. And how those that travelled with him on that journey fell by the wayside. “My intentions are never honest” he says at one point, an addict slips and slides around the notion of veracity together with its implications. It is a prioritized life, that of an addict, and this video presented scenes of a life that slipped from lucidity to apparent lunacy.

What I took from this though was the power of the edit, over and above the visceral reaction to an artists depiction of himself in all his guises. As image crashed with text and it’s audio accompaniment presenting this viewer with a reaction that chimed with another of his sets of words, blandly expressed “they [the images] leave an echo in their wake”.

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2014

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

I don’t think I was expecting to be as moved as I was, last year’s exhibition had me quite affected with the Bloomberg and Chanarin exhibit, and whilst I am always going to somewhat cynical about these big prize events, with their association with the marketing effort of some major organization seeking to project its brand, I hadn’t expected to be so moved.

Knowing that the principle reason for attending – the Jochen Lempert piece, resonating as it does with the works of Eco’s ‘Open Works’ was on the fourth floor but I headed one flight higher and viewed two quite extraordinary works: Lorna Simpson’s work ‘Summer 1957 – 2009’ about identity in a large series of monochrome images which complimented the strident colour work of Richard Mosse’s ‘The Enclave’.

I have been aware of Mosse’s work for some time now; it has been featured on WeAreOCA before and has caused controversy there and elsewhere for its approach to documentary photography. Utilizing film that was intended to help reconnaissance aircraft find people it renders the land in a range of hues that seem, at first glance, to prettify it. But moved I was. I will return to the other finalists later in a separate post.

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

Yesterday, at the Thames Valley meeting we discussed feminist art and the discussion ranged into the gendered depiction of ‘view’, for example was there a difference in the way in which women ‘see’ or want to ‘record’ things compared to men. The land in Mosse’s very large digital ‘C’ prints was a very pretty pink, but the land was ‘Male’; scaped by Man for Men. Their appearance in the Pink permitted the viewer to stop and consider what it was that might be happening in the frame. This, seemingly slow, film projected a land so defiled as to defy imagination – listen to Eve Ensler’s visceral depiction of the same land towards the end of this lecture – it is the desecration of the land and humanity that is so appalling and moving at the same time. The use of outdated film provides another layer, this war is about who controls the land – another trope from yesterday’s discussion – for the wealth that it holds – those rare earths and minerals extracted to enable the digital revolution to continue on it’s inexorable course – with iPhones and Androids, allowing a the distance learner the ability to participate, but also to contribute to the vision before them on the top floor.

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

The size of these prints is impressive, but I felt drawn into them to look and search for humanity, for some semblance of life amongst the horror of the sharp end of neo-liberalism, and what I found was sadness, waste, loss and a sense of how man has become lost in the land scaped by Men who are absent from the frame and live a long way away.

Photograph courtesy The Photographer's Gallery

Photograph courtesy The Photographer’s Gallery

It is a virtuoso piece. Quite brilliant. Quite empty and quite emptying.

Assigment Three re-working

 

Looking back, final edit

Looking back, final edit

I had a meeting with my course tutor Sharon to review my coursework and to discuss the assessment submission. Assignment three had a series of images of my mother that in the main had her looking back in a reflective stance. After talking it around a little while it was thought that maybe instead of a series of images one might suffice, this highly edited image above. The image says a lot about what I’ve thought about through the course, firstly it is a construct, two images of two different times creating a narrative that is fairly directive. My mother regards me, her son, at a point in my life – the point was my first date with Elaine (she saw the sweater and decided she didn’t want to be seen with me so sartorially challenged and avoided me (but that’s another story). The front wall of the house, the door and myself date from an earlier time, my mother and the rest are contemporary. It is therefore a series of truths and not a truth, to tell a story albeit in single image form.

The square format reflected the original image format – it was one of a very few that my father made of me – and I thought the crop to those dimensions fitted the with the sense of narrative that I wanted to project. I like her stance, outside of the property borders to a house that she dwelt in for most of her life, bore five children in (she brought three children with her when she moved in). She regards me, I look slightly away. There is life in this image (for this viewer).

