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……..

 

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More on words and pictures, and a study visit to Westminster University

The University of Westminster is conveniently situated for me, a mere five minute walk from the Marylebone terminus, an hour or less from my local station, which when as a boy and couldn’t afford the bus fare, was about the journey time to school on Shanks’ Pony. The train was packed and I had to stand all the way to the study visit  but it was worth the aggravation. Four speakers ostensibly offering diverse perspectives on the dissemination of photographs in an interconnected age gave me, and I suspect the other attendees, a great deal to ponder other than the specifics of their individual presentations. I have already had some thoughts on the interconnected age, something that Dr Alexandra Moschovi‘s talk made me comment on the WeAreOCA site here and whilst her thoughts filled me with some concerns over the future, it wasn’t the future of photography that concerned me, rather how we, as part of humankind, respond to the technological changes attached to image making and sharing, and the supposed primacy of images over text that concerned me more. Roger Hargreaves dwelt on the use of social media and how it was harnessed to the campaign to elect Obama as the US President (the first time around), and whilst I found his talk interesting, what I found most intriguing wasn’t the recognition that without that yoking of Facebook et al to the election cause, the course of history may have been different, rather what I found fascinating was how the choice of images that Hargreaves curated for his talk seemed culled from an informed and educated eye; these images seemingly extracted from the internet and social networking sites were, when presented in a lecture theatre by a someone studied in the history of the medium, to sublimate the images above the mundane. I saw extensive visual references to ‘The Americans’, the images when presented on the wall of the lecture theatre became pieces of art despite their innocuous pedigree. “Dr Loplop is a London-based cat photographer and internet celebrity. He is best known as the originator of the Somebody Else’s Cat phenomenon, and is an administrator of the eponymous Flickr group” according to the introduction for the day as advertised. And whilst I feel there may be some serious theory underpinning what, on the surface appeared to be an attempt to be light and amusing – as the last slot of the day’s proceedings; my contemporaneous notes leave me as confused as I was then about what was the message behind this particular medium.

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , courtesy of University of Westminster

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , University of Westminster

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , courtesy of University of Westminster

Which leaves a couple of things that I found extremely inspiring that of Jason Evans’ talk and the exhibition of Victor Burgin in the P3 Gallery – in the basement at the University of Westminster. I’m not entirely sure about what it was about Evans’ talk that I found so appealing, it rambled and skirted around the issue of dissemination. There were a lot of jibes at the ‘industry’ that surrounds the artist and similarly there were many disparaging comments about education, but the images and the reasons that inspired him to create those images were inspiring. Who hasn’t looked at that magical light on a Wednesday afternoon at about 4pm? Who hasn’t found that magical space in a photograph, not a punctum or studium, though he did have some interesting things to say about set texts in the canon of photography studies apropos in student education, but I’ll leave that there; but that area on a photograph that often defies description, that pulls the emotive eye towards it. I recognised both those things. Evans wants to photograph things that are beautiful, which I think is different, in his view, to making things beautiful by photographing them. And that need to make beautiful images has been a troubling notion for me for sometime. Whatever his motivations I found myself drawn to his troubled delivery, and whilst I wouldn’t want to misconstrue anything from this, but I felt he delivered a very honest account of what he was about.

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , courtesy of University of Westminster

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , courtesy of University of Westminster

The other of inspiration came from visiting the Victor Burgin exhibition in the University’s own gallery. I guess about thirty or more large black and white prints, from film and three or four video installations. I was particularly drawn to these works as they all tended to have a combination of image and text, something I am very interested in at the moment. Famed for his early conceptual work and a leader in its practice I found these images, for the most part, very engaging and I would have welcomed spending more time with them. Unfortunately the show finishes on December 1st and I won’t get to it. However these images here reflect the sort of work that I currently aspire to, that disjuncture between image and text that opens a discourse between the spectator and the image.

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , courtesy of University of Westminster

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , courtesy of University of Westminster

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , courtesy of University of Westminster

Victor Burgin at the P3 Gallery , courtesy of University of Westminster

As study days go this was right up there as a really valuable excursion and this event co-run by the RPS and the University of Westminster, under the expert Chairmanship of Andy Golding – Head of Photography at the University, happens every other year and which should be a model of the sort of study day that the OCA should try and foster. There was plenty of opportunity to discuss amongst peers as well as listen to mature artists and practitioners. Excellent.

The lonely image at the Taylor Wessing show in Bristol

I had seen all these photographs before and written about the experience here, very few of images have haunted my memory since that time. I remember wondering then whether the photographs were created in the hope of being selected for the show, or whether they had been selected from an artist’s archive in the hope of being selected. Of course all these on show had been selected, the selectors role had been accomplished, the sponsor’s needs had been met and the media bandwagon takes the work, or should it be the brand, to another place. Speaking a few days ago to one of the artists on show she wasn’t aware that her work was being exhibited in another city, or in fact being exhibited at all – such is the tenuous link the photographer has with their work once it has passed from creator to benefactor.

