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


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.


Ornette Coleman and the ‘Open text’

Not many people have accused Ornette Coleman’s album ‘Free Jazz’ an easy ride, whether it was the ‘First take‘ (released as a track in it’s own right and only 17 minutes long) – or the seminal album version – covering both sides of a 33 1/3rd rpm long playing vinyl album (subsequently transcribed to a CD providing a single track of nearly 40 minutes – here *). It takes some investment. The double quartet had not rehearsed the piece very much, if at all, and the opening section has that sound that a friend once described to me once as ‘scribbling’; atonal, discordant and lacking in any natural sense of structure and harmony. The opening section – the introduction therefore – is, even after all this time from first tackling it, an effort of will.

I was reminded of this work when I began to study Umberto Eco’s ‘Open Work’, not so much the difficulty of the text, which isn’t easy and not least the introduction by David Robey (which I decided to leave until another time (a time which has yet to arrive)), but with the concept of searching for or, releasing the hold on the narrative. My purpose as an artist had, I thought until getting to grips with this concept, to provide a course for the reader to follow. To direct the flow from tributary to stream, from river to sea and resolve the outcome to a satisfactory – even if troublesome – conclusion, much as a rhythm section might do in a jazz quartet.

Of course I am aware of unresolved works, but most works of art I have encountered through the course of this study have a purposeful purpose. Artists have wanted to lead me somewhere even if it is to face a conclusion of my own drafting directed by them. To connote and denote by the artifices available to them, some I must say more successfully than others, to conclusions that they themselves have probably decided on. I don’t find this in any way a dishonorable act; most works tend to flow, novels, musical scores and photographic artists (most usually in bodies of works, though sometimes in single images); the ebb and flow of narrative to deliver the reader to a place where a question has been posed leaving the reader to think about responding.

Coleman’s work drifts, the initial assemblage of noises transforms after a while upon a bedrock of percussion, to snatches of melody, melodies that perhaps unconsciously form between the players used as they are used to ad-lib with others, the resultant soundscape starting to provide more immediate comprehensive imagery. Listen again, and whether it is familiarity of performance or form, and it becomes easier. The listener becoming more adept at comprehending the piece. It’s a journey.

When I first looked at Larry Sultan’s work some time ago I was reminded of Chekov’s visions of family life; what seemed disrupted visions of a dystopian life in California seemed to have an echo of the late, expiring, Russian bourgeois life, and those connections were made by familiarity in both works through which I was led to a place. Both Sultan and Chekov’s narratives wanted me to explore what they were concerned with, wanted me to consider my reaction to the issues they were interested in. And the connections made are mine alone; Sultan and Chekov, Coleman through Eco. Eco’s ‘Open’ vision is to not declare intent but to provide very minimal vernacular tools to explore personal stories. But I wonder how loose this process can be?

Yellow ribbonc2

By selecting a range of texts for contemplation already some direction has been created. I know from my own first attempt at an ‘open work’ that I have used visual aesthetics to build phrases for example in tone or contrast. I recognised similar structures in Coleman’s work as well as in Freddie Hubbard’s (trumpet). I don’t think I want to extend the corollary with Coleman’s work anymore, after all his is a genius talent and I wouldn’t want to draw comparison with my work, but music is a linear narrative more directed than most, it is never experienced other than in the forward direction and serially; a text though can be experienced in many forms and the time base is under the control mostly by the reader. Forwards or backwards, sideways or reverse, it leaves the author and becomes a new piece of work. Music is ephemeral, text is physical.

I have a sense of ‘floundering’ with this attempt, not knowing if the conscious and deliberate image making which has informed all these images is not deep enough or in fact too deep, I have no depth charting sonar. I have made statements about what the thought processes were when I made them – here – and I can still see them in the images in this post – they are real and palpable to me. However, as I am want to do, I have jumped in at the deep end with a strong sense of how this will inform how I might go about my practice in the future, how, like Anna Fox’s statement about using stories to tell truths, or maybe telling stories about stories.

I asked a tutor very early on in my studies about language, about whether it was necessary to comprehend and then utilise an artistic vernacular in order to communicate to another artist, or maybe just within the artworld as a whole. I didn’t get an answer, but I am now sure that what my purpose has been about is about how I might articulate through imagery, certain ideas and thoughts, about the situation I find myself in the world. I am determined not to find myself constructing polemics about things that I find myself becoming emotional about. I don’t want to make work about things that make me angry, I want to channel my emotion into work that describes how I see things on a smaller scale, but about the biggest issues of love and fidelity and so on, and to do that I have to continue to strive to develop a syntax that is accessible to whomever might read my work. As much as Sultan’s readers can determine isolation in his work, Chekov’s (breaking) society within (breaking) society and, after some investment, a picture derived within from Coleman’s double quartet.


* Free Jazz, owes a lot to abstract expressionism rather than ‘Open Works”