Wall hanging - with light

Wall hanging – with light

Sharon suggested I put the image on the wall and re-photograph it. I must say that I wasn’t immediately enthralled by that prospect as it would suggest that I am honouring the moment, exalting it – ‘framing it’. And because I know the core of the emotion I found difficulty in that concept, I thought about it some more and decided to try it, though purposely askance. I was really pleased with the light as it echoes some of my other work with transient light in assignment five. I was’t sure then and I’m still unsure now. I want to recognise something here, again suggested by Sharon, which is about ‘letting go’. Images have strength, for those that have a connection to the image it is understandably difficult to render that emotional connection void, something that I’ve been encouraged to do when working with archives. Honouring the emotional connection of an image is a noble thing of course, but to make images that develop another narrative, then leaving that connection behind is perhaps  a requirement. It might though be difficult to recognise when this has taken place when the original connection is personal and when it hasn’t when working with personal imagery, or imagery that has a proximity. These constructed images do not, and indeed cannot, contain the original intent and I am very pleased to ‘let-go’ of whatever I imagine might be going on in the photograph, though I fully recognise that a viewer knowing the cast of characters might question that…..

With a patina of dust

With a patina of dust

 

I also had another look at the image from an another angle and tried to pick out the ‘fingered dust’ on the glass. I have a strong feeling what this might denote/connote and would wonder if anyone else would gather similar information from the image.

I had another thought which was to shatter the frame with the photograph in it and then re-take the image, I may still do that, but I realise it is a once only exercise and considering assessment – sending the framed image intact would be good deal easier (and safer) than trying to gather the shattered and splintered remains of a broken frame, but then that may provide evidence that I haven’t left everything behind……..

 

Making stories about the truth.

reprinted with the kind consent of the artist Anna Fox

“‘There is nothing wrong with avarice as a motive, as long as it doesn’t lead to dishonest or antisocial conduct’. Business 1986” – reprinted with the kind and acknowledged consent of the artist Anna Fox

I’m not sure if Anna Fox said those words at the study visit to UCA, I know I wrote them, but I think she did; either way the notion of a fiction about truth found a resonance with this listener. I have written before about this idea, that to explore truths it is perhaps best accomplished by a narrative held in check by a storyteller.

I continue to think that the conquest of fallacy is best fought not with banners heralding the ‘truth and the light’ but with the muted tones of inference and suggestion, asking questions of the reader and not through the ‘imperative truth’ of ‘the answer’. Anna Fox’s fictions are carefully constructed to elicit inquiries from the reader, to suggest though that they are truths is as far removed from veracity as claiming that they falsehoods. These stories are neither, Fox’s constructions are stories. And the stories do not provide a didactic ordering of the universe, rather suggesting I think, of the lifting of the lids of our prejudices.

Text and image, image and text. Anna Fox’s combinatorial use of these twin illustrators isn’t universal in her work, however I was struck by how the artist described her process. In what appeared to be an identical means to how I constructed the narrative in assignment five – “Dear John”, however text isn’t a major factor in most of her her work, unless it is about the text as in ‘Cockroach Diary

Kareoke night, 2011 - reprinted with the kind and acknowledged consent of the artist Anna Fox

Kareoke night, 2011 – reprinted with the kind and acknowledged consent of the artist Anna Fox

The two nouns that I found myself considering quite often through the talk and for some time after were ‘time’ and ‘construction’. The artist opened her talk describing how time is fundamental to her practice and process and indeed, perhaps to all photographers – I’m now not sure that this precept wouldn’t apply to all artists, but be that as it may. Fox prefers film. And large format film at that. Her choice of medium dictates the speed that she can work at, despite often using a digital medium format camera as back up Fox takes time because of the restrictions of the format (mistakes are costly), and her most recent work exacerbates this stretching of time. Some of her most recent work , a commission from France (Rennes, I think) has the artist constructing images with multiple exposures and stitching them together – ‘joining time together’ – half a dozen or more images stitched together. Each image a construction in itself and then combined to create a story from several episodic instances time. I had a conversation after the event about what value the stitching together brought to the narrative – couldn’t for example, the artist employed more people in the tableau and simply made one construct? I have thought about that a lot, my first thought was that on the face of it there might be no additional narrative value in making half a dozen images with the same ‘cast’; but then I wondered about knowing that they were the same players juxtaposed in various locations on the canvass, providing another layer of context to the narrative. And what I got out of the image may not be what others get out of it, it will, in all likelihood denote/connote something other than my comprehension/feeling for the story.

Another aspect of the talk was something that struck me about how Anna Fox acknowledged her accomplices in the work she produced. There was a determined, albeit natural, desire to acknowledge as many of her assistants/directors/fellows as the work she presented unfolded and I wondered if this wasn’t a particular aspect of this artist, or whether it was a feminine/feminist trait. Either way, it was something that appeared entirely natural as it was often, and something to be remembered. I was particularly interested and impressed by the amount of her work she passed round in published book form and how she emphasised that the presentation of the her work, especially in bound volumes is very important to her.

 

There was lots to think about and it was a very rewarding trip to UCA.