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

 

The problem with assessment

The problem with assessment seemingly is in it’s preparation, the work seems to want to carry on. I had decided to make the mono print as a reference, it being the distillation of the work that I did in this assignment. I had had some conversations with Sharon on this about how it might be developed – see here – and whilst photographing the framed image on the wall I was struck both by the ambiguity of its presence but also but the strength of the photographic image. Barthes, in Camera Lucida famously waxed lyrically about his mother’s depiction in a photograph (opening sections of ‘Part Two”) and whilst I may still make another image as a discard I decided to make another image and purposefully distress it. I decided on a matte paper and printed it with a gloss profile – I know the image will fade – I then tore the image in two separating the two subjects, my mother and me, and then arranged them in a number of settings to see which ‘spoke loudest’.

Tear sheet1 Monoc2

 

I have registered with the college for the July assessment so I need to finalise things. I want to register soon for level three. Sharon suggested that I try and find a way to leave the personal from this archive images. The problem with that is that these aren’t archive images, they are constructs with, clearly, my own narrative assembling, and disassembling, them. Either way leaving level two will provide a Rubicon to cross and allow fiction to become the essence of what I want to achieve with narrative. The first and third images have an element of movement about them, either one may be moving away from the other or moving closer; the second image is in a state of finality – they are distinct from each other. The images that have missing persons show no disconnect at all, after all where are they? Unless by condition we know there was someone there and in which case it might be an altogether different image.

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.

 

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.

The Sargasso Sea

image 1

image 1

The Sargasso Sea lies at the western edge of the route from Britain to the Caribbean, it is encompassed by currents on all sides and has no land for its waters to break on. The currents north and south of it were responsible for the traffic that populated the islands, re-populated, welcomed and then repatriated for over four centuries.

Colonial rule, that pernicious device of the ‘Old World’ gave rise to the cultural heritage of the islands, providing the backdrop to its history and the population that was ‘peopled’ by its oppressor are left with a legacy that presented itself to me as echoes in varying forms.

These images depict and document how I ‘see’ those reverberations from the past. The patronage and subjugation, and subsequent rise of independence followed by the re-patronage through commercial dependence on the world that created an aberrant society with societal norms that had no connection with their own heritage.

‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys is a novel about displacement, about ‘otherness’, about colonial/post colonial issues (it may also be a feminist novel and even a post-modern novel!). The novel’s situation of a white creole being ousted by her native people and then ending her days in an ‘other’ place – Britain – kept returning to me as I made these images. I saw these symbols of the changing face of colonialism and the effects of post-colonialism, The diasporas of people whose fates have ebbed and flowed, much as the seas between the two continents have, still holding those islanders in a place of dependence. And that is what I wanted to show, my reaction to the past’s inflictions on the present.

image 4

image 11

First edit

Just wondering whether there is any point in putting this up here – it is how I ‘see’ the narrative that I had in my mind when I made the images, however I cannot believe that even if anyone else sensed a narrative of their own – assuming anyone looked at this image – they would get anything out of this. It’s just too small.

Here’s a photo-shopped version – still not much better….

But I’ll leave that there and focus on other printing and assessment requirements I think.

Edit 1bc2