I went to see the work to see how time might have mediated my reaction to the work, how in a different environment the work might be received – interestingly there was a piece that described some of the curatorial options, but I found myself thinking about other things, and most notably about how I reacted to individual images, rather than a series of images. These images were all linked; they were all in a big room, on white walls and part of an exhibition described as a portrait show. However accurately that description pulled them together I found that the forces that pulled them apart were stronger, it took an effort of will to focus on individual image after individual image and several times I found myself developing narratives between adjoining photographs of up to four at a time; I wonder if that was a trick of the curators or a deficiency on my part? This confusion led me to consider why I wandered around an image, any image in sometimes desperate attempts to draw narrative, though I have to say that I walked past all the images of ‘celebrities’ – my cynicism of the cause of marketing served by controversy and notoriety leaving me little choice but to absent myself from their inspection. Of course I know that some of these works are from larger bodies of work, from artists who have practices which are as much about developing voices, whatever they may be, and being selected for a ‘prestigious’ show such as this would help them enormously, I have no doubt.

I have been exploring the single image narrative from a documentary perspective, about how the viewer considers an image from the few clues that are depicted and my conclusion – at this stage – is that the more one looks at images, the more one explores the art of photography, the more one reads and considers the vital texts the more I have come to realize that my reading of these narratives is governed and constructed by my own perspectives, my own (lack of) knowledge of the medium. Echoing in my mind, as I walked the prescribed route in the gallery hall, were some of the tropes explored in the Home Truths exhibition that I had seen two days earlier. These remembrances ensured that I linked those sub-conscious thoughts to those photographs in front of me, and the images that now haunt me from this visit are those that may have been amplified by the twin exhibitions.

Some controversy (there’s that word again) over one or two of the images, for example the young girl having had her hair cut – why was she naked? Why did she look so ill-tempered? A comment from the group who listened to one of the staff providing a talk about this and other selected photographs suggested that the photographer had been determined to capture her in a less than happy mood, had manipulated her and thus, for the commentator at any rate , had tainted the image. I wondered about that. I wondered about how constructed all of the images in the show were; it was after all a fiction – a story to be told and released to the viewing world – wasn’t it? And whether it mattered whether the photographer had upset the young girl in order to create the image that was on display. There wasn’t a question to the inquirer about how this information had come to them, whether this ‘knowledge’ about the photographer’s trangressive action toward the model had any authenticity, but it affected many who were in attendance and that is the point. My thoughts went to recent readings on female genital mutilation, the remnants of this young girl’s hair, scattered as it was on the floor, being a symbol of a lost innocence. But my reading of the image is of course another fiction, what I see in the image is a construct of my heritage, just as my seeking, probably sub-consciously, in all of the photographs, imagery associated with ‘Motherhood’.

All this leads me to develop another fiction for the image above, a fiction informed by a life that has generated a generation and that they have then done so themselves in turn. And from this a wisdom (not necessarily wise-ness) has been created in me which permeates into the means by which I can create some sense from an image, rather than a collection of disparate photographs underpinned by commercial interest without a hint of an artists intent. This fiction therefore becomes a sense of a truth, maybe a home truth, not mine, but another’s that I am witness to.

The edge of an emotion; this point of inflection is visiting the lips of this young boy. Should he smile at what is before him in the hope that what he sees is part of a new game, the rules of which are still alien to him? Or should he release the tumult of pain that is rising in him at what he still cannot fully comprehend? He senses something terrible has happened, he has never seen her like this before. Holding his left hand open he appears to skewer the thumb of his right hand into it as if in an attempt to make sure he isn’t in a nightmare, will he wake up and find her as she once was? Or is this real – this scene that he still stands slightly adrift from?

She sits up on the bed, her surgical gown is open to the waist, her left breast is exposed. Only one of her legs is on the bed; the other placed on the ground, maybe to steady herself, maybe to be ready to move toward her son who still regards her with that incomprehension.

She knows he is at a tipping point, but at the moment she has averted her eyes and looks out of the frame, away from the boy, away from the dressing on her breast that covers her nipple, away from the red marks around the dressing, away from the surgical stocking that keeps in place another dressing on the leg that rests on the bed. They are in a hospital ward, a non-too beautiful hospital, a blind is drawn on the window, there is an omnipresence of gloom and despair. The boy’s lips continue to twitch, his eyes never stray from his mother; she who has nurtured and protected him is now in need of his protection?

Original caption:

Leonora Gregorian was tortured and raped in front of her four-year-old son by Azerbaijani troops before Armenian soldiers rescued her, Nagorno-Karabakh, March 1992.

Post comments update:

Questions, but any answers?

Catherine and Keith have very generously offered some critique to some work that I’ve been engaged with recently, and so I am going to try and answer some of those questions both in an attempt to respond to their thoughts which they’ve kindly provided, but also to try and work out why I have taken the direction that I have – it isn’t very clear even to me as I start to write this, so there will be some extemporizing!

‘….. I think it needs a lot more discussion and exploration of what it is that you’re aiming to convey – your artistic statement.’

‘So my first question is what is the intention of appropriating an image.’

‘The second question is what is your intention when substituting text for an image.’

The start of this work is directly associated with what I plan to discuss in my critical essay which forms my next assignment in Documentary, and for which I have chosen the text from Susan Sontag’s On Photography:

“….Antonioni has already chosen what parts of the operation [of the film] I can watch; the camera looks for me – and obliges me to look, leaving as my only option not to look.”

How I see this is that Sontag is suggesting very clearly that either we look at a photograph or we don’t. We can either accept the two-dimensional single point perspective or we reject it out of hand.

Rejection is the easiest consideration to muse over. Deciding not to look may be down to many reasons; bias, abhorrence of the subject, rejection of the artist based on previous experience etc etc.

Engagement with the image though is a very different matter. If we accept, and I do, that all images – and in particular, and pertinent to this response, single image narratives – are a fiction, a contrivance designed to position the spectator to a specific point of view (remember I am discussing this in respect to the role of the War Documentary photographer, not to all photographers who have the need to document and tell stories, though I am beginning to consider this as an extension of where I think this may go. I do want to leave the traditional documentary photographer behind me, perhaps after this assignment…).

I suppose one of the key themes behind this short investigation is the notion that I consider the image to be a very unreliable witness, leaving aside issues of image editing. A lack of dimension, a perspective mediated by so many controlled and uncontrollable circumstances and just a moment in time, leaves the image adrift in a sea of possible misinterpretations.

So I thought about a couple of things regarding war photography, firstly as I say above, the reliability of the image isn’t built on any firm foundations – from Fenton through Capa to Hammond there have been abundant questions on veracity and this is not meant to challenge any of those photographers work from that perspective. I do wonder about their need to deliver more and more abhorrent images, but that I think is a commercial question that I’m not considering at the moment.

I wanted to investigate Sontag’s notion that we can either decide to look or look away, and if we do look then we only have the one perspective – that of the photographer’s. I’ve been considering a lot recently about the rhetorical strength of the single image; how firstly that the image is very mutable, mediated through cultural/sociological/gender/time (and other) related modifiers. And so if the image is a transient object, a fleetingly settled narrative, then how can society provide it with any currency that might be considered ‘true’? And by voiding the frame of an image I wanted to see if the transcription the spectators provide themselves with alters, whether the image, introduced by either my fiction, or the original caption, can be a more reliable witness to the contained image, or at least as reliable?

Sontag posits that our interpretative options of the image are fixed, the narrative is set by the image and directed by the caption; of course I can only agree. I decided then to look at some very strong (visually graphic) war photographs – deciding on war photography rather than on ‘victim photography’ from the Ukraine, or warring African countries, though I suspect there would be plenty amongst that genre to fulfill this exercise, to narrow the challenge. I looked at war photography from over a century and a half and took examples that spanned that era, almost the era of photography itself; photographs from Felice Beaton in May 1857, to Suzanne Opton in 2004. My image decisions were based on known (to me) images, and images that had very graphic content. Initially I set a frame – the same size for all of the images I mutated – and then regarded the image and composed a colour to reflect my reaction to the content of the image, no two images had the same colour. In some circumstance that process was easy, the orange colour of the soil in the Sudan, the colour of the mud in the soft brown monochrome image, for other images it wasn’t so easy and quite disturbing. I then set about writing about what I saw, knowing that I would have a very singular view of these images, but it meant that the single view was the only consistent structure in the series of images that I presented. From a hundred and fifty years of photography linked by theme and by my rhetorical comprehension of those images. The most recent work I decided to fill the frame with nothing, voided of all tone. To emphasize that, I contained the frame within a black (every tone) surround. This had an additional layer that I hadn’t thought of before, that of black and white, right or wrong – polar opposites of an argument, of a truth; another contextual layer that I hadn’t predicted – maybe it should be in tones of grey?

I’m not sure I appropriated these images, but I do consider them now my interpretations, perhaps they are now my images? And I also wonder that if I take this any further I shall create images that do not have the original photographer’s caption. I appreciate that all the above asks questions regarding authorship, but I slowly coming to the notion that these images will become original, that the authorship will rest – for whatever little time these things take – with myself. Appropriated perhaps?

To sum up. I would say that there is a validity in re-telling an image in textual form, Fiona Banner has done so with the nude (although her works are hers from the outset) and that re-authorship is as genuine as the original. That my interpretation of the image, mutated through my place in a history defined by class, gender and sociological construct and reconstructed in a different form, relies on the strength or not, of my ability to create a picture in the mind of the spectator. That that picture is inevitably a further original, another product of the mediation from the photographer’s perspective through my interpretation and to another temporal, and fleeting vision adds to the process I think?

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.